Edible Monterey Bay

Special Report: Left Coast Lessons from a Surreal 2020 Harvest

December 22, 2020 – It’s October and deep into what might be our 14th or 15th consecutive work day, smack dab in the middle of harvest, after a day of picking, testing, loading, barreling, fermenting, scrubbing, pressing, shoveling, power washing, pumping over and punching down. The Left Coast Estate harvest crew is sipping local craft beers at a distance, before heading home to collapse in our respective beds for a few fleeting hours, when I put a question to the team: What’s the most common misconception in winemaking?

From left, the 2020 harvest team: Steven Leeb, Mike Duffy, Lisa Fahrner, the author, Mark Rutherford, Joe Wright, Barry Glassman, Alex Lindblom and Emma Foster.

The production leadership doesn’t have to think long. 

“That it’s glamorous,” assistant winemaker Mark Rutherford says.

Director of viticulture and winemaking Joe Wright nods.

“People tend to get excited when they hear I make wine—but when I start to describe how it really works, talking about things like canopy pruning and cover crops,” he says, “their eyes glaze over.”

For us harvest interns, Wright defused any delusions of grandeur from the get-go. In our first phone conversations, he told my fellow intern Mike Duffy and me he was not in the market for, say, an accomplished New York City sommelier (Duffy) or a two-time team dodgeball champion (me). 

“I just need some warm bodies,” Wright said. 

Over the course of what veterans have called the strangest harvest in memory, I’ve split my hand open shoving grapes in the massive wine press and sliced it snipping fruit from the vine. I’ve pierced all four limbs eradicating invasive Himalayan blackberries and shot myself in the face with the spray hose. My hands and feet turned purple from sorting and scooping, and so too did my thighs with bruises from powerlifting heavy wine bins from the ground to the back of a trailer with an awkward quad thrust I learned from Pancho the tractor driver. I almost got the shipping truck pinned in a parking lot while making a delivery, and I nearly got the dump truck stuck in the mud at the compost pile. 

Also, a forklift broke, but I had nothing to do with it. I’m just the guy who washes it.

The point is, winemaking is sticky, damp and sweaty, humbling and empowering, boring and exhilarating, sobering and intoxicating, deeply systematic, occasionally bloody and often exhausting. Glamorous it is not.

Around 100 of 142 acres of vines at Left Coast are planted with Pinot. Willamette Valley enjoys a lot of Pinot- and Chardonnay-friendly qualities with Salinas Valley (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

There are additional proverbs a Left Coast harvest teaches (and reteaches). They number too many to include all of them here, but I’ll include a few of my favorites.

White Pinot is a thing—a very good thing

It was mid-September when I was driving north from the Salinas Valley to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Pinot country to Pinot country, into a ring of four raging wildfires and the world’s worst air quality, to work outside. Some scenes off Interstate 5 in Northern California and southern Oregon were more apocalyptic than pastoral. I remember thinking I must be cuckoo.

Fortunately I wouldn’t need the gas mask I brought: The smoke cleared before work began—but not before fires imparted burnt and medicinal flavors on grapes across the state (and California to the south), costing growers millions upon millions. Several Willamette growers abandoned their entire harvest. 

Barry Glassman has worked 20 harvests. For Left Coast’s 2020 harvest he monitored fermentations to make sure temperature, various sugar levels and acid amounts were all harmonizing, arriving before dawn to pull samples for the lab. “This has been the most bizarre harvest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It really challenges winemakers to figure out, ‘How do we take this fruit and make wine?’”

Arturo Garcia hand harvesting Pinot Noir in the Field of Dreams vineyard. Garcia is the crew chief; he and his extended family have been working at Left Coast since 2006 and know the vines better than anyone (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

Wright et al had a secret weapon of sorts in Left Coast’s best-seller: White Pinot, which he helped pioneer in Oregon more than a decade ago. When he did, some called him cuckoo. Now it seems clairvoyant.

The smoke taint compounds that can give wines an ashtray taste attach themselves to the skins. Since White Pinot doesn’t rest with the skins (or take on the red color), Wright could avoid the compounds. A potentially wrecked year is now a record one, with Left Coast making more easy-drinking-yet-complex White Pinot than ever before, and more than any winery on the planet, 11,000 cases all told.

