The soft light of an autumn dusk gilds the curving edges of emerald rows of vineyards that appear to be raked across the Napa Valley. As the sun sets behind the valley’s purple-black western hills, a backlit sky glows in steadily changing tones of yellow, gold, orange, pink and lavender.
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This is harvest in California. Its days embrace you with gentle warmth, its evenings with impossibly oversized orange moons rising against indigo skies. California nears perfection during harvest. It is a season of vibrant, flaming color, of happy rituals and festivals, and of thanksgiving reunions.
At wineries and farms throughout California, the ritual of harvest is played over and over. Workers await arrival of the harvest, standing by their stations, ready to test, sort, crush or pack the harvest. It is a ritual easily experienced by us fortunate Californians who live so near wineries, farms and orchards. Now, through the end of this month, harvest continues.
In El Dorado County it is found at Apple Hill and along our Farm Trails. Near Camino, several of the 50 Apple Hill Growers Association farms allow you to participate in harvest by picking apples from the trees. The varieties of apples vary by time of month, from Red Rome, to Cameo, to Fuji, to Goldrush to Granny Smith, and other species. The El Dorado County Farm Trails program —identified by distinctive signs along county roads and at edc-farmtrails.org — directs you to listings of farms that allow the public to participate in harvest and purchase fruit and vegetables that they’ve picked.
Berries, peaches, nectarines, lavender, pumpkins and grapes are among the produce you can pick, though if you’re not up to becoming a farm hand, colorful varieties of picked fruit and vegetables are displayed for purchase. Traveling the farm trails and visiting the Apple Hill growers during harvest is a ritual many repeat each autumn.
The bakery-sweet and spicy scent of freshly baked apple pie and the chilled goodness of freshly pressed apple cider draw many back to Apple Hill each harvest. Apple butter, apple candy, apple jelly, apple strudel, apple sauce, apple juice, apple bread, apple jam, apple fritters, caramel apples, apple turnovers, candy apples, apple wine, apple brownies, apple sauce, apple dumplings… if it can be made with apples, it’s available… where else? At Apple Hill.
In addition to apples, each farm has a specialty that differentiates it from the other farms, encouraging you to drive on to the next farm to see what’s there, be it live music, or gardens, or crafts, or homemade honey, or herbal perfumes, or handmade dolls, or fudge, or windmills, or bonsai plants, or handcrafted beer.
Most have a café or pantry that serves some sort of tantalizing dish, be it German bratwurst, hamburgers, homemade soup, or freshly prepared sandwiches. Along the drive, you lose yourself in the beauty of El Dorado County’s bucolic setting, its oak-forested hills and rolling orchards and vineyards. At some point, you mark the day as finished and turn to head home, vowing to return and visit the farms you missed farther on down the road.
Some wineries invite the public to participating in harvest, particularly when they are members of their wine club. Though, anyone visiting a winery during harvest will feel part of the activity. At Narrow Gate Vineyards near Placerville recently, Teena Hildebrand uncovered a bin of grapes and invited visiting wine tasters to place their hands above the berries to feel the heat emanating from the fermenting wine. She explained how her husband, Frank, was employing biodynamic agriculture to create his wines, and suddenly those who came to taste became part of the harvest, more knowledgeable about the vineyard.
In the Napa Valley at Merryvale Vineyards, winery workers lined up as just-picked cabernet grapes were delivered. Passersby stopped to watch the bins of grapes being unloaded and crushed, the tart smell of them drifted through St. Helena on a light breeze, attracting attention. Onlookers watched as the workers joked to one another and merrily went about their task. They all felt part of the work, as it was exposed and ultimately done for their enjoyment. Harvest is a happy time, a time of fulfillment, of gathering.
In moments when we are troubled by uncertainty, harvest comforts and reminds us of all we share, of the fruit of our labor, and what others are providing for us. Harvest is a time to come together, not to go our separate ways. In fields, orchards and vineyards, bodies bend to reap the harvest before the days shorten too greatly, before the peak has passed. It is a time of gathering, a time of comfort, a moment to savor and… to harvest.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.