The Willamette Valley Part II: Working Harvest

Beginning with where we left off, Frank drives us, our bikes, and our wine home. We tried to decipher what exactly is a harvest chef– but eventually moved on to other things. We arrived in Olympia eager for warm showers and a night in our bed.

Getting the Job

For curiosity’s sake, Frank reached out to Bryan to learn more about the position. Apparently, it is not uncommon for wineries in Oregon to host a harvest chef to provide lunch for the harvest team. The position called for someone who could work for six weeks with a tight budget and provide delicious lunches to a dozen hungry and hard-working interns. 

I encouraged Frank to take the job partly out of self-interest. I had taken on a 9-5 job during peak COVID that turned out to be a stressful and mentally draining nightmare. Frank cheffing in Oregon seemed like the perfect excuse for me to quit and have some fun in wine country for a few months while I figured out what to do next. In an exciting turn of events, Bryan suggested I apply to be a harvest intern. I was ecstatic! I had no idea what harvest season would be like, but I was ready to find out.

The Van

the van build before we put the bed in

Our next hurdle was to figure out where we were going to live. We both found the idea van living really attractive and thought it to be an affordable solution for this trip as well as future trips. With Frank’s lease on his truck coming up, we managed to score a beautiful 2016 Ford Transit 250 with 36,000 miles for sale out of Hood River. The previous owners had used it for seasonal van living, meaning the interior was already gutted and partially built out. We knew it would need a ton of work to be sustainable for us to live in for two months, but it was a steal, so we jumped on it.

We spent the summer remodeling the van and did our best to stay on budget. Frank took on the bulk of this project, spending countless hours doing research, watching videos, and drawing out plans. I was mostly his second-hand cheerleader, Home Depot runner, and fetcher of beers. We started the reno in May and were putting in the final details right up until the last few minutes before I had to leave. We weren’t able to finish putting in the wall, but the van was (and still is) easily livable and comfortable. With a comfy 4-inch Ikea mattress, solar panels, a plug-in fridge/freezer, and running water, I set off for my first day at the winery. Frank would follow me a couple of weeks later, as his contract didn’t start until later.

For parking, a dear family friend of ours happened to live in McMinnville and let us park in her driveway. We also got a gym membership at a nearby Planet Fitness down the road from our friend’s home to take showers.

Day One

Nervous as to what to expect, I figured I would be one of the interns with the least amount of experience. Luckily, we were almost all newbies with similar interests and motivations for pursuing the internship. We all loved wine, we had just scratched the surface of the industry, and we wanted to pursue something drastically different. Many of the people I would work with over the course of these brutal/intense/soul-searching two months have fortunately remained friends still.

The first few weeks of harvest were spent cleaning, getting a lay of the land, collecting grape cluster samples, and a lot more cleaning. Collecting samples was my favorite part of the day. First thing in the morning, we would go out in teams and collect randomly selected clusters in “blocks” across the vineyard. Then, we’d bring them back to be weighed, squished, and collect the juice into sample bottles for Brix testing. Brix is the sugar level in the juice and is crucial for the winemaker to know when to pick the grapes. This season was preceded by an exceptionally hot summer, which meant the grapes were ripening faster than is typical. After a couple of weeks of cleaning and organizing the facility, we were greeted by our first round of grapes!


Harvest 2021 was fast and condensed, with only 12 days spent processing grapes. Those days were spent at the sorting tables checking for undesirables between the clusters, shuffling tanks about like Tetris pieces, and cleaning the crush pad when we were done for the day.

On the very last day of bringing in grapes, we were surprised with a power outage, leaving exactly half a bin of Gamay grapes remaining to be processed. Unrelated to the power outage but occurring at the exact same time, one of the fire sprinklers was activated and nearly ruined a few tanks worth of wine… talk about ending with a bang.

