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A vintage tradition at Woodbridge Winery

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Posted: Friday, August 10, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:31 am, Fri Aug 10, 2012.

A load of pale green grapes rested in a yellow gondola, waiting to be dumped into the gleaming silver hopper at Woodbridge Winery on Thursday morning. They looked like any grapes that might be pulled from a vine during the harvest season that is just beginning. But these were special. These were the first.

It's a winery tradition, 34 years strong, for a priest to bless the first truckful of grapes each harvest. The ceremony dates back to the year the winery was founded by Robert Mondavi.

Mark Gabrielli, general manager, said all winery operations pause for an hour or two so every employee can come together to reflect and give thanks for the harvest.

"We do this to honor Robert Mondavi, who paved the way for the wine industry to be successful in California," said Gabrielli.

Father Sam Woods, of St. Joachim Catholic Church in Lockeford, delivered the blessing for the first time this year.

"It's a great honor for me to be here," he said. "These are the grapes of new life, and of course we enjoy the wine it brings."

Before the ceremony, Woods prepared the tools of his trade. A plastic bottle labeled "holy water" held the essential liquid, which he then poured into the aspersorium, a small golden container with a handle.

Gabrielli and Woods, donned in white linen vestments, stepped up to a platform over the grape hopper.

The ceremony began with a prayer for Vincente Marquez, the cellar foreman who passed away last month at the age of 39.

Next, a crane came alive with a groan and a buzz to lift one side of the gondola and pour the grapes into the waiting hopper, on their first step to becoming Sauvignon blanc wine. The tiny green pearls thudded into the trough followed by a rain of juice from squished fruit. A shower of clusters didn't make it into the hopper and littered the pavement below.

Father Woods dipped the aspergillum, a short wand, into the aspersorium to dampen it with holy water, then shook it over the grapes as they fell.

"We ask that you bless this fruit of the vine," he said. "Thank you for this abundant gift to all the people who hope for a good harvest."

Father Woods extended the blessing beyond the grapes to those who harvest the fruit and work at the winery, that they remain safe during the season.

Then the hopper whirred into action and slowly pushed the grapes up into the conveyor and on to the de-stemmer for processing.

The crowd pushed forward to watch this first journey of grapes. Two winery employees used long handled rakes to pull all the grapes from the gondola.

"It's kind of unique," said Glenn Hinsz, of Lodi, after the ceremony was complete. He has attended the event for about a decade, since his daughter Deanna Jones works at the winery.

"I wish more wineries did it," he said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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