CEO Taylor Pfaff credits the soils and cooling winds of the Van Duzer Corridor—which allows slow and long ripening windows and nice acidity levels—for creating a Pinot paradise. 

“We have a site uniquely positioned to make good white wine from red grapes because of the wind and the temperature differential,” he says. “White Pinot was not something we were seeing on shelves, and we just thought it was a great wine and put it out there and the market really responded. It was a novelty at first, for sure, then the response really backed it up.”

“You can’t force feed what the consumer wants,” Wright says. “If there’s something wrong with your wine, smart consumers are going to go elsewhere.” 

Steven Leeb dumps pomace that will be shuttled to the compost pile and later distributed in the vineyard (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

No skins on the pad

Day one was a baptism by fire. Or, more accurately, spray hoses. We powered through 15 tons of grapes all told, over 14 hours. Each time we completed a cycle, the crush pad was cleaned thoroughly, which can feel a little Sysiphisian. Or as cellar staffer Steven Leeb put it, “It’s a special feeling to clean something for the 100th time and know you’ll clean it again in an hour.”

That night, and every night, we scoured the 12,033 square feet winery for every rogue skin.

“No grape left behind,” Cellar Master Alex Lindblom says with a smile. “You don’t want to be chasing yesterday’s grapes with today’s coming in.” That vigilance also made adhering to COVID protocols easy.

Late into a harvest night, Mike Duffy cleans the crush pad for the umpteenth time (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

The sheer amount of water we unleashed, though, was startling. Fortunately that gets at one of the more elegant design elements at Left Coast: All of the winery’s wastewater flows to a settling tank and then travels through its gray water system, which filters it through several layers of soil and vegetation before reaching a leaching field. Rain drainage of the estate, meanwhile, runs to the reservoir at the base of the amphitheater-shaped property, where it’s used to gently irrigate the vineyards, which are monitored by moisture probes that dive as deep as 36 feet, helping the system reach roots directly and hit 94 percent water efficiency. 

Oak goes beyond barrels

Our daily dawn commute across Willamette Valley dripped visuals—the sunrise on Rockwellian barns, Wings and a Prayer Alpaca Farm, fog-pillowed hazelnut orchards, barn owl escorts by night. Even against that backdrop, Left Coast Estate itself is striking. A big part of that is the heavy emphasis on holistic ecology, from the apple orchard to the bee apiary.

The view from the winery porch often includes raptors who frequent dozens of perches erected around Left Coast’s 142 acres (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

Around 100 acres of Left Coast’s roughly 500 are dedicated to oak savanna restoration, which include trees that are 400 years old. That happens as more than 97 percent of such native habitats in Oregon have been cleared for development and vines, making the land less fire-resistant, damaging biodiversity that defends against disease, and threatening native species. That stewardship effort helps Left Coast earn both grants and management support from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Resources Conservation Program.

The latest conservation project is the creation of a wetland refuge to support the robust migratory bird populations of the valley, which a big tractor prepped as we pressed Pinots. That habitat welcomes the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly, which may invite more funding along with it. 

“Our conservation work makes us unique,” Pfaff says, “and offers a model for other vineyards.”

By the way, you’re not going to meet many industry CEOs like Pfaff, 33, and I’m not talking about the professional snowboarding experience. (His stunts at the Vancouver Olympics are something to see.) I’m getting at his from-the-ground familiarity with the family biz: When his parents first started transforming the property he was 14 years old and all over the mowing and gopher hunting duties. He’s worked a half dozen harvests and most every post at the vineyard since–whether that’s wrangling irrigation or clearing skunks from the drainage gutters—and graduated from University of Bordeaux. He became CEO at 28.

“There’s always a sense of positivity with him,” Wright says. “He’s very progressive, and doesn’t come with preconceived notions he developed somewhere else. It’s really refreshing.”

Part of that is his drive to maximize the vineyard, whether that’s with free Easter egg hunts that draw a whole other demographic than wine lovers or the annual Run for the Oaks that raises funds for oak conservation. “The property can be a lot more than a winery,” he says. “We like to use the land in as many ways as possible.”

Erratic is OK

In some ways Left Coast’s story starts with a couple who fell in love with wine while stationed in France and realized a dream of hatching their own winery in 2003. 