As for the lunches that we heard so much about, those proved to be a brief refuge where we all got to sit together and eat as if our lives depended on them. Frank did not disappoint; daily, he treated us to a wide range of decadent and hearty meals like savory burgers with steak fries, peanut pad thai, creamy pesto pasta, and prawn tacos – I could go on and on. Maybe I’m impartial, but his food was a lifesaver, especially when we had big grape days. Hours of standing still while furiously sorting through nothing but grapes can make you feel dizzy, bored, achy, and starving.

Once all the grapes were in, the work was far from over. Twice daily, we were tasked with managing the red fermentations through punch-downs, whereby interns would be charged with aligning a wood plank across a tank and have to walk across it with a long-handled plunger and break through the stiff seal to the bottom of the ferment to circulate the grapes and allow for an even fermentation. This work was… not my favorite. I did my absolute best when I had to, but mostly I stuck to taking temperatures and samples of each tank while the more stable-hearted took to walking the plank.

When the tank was fully-fermented, meaning all of the sugar had been consumed by the yeast and the juice was dry, they were “dug out” and ran through the press to extract all juice from the skins. This juice was put into tanks to rest before ending up in the barrels to age. The barrels were dosed with an assortment of nutrients, lactic acid bacteria, and sulfur, all depending on what stage the wine was in.

With hard work, there was a decent amount of play. Most nights, when we were done for the day, the interns and staff would collapse in the parking lot, stretched out like discarded raisins, drinking cold beer and talking. Some of us lived through monumental life episodes while laid out in that parking lot; others just shared funny stories or talked about life outside of harvest. Considering Frank and I never had anywhere to be, we found ourselves out in that parking lot most nights.

We were also fortunate to be able to take several field trips to nearby wineries, including Beaux Freres, Archery Summit, Stoller, and Penner-Ash. We took tours of every facility, got to ask questions, and do barrel tastings with the winemakers. Words cannot express how much fun we had and all that we learned. I can safely say my tears at the harvest party were at least 75% Pinot.

The final day of harvest consisted of said harvest party, where Frank treated us to freshly smoked salmon, oysters from Hama Hama off the Hood Canal, and his signature paella. The internship officially ended with a couple of shots of tequila at the local dive bar, Lumpy’s, followed by hugs and promises of reuniting over bottles of Alexana’s 2021 vintage.

The following day, Frank and I headed to White Salmon, Washington, where we were expected to cater dinner for an old friend. By the time we got home, the internship already felt like a distant memory.

Days Off

Despite the intensity of the harvest, we were able to get one day off per week. Frank and I spent our Sundays exploring McMinnville, eating brunch at the Community Plate and Crescent Cafe, getting pizza at Pizza Capo, Latin from Pura Vida Cocina, sharing bottles of wine and dessert at the 1882 Grille and Mac Market, and getting epic burritos from Tacos el Gordo. We managed to get one bike ride in; click here for the route, and make sure you stop at Youngberg Hill Vineyard & Inn for a tasting and the gorgeous view of the McMinnville AVA.

In the last two weeks, we were able to get two days off, which we spent visiting Portland and checking out Helioterra Wines, a cool urban winery/cidery focused on celebrating female winemakers. We also ate an incredible Italian dinner at Montelupo. We also went to the coast, spending one night in Lincoln City and one night in Pacific City. We got to walk along the beach and drink beers overlooking Cape Kiwanda at Pelican Brewing. The trip to the coast was my favorite.

What’s Next?

Upon returning to Olympia, Frank went back to his full-time job as Head Chef at Three Magnets Brewing, the brewery where he and I first met. I help there now and again, but mostly I’m at Stottle Winery, running the teeny-tiny tasting room located on the Hood Canal and helping with production when needed. Josh Stottlemeyer is the owner/winemaker and sources bright and vivacious grapes from various vineyards in Eastern Washington, and I’m having a blast getting to meet people who enjoy wine as much as I do. I’m not sure where I will find myself next, but for now, I’m quite happy here.

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