Harvest Day

By Kate Riley October 28, 2010

Hey everyone, Mr. CG here once more, reporting again on another year in growing grapes.  For about ten years now, I been cultivating a hobby vineyard but unfortunately I’ve been faced with the difficult conditions felt by most farmers in this business:  bad weather, poor growing conditions, disease and pests. 

For years, I’ve been tending the back hill making sure our 100 vines produced enough quality fruit to make a barrel of wine.  In 2007, we had our first healthy crop, enough to fill one barrel to make about 25 cases (or 300 bottles).   2007 and 2008 were both successful years, winning Gold Medals in the amateur division in the Sonoma/Marin Fair and then the Sonoma County Harvest Fair this year.  In 2009 we lost most of our crop to bad weather and I was forced to buy more fruit to make my barrel.  Using other grapes, there’s no telling yet how that blend will turn out, time will tell.

I’ve been watching the 2010 grapes grow all season.  It was my largest crop by far and the grapes were growing in near perfect shape, size and sugar content all summer long.  It was a spectacular crop and Kate and I were very excited until last week.  Just days before the harvest, birds found holes in our nets, and in the dead of night we were attacked by a family of raccoons.  Together, those varmints managed to feast on several hundred pounds of grapes in the course of a week!

Despite so many ravaged vines, harvest day is always exciting for us, as the remaining healthy fruit is finally clipped off the vines and turned into our cherished Petite Syrah.

 grapes in bin


Here’s Kate holding some of the grapes, showing exactly what highly quality fruit should look like.  These grapes have been on the vine a long time raising their sugar levels to their maximum.  The skins are rich in flavor and complex in color.  Kate looks so cute here, but it’s the last time she smiled yesterday morning, because she had not yet realized the extent of the damage cause by the pests. 

cg with grapes 

This picture shows my disappointment once again.  Despite the nets we used to protect the grapes, the raccoons and birds were able to infiltrate our defenses and launch their operation. 

It was clear from the evidence left behind that the older raccoons climbed under the nets and one by one removed fruit from the vine.  The little raccoons would then pick up the dropped fruit and fill their bellies.  The ground in the vineyard will littered with individual uneaten grapes.  I’m thinking the vineyard now needs a guard dog, maybe a yappy little terrier to scare them varmints away. 

mr cg harvest


It’s not all doom and gloom around here.  Living in Sonoma County is a beautiful place and we always have access to plenty of great wine.  In fact, our next door neighbor makes some of the best Cabernet around.  He grew up in Italy in the wine business, and now he and his brother are some of the top wine makers in the country.  Unlike our wine which we make offsite, our neighbor has a micro winery in his basement, and last week he was busy making Cabernet. 


cab grapes


He owns a crusher/destemmer which is the ultimate red winemaker’s tool.  For full bodied red wines, the stems are separated from the grapes, but the skins remain with the juice for its pigment and tannins.  Once fermented, the wine is separated from the skins to age in barrels for anywhere from 9 months to several years. 

 red wine destemmer


This is a hydrometer, a tool used to measure the Brix level in the unfiltered juice.  It tells the winemaker the sugar level and aids in the process of fermentation. 


neighbor 1


Regardless of the outcome of our specific crop, harvest is a very special time for our community.  The wine business is our largest economic base and the reason so many travel so far to visit this region.  You can’t escape the buzz around town, and all of the conversations at restaurants, bars, and social gathering places.  Everyone’s talking about this year’s harvest and their latest great bottle.  On weekends, the country roads are crowded with tourists making their way into the Wine Country for a weekend of tasting amidst the fall colors, and sometimes we play like we’re tourists too.    

syrah grapes


So we learn something new every year, but that’s the beauty of this process.  Today, I’ll be on the phone again this morning looking to outsource some fruit and considering a source to find a good dog.  It looks like my kids just might get their Christmas wish for a puppy. 

Signing off with high hopes for better luck next year,

Mr. CG




  1. Boo, I’m sorry about your grapes! Sounds like such a fabulous place to live, and filled with such a fun sense of community – with lots of wine, no less! Happy harvest, even if those pesky birds & raccoons got in the way!

  2. I am so sorry to hear about the lost fruit! So frustrating. I do however have to tell ya, if you are looking for a FANTASTIC puppy to root out those varmits…a Cairn Terrier just might be the thing. We have one and she is a doll. She is great with the family, but can sniff out the smallest of bugs from a mile away. She came from a breeder in Ohio. They are fantastic family dogs, not too big (she is only 14 lbs, but don’t ever let her size fool you), and shed very little. Think Toto from the Wizard of Oz.
    The Wine Country is gorgeous…hope to make a trip out that way someday.

