SUNNYSIDE — As autumn temperatures fell dramatically in the second week of October and the Lower Valley’s first frost was at hand – the grape harvest pace picked up and the fruitful hillsides were gleaned in a well-timed and caring manner.
Precise rows of sturdy Cabernet Sauvignon vines lined the rich terrain where weathered juices have been intensifying within their purple palette of protective skins. The grapes, flourishing underneath the radiance of Eastern Washington’s native balance of cultivated tradition and spirited heritage, were ready to be collected.
A professional team of nine women pickers assembled in the midst of Côte Bonneville’s DuBrul Vineyard before the sun had illuminated the colorful landscape. They’re all estate veterans with years of harvest experience, intimately familiar in the delicate and nurturing operations at the winery where taking quality care of the vines is shared by everyone.
Collectively, their immediate goal of the day was to bring in about eight tons of grapes, Winemaker Kerry Shiels reported. She indicated that was all the space remaining in their fermentation area.
“If they pick more, I will have to figure out where to store it,” Sheils cheerfully explained as she pondered the question for a moment. “If they pick nine and one half (tons), I could probably squeeze it in.”
The frigid air was discreetly indifferent to the accomplished crew — all bundled up in multi colors of clothing layers, hoodies, ball caps, bandanas, boots and gloves, each one armed with their seasoned and trusty grape shears.
Eustolia Cerda is a migrant worker from McAllen, Texas. She has been seasonally employed in the orchards for 38 years. Her hands-on role at the vineyard began 18 years ago, commencing with the first harvest of DuBrul grapes.
“I like working at the vineyard. I feel safe and secure here,” Cerda conveyed. “I love the valley and all of its’ beauty.”
She’s seen a lot of positive changes over the course of her career which has evolved into better working conditions.
The longest tenured worker described how they used to pick in large boxes that would require two workers constantly lifting and stacking the grape filled containers as they went along. Then, they loaded the boxes onto a tractor that would take them to a grape bin.
Maria Rosa has watched how the fruit gets better every year. In some years, there’s more fruit and sometimes it’s less, but they’re always treated right here, and she greatly appreciates her close to home job, the 12-year seasonal employee confirmed.
“This is the best one (vineyard) and I love the fruit,” Rosa said. “I love the environment and it’s well taken care of. It’s a great place to work.”
Rosa also enjoys working in Côte Bonneville’s bottling operations. Many of the women on the harvesting crew take part in other areas of the winery. “. . . I know everything about the grapes, except for the pruning.”
According to Shiels, it’s all about the consistency of their all-female crew which has profoundly contributed in the vineyard’s philosophical identity.
“You cannot make great wine without great people in the vineyard,” the winemaker acknowledged. “That whole ethos runs throughout our entire operation. When you have a female CEO, female winemaker and female crew, it’s part of why we have such great wines and we come out of Sunnyside.”