Crazy Superstitions and Rituals of Winemakers - Part I

It seems most everyone has some kind of superstition: a lucky hat, the old stand-by the rabbit’s foot, a certain ritual before a specific event. We humans are curious creatures of habit and redundancy. Winemakers too have superstitions they employ during harvest to planting to verasion. So who in the U.S. is doing what, and when, and more importantly why? We do not judge, for these intrepid winemakers are doing great work so we can have great juice.

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Hair:

“Our superstition is no shaving once the first fruit is picked until the last cluster runs through the sorting line.You are allowed to shave your neck, because that’s just gross. The first shave is typically something weird or different. This works out good since it is usually around Halloween and you can get away with looking like an idiot. Failure to follow these rules results in poor fermentations and everyone still believing you have the best job in the world.” ~Rob Folin, Folin Cellars, Rogue Valley, Oregon

“As a tradition started in Australia I shave once a year the first day of harvest. People can testify without my scruff, I look like an angrier (or just French) version of Justin Bieber. I won’t touch my beard until we are done with fruit and at least close to being done with pressing. Since I have started this rite I can only say good harvests have followed. I am sure facial hair helps to carry yeasts around which is crucial when you do native ferments like us.” ~Simon Faury, Merryvale Vineyards, St. Helena

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

“Once harvest starts you don't shave again until your last grapes are in (especially when harvest is off to a great start). It's like when a football player doesn't wash their game jersey while on a winning streak. Lots of Washington winemakers do it. I am on week 3 of harvest bearded-ness. It’s getting itchy but my wife hasn't complained too much…yet.” ~Charlie Lybecker, Cairdeas Winery, Lake Chelan, Washington

 “For my first 7 harvests I didn't shave my beard or cut my hair between the first grapes that came in to the last. Then I went through 4 - 5 harvests where I kept my beard clean and shaved regularly, but never cut my hair. This past harvest I went back to keeping my beard growing. Maybe not so much a superstition but more my 1-year-old daughter loves to pull on it.” ~Coby Parker-Garcia, Claiborne & Churchill Winery, Edna Valley, California

“All the guys tend to cut their hair, grow their hair, cut their beard, grow their beard, during harvest. It was annoying me until I came up with something that I could do along the same lines. I now dye my hair purple or red just before harvest. For a blonde this is rather a shocking change but I love the looks on people’s faces who think I always look this way.” ~Dorothy Schuler, Bodegas Paso Robles, Paso Robles

“I grow a beard and don’t cut my hair during harvest. Probably part of it has to do with the fact that I like beards and it seems wives don’t like them so much, so this gives me an excuse.” ~Greg La Follette, La Follette Wines, Sonoma

“My harvest superstition: I always chop my hair right before harvest. Out with the old and in with the new!” ~Anne Vawter, Red Mare Wines, Napa

Clothing:

“My biggest harvest superstition is a little grungy. The harvest sweatshirt/vest must not be washed from thebeginning of harvest until the last press run! Obviously the darker colored the better. Other than that, water hoses must be left perfectly coiled at the end of the day, lugs stacked in stacks of 20, and no checking of grape ripeness the day after a rain. It’s entirely possible that none of these behaviors have any effect on the resulting wine.” ~Rachel Stinson Vrooman, Stinson Vineyards, Virginia

“I wear the same lucky shirt everyday, though I have two of the same shirt. Maybe it’s my winemakers outfit, or maybe because it saves me precious time dressing. This shirt makes me feel powerful.” ~Barb Spelletich, Winemaker, Napa

“My Cal Berkeley Sweatshirt. I wear it on the first pick of every harvest.” ~Neeta Mittal, LXV Wine, Paso Robles

”I have to wear shorts from the first day of harvest until the last tank of red is pressed out. Since we are typically pressing out towards the end of November it can get a bit chilly on some mornings. It all started over 15 years ago when a co-worker and I would kid around as the mornings were getting colder. ‘You’re probably going to wear pants tomorrow aren’t you?’ Followed by, ‘Not me, no way!’ So it became a survival of the fittest thing that turned into a ritual.” ~Paul Steinauer, Flora Springs, St. Helena

Toasting:

“Being a female winemaker, I cannot participate in the harvest ritual of shaving, and just thinking about wearing the same socks/underwear throughout harvest gives me the willies. What I learned from Lynn Penner-Ash is the elegant route of toasting the first grapes received with a bottle of Champagne. I always gather the entire team (sales/marketing included) at the ungodly hour of 5 or 6 a.m. to gather around our first bin of grapes for my harvest quote of the year and a taste of Champagne…remembering to always give a pour for Bacchus over the grapes. This year, we added the tradition of starting every processing day with the song “Troglodyte (Caveman)” by Jimmy Castor Bunch as remixed by Lo-Fidelity Allstars. And the one day we didn’t start it in time, as I was in the vineyard monitoring the pick, our Oscillys (destemmer) kept shutting itself off on us!” ~MJ Tsay, Realm Cellars, St. Helena

“Without exception, before the first grapes are processed, I saber a bottle of bubbly and christen the grapes to celebrate the vintage and we all toast to a great harvest season.” ~Paul Steinauer, Flora Springs, St. Helena 

Odd Stuff:

“There are some things I won’t share, but one I will, and that is ever since my first harvest, I have always carried a plain-white envelope with the word ‘push’ written on it to keep me motivated. Back when I worked in the cellar full-time, I kept it in my back pocket to keep me going during the crazy, stressful days of harvest.” ~Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena, Napa Valley 

“We have a deep distrust of pumping wine. We fork the grapes by hand into our destemmer, the must then feeds down into what was the cadaver laboratory (their winery facility was once a funeral home) for fermenting and pressing. Once quiet it is moved with gravity and gas displacement into the mortuary’s old cold chamber. The wine is bottled by hand back in the lab without ever seeing the inside of a pump.”  ~Garrit Stoltz, Stoltz Winery, Hood River, Oregon 

“During the run up to harvest, to keep from picking too early in a panic of nerves, I have learned over many years to practice what I call ‘controlled neglect.’ Look the other way, go to the beach, go fishing, don’t test the grapes in September, wear blinders, don’t watch the vineyard. Just be patient; ever patient. ~Marty Mathis, Lateral Wine, Napa.

“I sing the French national anthem as I hydrate the yeast for fermentation.” ~Arnaud Debons, San Antonio Winery, Los Angeles 

“My ritual is pretty simple. I sit down with my cup of coffee, pet the winery dog and let him lick my face for luck. This is how I start my days during crush. It doesn’t hurt that the winery dog’s name is Napa.” ~Stuart Spoto, Spoto Wines, Oakville 

“I never start harvest on a Friday, it could be bad luck. This has been in the family for a few generations.” ~Pierre Birebent, Signorello Estate, Napa 

“Full moons bring nothing bad luck for bottling. The equipment on our bottling line breaks down with no explanation what seems like every single time we bottle on a full moon. I cringe if I see a full moon and know that we are scheduled to bottle the next day because it will be a disaster.” ~Brooke Langelius St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, Napa

“At Sequoia Grove, most of our cellar employees were born in Mexico, a country of many sayings and superstitions. One of the superstitions we have adopted at the winery is ‘dar el remojo.’ The direct translation (‘give a soaking’) doesn’t make much sense, but the idea is this: when you are lucky enough to have something good happen in your life - a good harvest or a new forklift - you share your good fortune and encourage future luck to come your way by buying burritos, donuts, or beer for your friends and/or employees. The unsaid implication is that if you don’t ‘dar el remojo’, then bad luck may come your way. Sequoia Grove just finished harvest and damos el remojo by having a delicious lunch of carne asada, salsa, and beer." ~Molly Hill, Sequoia Grove Winery, St. Helena. 

“There is just one superstition that I follow - never, never wash your car during harvest. With multiple trips up and down Casey Flat Ranch the dust gets into every nook and cranny of my car, inside and out. It's against all winemaker rules to wash until the last grapes are in. If you hit the carwash, it will rain."  ~Laura Barrett, Casey Flat Ranch, Capay Valley

“During the start of each year’s harvest as I get my psyche going and my groove in tune with Mother Nature, I do two things: Take off my wedding ring (as I lost one many years ago in the must, and won’t go through that again, my wife agrees). Second, I take out an old Sigma Alpha Epsilon ring of my dad’s and put it in my desk for ‘proper guidance from above’ to not mess up too badly. He always made things work out and so far they always have.” ~Steve Reynolds, Reynolds Family Winery, Napa