  3. Yum, homemade wine. Or, homegrown wine perhaps is more accurate. I hope that you are able to find a good source of grapes to blend in with this year’s crop.

    I had to laugh at your comment about a barky terrier. We have two dogs and believe me, they aren’t scaring away any animals (and they are both 60 pounds!). Yesterday a magpie swooped down and dive bombed one of the dog’s heads in an attempt to get to the dog food, and my poor pup just stood there looking so forlorn. And they are pretty brave dogs, normally!

    Maybe you need something different – like a bobcat or crazed goat. A crazed goat might do the trick.

  4. Lauren, thanks so much for the breed suggestion. We do like the idea of a smaller dog and we love terriers.

    Sara – too funny about the crazed goat!

    ~ Kate

  5. Sorry to hear about your crop and I hope you find the perfect guard dog! I’m reallly glad you were able to salvage enough to hopefully get a barrel this year.

  6. Sorry (again this year) about your grapes. What a bummer!
    I often read your blog thinking about how you live in Sonoma . . . and I am so jealous! :)

    I have a shepherd mix and a large black and tan guard dog . . . and still, when we are in our suburban backyard, the foxes slink right by the fence, undeterred.

    Last comment: if you’re going to choose a dog that will live outside in the vineyards, research the breed first to make sure it’s not one that’s more bred to live outside. Not just in terms of their coat, but also their personality. I say this because research has found that certain breeds, like Rotties and Pit Bulls (and other, less muscular, dogs) suffer more than some other breeds when kept outside, away from their owners. In fact they now suspect that’s part of the problem with aggression – they become mentally stressed when living chained to a tree, and their people never pay attention – and they show that stress by lashing out – whereas other breeds, like my shepherd mix, are happy to sit outside all day long.

  7. My vote is for a Boston Terrier. I have mine trained to run the deer out of the yard and head right back to the house. He does prefer to sleep in bed with me and not outside though!

  8. I am sorry to hear about the crop but it is fascinating to learn about your hobby. I visited Sonoma for the first time in Feb. and fell in love. I was trying to convince my husband to move there!

  9. So wonderful to see pictures of you both, and a glimpse into your lives. I hope you get a puppy, a home is not complete without one. Please dont get a dog from a puppy farm or unreliable source, there are plenty of gorgeous dogs out there waiting to be taken in to a loving home, AND most are already house trained.
    Good Luck with your wine,
    Fleur, Queensland Australia

  10. My boss has a vineyard here in Southern Oregon and he and everyone else here got ravaged by birds and raccoons too! I think the late harvest gave the birds extra time to find the grapes.

  11. I am sorry to hear about the loss of some of your prized grapes! A puppy… if you get one, you will have to let us all know. With allergies in this fam, it will take a small miracle for us to get one.


  12. What a shame and to realize so close to the harvest date-ugh! I’m sorry to hear of your bad fortune but hope that it doesn’t deter you from doing what you do. Better luck next year and I am hoping I can visit your part of the country soon. The posts on this blog constantly have me hungry for touring wine country. Take care!

  13. Yeah, I want to know what the other growers do to keep all the varmints away. What ever they are doing is working because they are coming over to your place instead. My garden is like Fort Knox, and they still get in! I think you need to go get the inside scoop and let us all know their tricks. Maybe next year huh? It is frustrating I am sure.

  14. I’m so sorry about your crop! I know this is a big disappointment. It was a great educational post! I leanred quite a bit. I’m hoping for a good crop for you for next year!

  15. In the vegetable garden we have installed a motion sensor sprinkle. It was only around 60.00$ but if we keep the hose attached it triggers with any motion. It has sensitivity settings anything from a rabbit to deer. It sprays a powerful 180 degree burst of water! It scares everyone away even the kids and our husky whom has been known to steal my romano flat beans off the vine, I swear! lol

  16. UGH! The problem with raccoons is that they are so dadgum smart! So sorry to hear about the pilfering of your grapes. But the ones they left for you really are beautiful!

    Thanks for explaining a little about wine-making. It’s fascinating. Actually, it would be a fun thing to read while sipping a glass of wine!

  17. I vote for the crazed goat! (except for the aroma, which can be a little too interesting).

  18. You should know how inspiring it is to hear about all the amazing things you guys have on the go – wine making- wow! At least you can say there’s never a dull moment, shame it didn’t work out this time but I’m sure it’s been a facinating experience for you.

