Harvesting in Paso: Garagiste-style

by Terry Nozick

If you have ever wanted to work harvest at a vineyard, you just might find your opportunity among the many small wineries in the beautiful countryside in and surrounding Paso Robles. It’s here that many of the “garagiste” winemakers produce artisanal wines in small batches – technically no more than 1,200 cases – operating, in many instances, on budgets fueled mainly by love of “terroir” and a passion for the grape.


Harvest for a small winery can present many challenges. Unlike industrial-sized vineyards, most of which are machine harvested using large, trained harvest crews, most of the smaller vineyards are meticulously hand-picked. This can be back-breaking work, with long hours, continuing for several weeks as different varietals reach maturity.

TNharvesIn some cases, small owners rally their family, friends, wine club members, and just about any one who will volunteer to help bring in the harvest.

I spoke to some of the winemakers who will be pouring at this year’s Garagiste Festival about how they manage their harvests. Vines on the Marycrest owner and winemaker Victor Abascal, who has 13.5 acres under vine, can attest to the fact that there are challenges for small wineries as their crops reach maturity, noting that it’s getting harder and harder to find help during harvest.  For him, harvest is a no-frills, just-work situation.  “The goal is always to get fruit into the winery as fast as possible,” he says. Abascal usually does the picking himself, with help from a neighbor’s farm hand.

Abascal also purchases grapes from other vineyards, some days picking up two or three lots of grapes, which “is always an adventure,” he says.  “Just pulling or hauling the fruit back to the winery is one of my main challenges. My vehicle is under-powered to say the least. Some Hoyt Workers in fieldof the vineyards I purchase from are not easy to get in and out of, with 2000 pounds of grapes on a trailer.”

Guillaume Fabre of Clos Solène does things a little differently, but faces similar challenges, some of which are self-imposed, as he is very particular and meticulous. He rents a couple of rows of different varietals from a vineyard on the west side of Paso, amounting to three acres. He manages 100% of the growing, farming, and spraying himself. Come harvest, he hand-picks at night to keep the fruit nice and cool. Because of his meticulousness, Fabre works with the same small crew each harvest. “I’m really a farmer,” he explains, “and I love to grow vines as if they were human beings. A lot of steps need to be done and when you are small, you can push the limits.” Larger producers, he says, just can’t do this.

Hoyt Family Vineyards is a one of the larger garagistes in terms of acreage, with approximately 140 scattered throughout the Central Coast and Malibu. They have an all- Hoyt_bucket2inclusive approach to harvest, inviting friends and family – including their children and childrens’ friends, who take the day off school – and pretty much anyone who wants to come to help their small hired crew. They  turn harvest into a fun-filled, festive morning, followed by a taco party lunch, which apparently is a draw for the harvest workers in the area as they come back for it every year, says owner Carol Hoyt.

“We usually try to harvest on Saturday,” says Hoyts, but “grapes don’t always cooperate.” But, she adds, people love to come to her harvest, and she welcomes pretty much anyone who is interested.

So, there’s no shortage of need among the garagistes for ready, willing, and able workers at harvest time. Garagiste harvest is a whole other way to experience Paso Robles, and the opportunity rolls around only once a year, usually in October.  So, don’t be afraid to ask to participate. You won’t regret the experience, and you will have a new app
reciation for each glass of wine you drink. And to taste the fruits of garagiste harvests past, including Hoyt, Clos Solène, Vines on the Marycrest, and 63 other artisan winemakers, come to the Garagiste Festival, held November 7th – 10th in Paso Robles. For more information, go to garagistefestival.com.

Terry Nozick writes a blog, www.truthnwine.blogspot.com, which is syndicated on
www.winewomenandchocolate.com. As a former high-technology writer and editor, she is happy to be pursuing her true passion, wine, particularly those from the small, artisan vineyards in California’s central coast. She received her WSET Level 3 certification in 2013 and is continuing her wine studies, both formally and informally.