"Join our wine-tasting group," Pavle Milic offered as I was delivering wine to FnB, the the Old Town Scottsdale restaurant he runs with Charleen Badman.
I was in. I am so out of practice, and I just don't drink a wide range of wine. I live with my wife, my mother-in-law, and my 7-year-old, and they don't drink wine, so I just don't get the chance very often to try four or five wines (or six or seven or eight or nine) because so much wine will go to waste without a group to share.
"Oh, yeah, I'd love to. I so need to educate my palate."
"It's at 10:30," he replied.
"Great," I answered. "Mid-morning is perfect for me."
"Er, no, Sam, it's 10:30 at night," he replied.
I mean, it's just out of the question. My guys start at the vineyard this time of the year at 5 a.m.
I wouldn't have it any other way. Here's how it's gone down this year, as in other years:
So, we're all standing there in the vines, 10 or 12 of us, some of our full-time vineyard workers, some Cochise County residents, some from Agua Prieta across the border, some volunteers if we're lucky, our Massey Ferguson tractor hitched to a gigantic eight-ton trailer loaded with half-ton and three-quarter-ton picking bins, cool drinking water, and a rinse bucket (the grapes are so sweet and sticky at ripeness you need to rinse regularly), the Kubota ATV tearing around with two dozen buckets, clippers, sunblock. We go for it at 6 a.m. as the sun crests Dos Cabezas Mountain looking down on us to the east.
This is the most intense time of year. There's no margin of error. Depending on the cloud cover and heat spikes, and dodging the monsoon rain cells, we check the sugars and pH every day as the grapes approach ripening. The range of sugars -- we call it brix -- is within, say, a half to 1 point. Too low or too high can result in juice that won't make the kind of wine we want.
We usually harvest the whites at around 23.5 brix, the reds at around 24.5, sometimes some reds at 25 or 26, even 27, making a really intense red that unfortunately will be too high in alcohol for my taste, but we can use it to spike a red in blending like you'd use a hot sauce.
People always want to come the 200 miles from Phoenix to help, or take pictures and interview, but they ask for a schedule. Ha! It's almost always the afternoon or evening before the pick when we push the button. There are so many variables: getting enough of the right crew, getting an opening at the Crush Pad, getting a reefer truck, dodging the absurdly unpredictable monsoon cells coming up from Mexico every afternoon.
And it's not just about the sugars and the pH. There's the Titratable Acidity (T/A), how brown the seeds are, and most importantly, how the grapes taste. The numbers can be perfect but the fruit intensity and complexity just isn't there yet. Then you have to try to hang the fruit longer without the pH shooting up and the acids dropping, making a flabby, jammy wine.
And if you've overcropped, the fruit just won't ripen while the pH shoots up, and the clusters ripen unevenly (we drop about 40 percent of our fruit to keep the intensity up and the ripening even).
To hang the fruit longer, you pray for cooler weather. The monsoons bring that, but they bring rain . . . too much can dilute the intensity of the juice in the berries, and even worse, initiate Powdery Mildew and Bunch Rot. We can spray organically for those but if it rains every day the spray doesn't have time to "set" and it just washes off. Too much rain makes walking the rows too muddy, the road unusable. And a storm is just too dangerous to be out in.
If it isn't raining, we water the vines to spin the ripening out longer. Last year, we added magnesium sulphate (epsom salts) to the irrigation water. This moderated the plants' uptake of potassium, which helped inhibit the rise in pH. (I honestly don't know if anyone else has done this, but it worked.)
This year, we added magnesium and gypsum to the soil to lower the soil pH, which has seemed to work; our harvest pH levels are perfect so far this year.
Okay, now we start the pick. It's lovely and cool at 6 and 7, around 64 to 68. It starts to warm up at 8. By 10, it's getting really warm, and by 11, it's usually around 84 and the sweat is pouring off you.
So it's not just uncomfortable, the grapes start to get warm. We want them cool to start fermentation.
We hand-pick our fruit, so we hire enough workers to finish the pick by 11, if possible. This is also lunch time, by the way. It's expensive, because we hire twice as many workers with the promise of a full day's pay -- but it's the best thing for the juice. And it can get into the 90s around 3:30. We try to find other work for them after lunch. Fortunately, we usually can. Among other things the monsoon brings is rapid weed growth, so they can attack that menace with hoes and shovels.
You finish the pick drenched in sweat, clothes soaked and splattered with grape juice, sunblock running in your eyes, back breaking, feet hurting, nicks in your fingers from the clippers, and ready for a break.
But first you have to weigh and number the bins, load them into the reefer truck if they're going up to Camp Verde, or take them to the Crush Pad in Willcox. All this as the sweat starts to cool and congeal, your underwear chafes, your eyes burn, your feet stink, and you re-hydrate and protein-load.
Oh,or a swimming pool. For now it's a shower and then that final reward: an ice-cold Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic with fresh lime on the patio watching the sunset, BBQ smoking, our own organically grown freshly picked salad, while dreaming of those juicy grapes resting in the cool darkness of the winery ready to be gently squeezed in the morning.
Sam Pillsbury has made dozens of documentaries, TV series and feature films in New Zealand and Hollywood as writer, director and producer, and now grows grapes and makes 100 percent Arizona wines in Arizona. He lives in Phoenix. You can get more information about his wines and tasting room at pillsburywine.com.