  19. I’m so sorry to hear about your grapes- it must be so disappointing for you. Despite your loss, this post was really interesting to read. You must be learning so much from your neighbor. Would love to share some wine with you at Blissdom!

  20. Great post!!! Fascinating to learn about your hobby and the great art of fine wine! Sorry about the grape ‘lossage’. I can only imagine the frustration and disappointment…so sorry. However, as you said, what a great place to live and awesome people abound….would love to have your neighbor! Good luck with puppy hunting!! Yay for the kiddos!!

  21. Oh, that breaks my heart! I was hoping for a happy ending, next year! I would love to know the name of your neighbors winery.

  22. Very cool!! My husband’s dream is to start a vineyard and maybe bottle some wine … for now, we’re starting with musky dine and brewing in our bathroom :). Maybe some day!

  23. Wow, you are so lucky to live in such a beautiful spot!! I’m in northern Ontario and we’re seeing flakes of snow already (of course just in time for Halloween!). I was thinking a border collie, friends of ours that have a farm have a border collie mix – she’s not too big, maybe only 20-30lbs but she is the best dog ever! She constantly is patrolling the areas surrounding the farm, watches out for the cattle/horses and chases (and either gets or scares off) everything from squirrels and moles to foxes and bears! But not only that she is great with the kids. When the kids are outside, she doesn’t leave their sides and will heard them back to the house if they venture too far off!! Good luck with your wine and PLEASE enjoy your beautiful weather for me!!

  24. The grapes in your photo look fabulous! I would love to know the name of your next door neighbor’s wine so I can purchase some for my husband. He’s Italian and would appreciate a nice bottle of wine from Sonoma and made by a fellow Italian.

  25. I recommend a German Shorthair Pointer – we have one and they are filled with energy and love to have a job to do. Ours has given herself the job of gaurding our backyard from bugs and lizards (we live in town in AZ so not a lot of racoons lol). They are not to big and while not yappy all the time they bark when necessary and love hunting for critters and keeping them out.

    Instead of a crazed goat what about a guard goose – they are territorial and will help weed and keep down bugs as well.

  26. Loved this post! It was fun to read and I liked the photos — not so much the naughty raccoons (smart little buggers!) and the lost grapes. You make me want to go back there for a vacation, my husband and I almost moved to Sonoma County (he’s from Sacramento originally)… now we live in Idaho — don’t ask, I’m a tad bitter. Haha ;)

  27. this may be a silly question but do you have a fence surrounding your vines? i know just from visiting vineyards here in the eastcoast that fences are used to keep deer and other animals away. just a thought! great post!!

  28. My Husband is currently knee deep in harvest in Napa as well. At least it sounds like the rain didn’t ruin your grapes. And we have a beagle terrier mix that is awesomeness. Highly recommend getting a doggie.

  29. thanks, Mr. CG for posting this most educational and interesting info…. had no idea you two were doing this on such a scale… congrats on your previous Gold Medals…..the nearest I’ve come to seeing a vineyard is in the movies…. but I can certainly appreciate your pain at discovering the loss of much of your crop due to critters… how disheartening! I am hopeful that you will come up with the perfect solution… whether a dog, or the interesting idea of the sprinkler…we have 2 toy schnauzers( hypo-allergenic, don’t shed.)… and they won’t let a rabbit near…. and they’re so much fun too….. they don’t dig, either! Knowing Kate…. you WILL succeed on that front!
    I was mesmerized at the sheer beauty of your last photo of the grapes… Just Gorgeous!keep us updated on whether that barrel makes it full!

  30. Sorry about the intruders! What about Guinea Hens? They are really noisy, though. In the east here, we have problems with Canada geese. The towns rent those Australian sheep herding dogs to chase the geese away. Maybe that is the answer. I love Petite Syrah. One of my favorite wines is Petite Petit by Michael and David in Lodi. I am going to Domaine Serene in Oregon next May for a Societe Mondial national meeting. I can hardly wait. I tasted a Burgundy last March from the importer Scott Paul in Oregon that only a barrel is ever made. Heaven. I went to wine school in Denver a year ago and am now a second level Sommelier. I wish I could make my own wine. Love your wife.

  31. Don’t quote me on this… I believe that a raccoon WILL fight, and have dangerous claws. They have been known to harm other animals. Don’t know that they always run away….. In this part of Bay Area we are sometimes instructed to bring in our pets so they won’t be harmed.

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