These days Suzanne Larson and Bob Pfaff spend much of their time in a leafy cottage on the lower part of Left Coast’s vineyards, by the property’s reservoir; they also help direct operations as brand ambassador and chef/master gardener, respectively. But the story also starts centuries earlier, as evidenced by a massive “erratic” rock next to the cottage. It’s 30,000 pounds, easy, but it traveled hundreds of miles to get there, transported by a glacier. Errare, it turns out, is Latin for “to wander.” 

This erratic rock hitchhiked cross-country on a glacier (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

The granite hulk presents a souvenir of the Missoula Floods, which zoomed at 60mph—and 400 feet tall—across the Northwest at the end of the last ice age. That scraped the existing topsoil away from the hills, leaving marine sedimentary bedrock that’s great for growing character-rich grapes.

“Yeah, we make good wine, but we’ve got great dirt and an incredible microclimate,” Wright told Wine Press Northwest when it named Left Coast 2020 Oregon Winery of the Year. “We cut into the earth often and poke around, and we’re just on seashells. That soil and the microclimate is what makes our wines our wines.”

Sun adds shine

Wide solar arrays in the Latitude 45 vineyard and on the roof of the winery power all the irrigation system and winery needs, which is cool. Cooler still: USDA renewable energy grants helped finance them. That’s something vineyards everywhere can look into, especially with an environmentally clued-in administration in the on-deck circle.

Winery work is overrated

“What we do in the winery is not all that important,” Wright says. He’s standing on the crush pad waiting to weigh incoming grapes. It might sound like a pep talk to rival his “warm bodies” warning, but he is echoing a time-tested winemaker refrain: Great wine is created in the field—grown, not made. As Glassman puts it, “You can make great wine from great fruit, and make bad wine from great fruit, but you can’t make great wine from inferior fruit. Joe has this vineyard making great fruit.”

Cellar intern Mike Duffy shovels Pinot grapes to clear room for more fruit in the press (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

After years prioritizing quality over quantity and months combing Left Coast’s 142 acres of grapes (nearly 100 of which are Pinot Noir) and working closely with his grounds team, in the winery Wright is mostly confirming what he has observed. “We know the health of the fruit before it hits the pad,” he says. “The wine is the vineyard in liquid form.”

Chardonnay ain’t for the faint of heart

Left Coast’s massive wine press—the one so big we climb inside it when it’s time to be cleaned—can hold 12 big tote-bins of grapes. Just one of those bins carries up to 900 pounds of fruit.

Chardonnay grapes come fast and full-bodied (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

But a dozen bins is a tight fit. And there’s only one top opening on the press, which makes filling it a lot like packing an Airstream through a sunroof. 

One of us interns scrambles to the adjacent catwalk, grabs a pitchfork and, when the forklift dumps a fresh bin on the big stainless steel funnel on top of the press, scoops grapes into the back corners of the chamber to create space for the subsequent dump. 

Twelve power dumps of Pinot is a challenge, no doubt, but the bigger Chardonnay grapes are plumper, firmer and far more unwieldy, making for a literal cluster f***. I no longer think of Chard as approachable and mild-mannered.

Wine is not vegan

Earwigs, ladybugs and yellowjackets are particularly fond of wine grapes. (Ladybugs are really into Viognier for some reason.) Duffy suffered two yellowjacket stings and a recurring suspicion earwigs were crawling inside his waterproof gear, but maybe he had it easy. In Australia, harvest workers flip open machine-harvested bin lids away from where they’re standing to avoid snakes leap-attacking from inside. In Napa, machines tend to gather a lot of mice with the grapes. 

Fortunately Left Coast hand-harvests—and is LIVE Sustainable certified, which means it is third-party verified for taking care of the vineyards’ creatures, soils and hand harvesters. That’s a key reason I wanted to work with this operation: Thoughtful business is good business. One example to that end is a timely one: Through Dec. 31, the Pinot for the People pay-what-you-can campaign directs any money beyond $11 for a bottle of the flagship Cali’s Cuvee (which typically retails for $24 and is named after the Pfaff’s sister, who is creative director and landscape architect of the property) to a choice of charities including ACLU, NAACP, The Sentencing Project and Ducks Unlimited.

Reused wine barrels are prepped with steam, ozone and water (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

Work is good 

In the original Karate Kid, Miagi gives Danielson a series of never-ending and wildly tedious tasks that bleed from hours into days and days: Wash dozens of cars. (Wax on, wax off.) Paint the fence. Scrub the deck. I feel you, Danielson. But while our most expansive tasks—power washing 50 grape bins in a row or dismantling 700 buckets, for instance—didn’t help us win karate tournaments, they provided something more valuable. 

