Nick’s first summer in the wine business went reasonably well and reasonably quick. Before he knew it, one day he walked the vineyards to take stock in his still firm but pretty grapes and the next day, it seemed, the Aurora grapes were nearly translucent.
It was the next to last week in August after what was an unusually warm, dry summer in the region. An early crop to begin with, the Aurora had matured more than a week before normal. The time to pick had come and of course, Nick was ill prepared. He needed pickers, picking boxes and a truck.
John down the road contracted to buy the Aurora but he was not prepared for the size of Nick’s crop when he went over to take a look at it and to give the ok to pick. In the end, he needed about two-thirds of what Nick could offer. The other third was up to Nick to get rid of or to drop on the ground.
Since his vineyards were still maturing, John agreed to send Nick enough picking boxes and a crew of Mennonite women that picked for him. Getting the truck was Nick’s problem. They set a date for the harvest, the next Saturday, which was only two days away. Nick quickly called the local truck rental place to reserve a truck large enough to carry six tons of grapes. The rental place offered a truck that maxed out at two tons, which meant he’d deliver the grapes in three trips, which was fine since John had given him enough boxes to pick three tons.
That Saturday morning, at 4:30, Nick drove twelve miles to pick up the Mennonite family, as they did not drive vehicles. He marveled at the incongruity of religious thinking that forbids owning and driving a truck, but allows women and children to ride in the cabin and truck bed of someone else’s truck. What could God be thinking?
The Mennonite matriarch’s name was either Bensch or Wensch or Blanch—her accent was so thick that for three mornings, Nick understood only half of what the woman said to him. He explained to her that she would be in charge of the picking and that he and Theresa would be picking with them, and that they needed only to pick one acre each day for four days, which wasn’t too difficult for the number of people picking. She shook her head yes to everything, but later, after he noticed that she was ready to keep the crew going beyond the acre that he mapped out, Nick realized that she probably didn’t understand his New York City accent.
Grapes picked on the fourth day were for a fellow who sold grape juice in the New York City Farmer’s Market; he became Nick’s savior for the three tons of grapes that John couldn’t take, and he would pick up the grapes in his own truck, have the juice pressed for him and then bring the picking boxes back to John. Plus, he would pay the same price that John was paying for the grapes. It was too good to be true—literally—but that story will be told later.
Nick handed everyone a grape clipper and gave instructions. He showed them what to look for in Aurora that was perfectly ripe and what not to put into the picking box. He explained that as each box was filled it was to be moved from under the trellis where Nick had placed it the day before and taken to the end of the row for pick up on the cart that was hitched to the tractor and that Nick would drive around every so often for loading. This was the hardest part of the harvest; Theresa and he handled it. She had taken time away from her work to go through the harvest with him, and she was having regrets...
After the first day, Nick decided to switch from early morning to late afternoon picking so that the grapes would stay cool over night and he could deliver them before dawn the following day, provided he could make use of the scale at the large Taylor Winery. He called Taylor’s harvest manager and was told it would be fine to show up early, as they were also picking Aurora that week so they’d be there. Nick had to first drive the truck to Taylor to get the tare weight of the empty truck. He was to return to the Taylor scale with the loaded truck to get the full weight. Taylor would give him a slip that calculated the grape tonnage in the truck and from which John would pay Nick’s bill for grapes. Taylor was the only nearby company with a truck scale and the weighing was provided to local growers free of charge.
The first day of picking went without a hitch—until Nick drove the grapes to the winery to be offloaded into the press.
John had a reputation for being frugal. If something was serviceable, he used it until it fell apart. His wine sales people went on the road in what looked like stock cars after a race. John refused to spend money on blacktopping the winery driveway: too expensive and also develops potholes. He preferred crushed stone.
The driveway to the winery was about 200 yards long—uphill. Throughout the summer, thunderstorms and downpours eroded great volumes of soil down the driveway and by late August, it was like a bombsite. Passenger cars had to maneuver up the driveway slowly—trucks had to do it even more slowly. Nick made it about two-thirds of the way in first gear and at a speed of no more than 10 mph. But a few feet from the top, he hit a major crevice and even at that low speed the truck bounced and swayed crazily until he heard a loud crash in the bed. Nick proceeded to the press deck without looking back. He did not want to know.
At the press deck, John’s vineyard manager looked at the mess of turned over grape boxes and grapes splattered here and there in the truck bed. He looked at Nick and the two shook their heads. Then the vineyard manager looked out at the driveway, looked back at Nick for confirmation, which Nick gave him with a nod. The vineyard manager went into a tirade of curses against his cheap boss then he buckled down and got his crew together to clean up the mess and salvage the grapes that could be pressed.
When Nick handed John the weigh sheet and his bill, John told him that they would have to guess at the loss and then subtract that from the bill for tonnage, to which Nick replied, “Not if you value your life, John.”
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Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2010. All rights reserved.