It's impossible to drive around Lodi without seeing endless rows of grapevines sprouting green buds, and growing leaves and grapes all summer long.
But winegrapes are picky mistresses. They need to be pruned in the winter, vines tied in the spring and leaves pulled off in the summertime.
For grapes to build up sweetness, they need sunshine. They can't get enough unless someone comes by and pulls off the wide flat leaves by hand.
Did you know it takes a speedy, efficient worker nearly two hours to pull leaves off of one long row?
Neither did I. In fact, I knew almost nothing about the hands-on trials of working in a vineyard. So I called around to see if any grower was willing to give me a chance at working in his fields. I got a bite, and was told to report for duty on Wednesday morning.
I arrived at a home on Kile Road at 6 a.m. Well, it was supposed to be 6 a.m. I was the last of the day's workers to arrive.
Grower Ed Van Diemen said hello with a hearty handshake, then introduced the group.
There were six women and one man. Each woman wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, long-sleeved shirts buttoned up to their chins, and a bandanna wrapped around their mouths, with another covering the back of their necks.
I had done my best to dress for the occasion with a pair of old jeans, a light sweatshirt and a cap. Looking around, I realized I didn't quite get it right.
One woman, Maria Sandoval, handed me a pair of lightweight sunglasses and a facemask. These were to protect my eyes and mouth from dust and sulfur flying off the vines. I tugged on a pair of cotton work gloves and walked with the group out to the field.
I followed Sandoval to a row near the edge of the field. Chardonnay was growing on bushy vines topping out at about 6 feet off the ground. She reached into the center of the mess of leaves and gently broke off several stalks. Working her way from the top wire to the branch of the vine, Sandoval quickly revealed clusters of pearl sized bright green grapes.
"You have to stick your hands in there, and they come off pretty easy. But be careful, because the grapes come off easy, too," she advised.
Tearing leaves, dropping grapes
I watched Sandoval work for a few minutes, trying to understand her technique and how she selected which leaves to pull. Her sunhat brushed the top edge of vines that reach out between each row. A trail of dark green grape leaves followed her as she moved along.
It was time for me to give it a shot. I reached in to grab a handful of foliage then tugged. Hard. Nothing happened. The vine shook, but the stubborn leaves held fast. I tugged harder, and a wad of torn leaf pieces came off in my hand. I dropped them to the ground and glanced again at Sandoval's trail. A delicate line of whole leaves followed her feet. My pile was shredded. Half-torn chunks of leaves remained on the vine.
I chalked it up to beginner's failure and moved on. Next, I tried to imitate Sandoval's handiwork. I pushed my hands into the leafy center section and wriggled my fingers. I wanted to break off each leaf individually. I did. The first few leaves fell gracefully down. Along with two clusters of grapes.
Oh, there's chardonnay on the ground.
You'd think it's an easy job: Just pulling leaves off a plant. But for every handful of leaves I tried to break off the vine, a cluster of grapes threatened to come loose.
I'm a good deal taller than Sandoval. At 6 feet, my face was at just the right level to stab myself in the eye with vine tendrils. I could never tell which leaf would cause a hit to the face, or knock my cap sideways.
Maria worked quickly several yards ahead of me down the row. Every 10 minutes or so, she finished a section then came back to check on my progress.
"Are you tired?" she asked me.
"No, I'm OK. Am I doing this right?" I asked.
She gave my section of vine a cursory glance, then tore off another handful of leaves.
"It's OK," she decided, before walking back to her place along the row.
I think what she meant was, it's OK for a new girl. Which was only fair.
For the most part I was left to my own devices. I tried to pull leaves off gently and quickly. But it was an either/or situation. Either I could break off leaves one at a time and be woefully outpaced by Sandoval, or I could speed along and do a horrible job. I found a pathetic middle ground: doing a poor job slowly.
The morning began nice and cool. I could hear cows nearby, and an owl hooting. But the heat comes on quickly in the Central Valley. I could feel the path of the sun in the sky as heat moved over my back. The sweating began.
Heat builds, muscles weaken
Generally, it takes two hours for Sandoval or another member of the crew to pull leaves along one full row.
The crew could complete the entire 48-acre field in about seven days. With my slow hands holding the team back, I completed about half a row in sections while Sandoval did the rest.
We reached the end of the line. Sandoval dusted off her hands and looked up at me.
"We are done here and moving to another row. Do you want to keep going or are you tired?" she asked.
I realized I was tired, even after just two hours. Maybe it was from standing for so long. Maybe it was from waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the site in time.
My shoulders and calves ached from the standing and reaching. Sweat built up around my mask and glasses. I think I smelled a little like sulfur. My clothes were itchy from dusty leaf bits flying around. More dust had built up on my sleeves and jeans. Physically, I was over it.
Plus, I knew every cluster that dropped was someone's paycheck lying on the ground. There's no reset button in agriculture. Once a vine is broken, there's nothing to reattach it. I didn't want to be responsible for any more fallen grapes.
I took the hint. I took my leave. I thanked Sandoval for letting me try my hand at field labor. She and the rest of the crew would earn about $80 for the day's work. I earned the knowledge that I am meant for a desk job.
I wandered back down the row I worked on. It was easy to pick out which sections Sandoval had done. Every few yards the vine changed from a tidy view of grape clusters warming up in the sunshine to shards of torn leaves sticking up at odd angles. On the ground, pretty whole leaves gave way to torn bits and grape clusters.
I did leave a little something behind. I brought a pair of sunglasses with me to the job. When Sandoval gave me a lighter pair, I wore those instead and tucked my own into my shirtfront. They dropped once and I found them. They dropped again and I didn't notice. For an hour. I still can't find them.
If you pick up a bottle of Chardonnay in the next year or two and it tastes a little like plastic, I'm sorry. That's my bad.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.