Spoiler alert: Harvest 2020 came at one of the more stressful times imaginable. The environmental fallout of the fires was happening in symphony with an economic crisis, a COVID crisis and a racial justice crisis, which was amplified in the Pacific Northwest by protests in Portland and Seattle. The loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, election uncertainties and the presidential “debate” debacle, meanwhile, weren’t cheering anybody up. Being able to center into something visible, tangible and repetitive felt a lot like therapy. I miss it.

Emma Foster shifts from her tasting room duties for harvest every year, and loves the chance to help make and understand what she pours, but also that unique harvest Zen. “Some tasks get really repetitive in the winery—[like] hosing floors—but I love being able to disappear in a task for a while,” she says. “It can be cathartic.”

Lisa Fahrner balances on huge open-top pita fermenters and executes a “punch down,” or pigéage, that breaks up the cap that forms on fermenting grapes and extracts more color and flavor from the skins (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

That makes me think of a ritual-of-sorts that happens when the bigger press at Left Coast “kicks,” or finishes its cycle: Four of us gather beneath it, standing in or next to four giant bins, and guide stems and skins falling from the emptying press into them (on their way to the compost pile in the dump truck). Inevitably, I think there’s no possible way more pomace will emerge, but it does. 

That echoes the will-this-ever-end sensation stalking the world writ 2020: It keeps coming. But that’s also something to think on: Rather than anticipate some “end,” real or imagined, finding any sort of tentative peace with current challenges is a sounder strategy. As it keeps coming, we do best to keep going.

Bloody Marys should include fried chicken

Left Coast Tasting Room Manager Lisa Fahrner is somewhat of a glee leader of the harvest squad, which she’s joined for several years. Along with Tasting Room assistant manager Sue Fridley, she helps coordinate daily meals for the crew, which are generated from the same farm-to-fork organic garden program that fuels the tasting room, with a focus on wood-fired pizzas. Meanwhile her irreverent jokes get the giggles, her dogs get the scritches and her Bloody Mary bar gets five stars. 

The only thing missing from this Bloody Mary is fried chicken (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

Seriously: All Bloody Mary bars should be required by law to include multiple cheeses, meatballs, bacon, stuffed olives, pickled long beans, asparagus and crispy crunchy fried chicken to skewer. 

“Morale events matter,” she says. “I am more motivated and I care more when an employer cares about me and my mental health. It all comes back around, in a way. Company karma I suppose.” 

That ethic extends into the fields. Left Coast partners with other area producers in a program called ¡SALUD!, which provides access to healthcare for vineyard workers and their families. At a time when essential workers are celebrated for their sacrifice but not always honored with fair pay, safety and status, that feels fundamental.

Waterfalls work with wine

Wright stands beneath Drift Creek Falls as it saws through the towering rock face. The winemaker’s hair is wet from the pool where the falls land—he’s just given himself a little post-harvest rebirth. 

Dry Creek Falls plunges 74 feet over a basalt wall in a secluded amphitheater near Cascade Locks (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

We’re on the back end of one of those days that would’ve been plenty sweet on its own: a hike along the coastal steeps and sandy flats of Cascade Head Nature Reserve, a fish-and-chips lunch at Pacific City’s Pelican Brewing Company, a descent through Drift Creek’s mossy microclimates. But after a month-long sprint to complete 2020’s harvest, it’s our first day off in weeks, and all the sweeter as a result.

“Do you know the waterfall thing?” he shouts. 

I do not.

“Stare at the water for 30 seconds,” he says. Then shift your gaze to the surface next to it, he adds. 

I test it out. The effect is sudden and psychedelic: The once stable wall of rock now looks like it’s a kinetic creature, tumbling up and down.

The parallel with wine is unavoidable. I’ve been chasing waterfalls since I was a grape seed, but I’ve never looked at a waterfall in that way. Similarly I’ve been tasting and writing about wine for years, but after working harvest, I’ll never see it the same. 

It’s not the result of some 30,000-pound shift in worldview. But small changes in perspective—whether that’s a new visioning of Pinot, how a vineyard can serve the Earth or what belongs in a Bloody Mary—can have big outcomes.