Night Harvest: A Leadership Lesson in Pacing

If you happened to be driving home through wine country after midnight some night… or if, like me, you happened to be driving along the vineyards to the airport for a pre-dawn flight … you might be surprised to see huge lights moving slowly through a vineyard.  In the darkness, my un-caffeinated brain at first didn’t understand the lights.  A UFO?  I frown.  An emergency in the vineyard?  That’s more like it.  What is happening?  Wondering if I could help in some way, I slow the car, pull to the side of the road, and roll down my window to the misty night air.  In the quiet stillness of the morning, I hear the put-put of tractors moving slowly and muffled voices calling to each other.  They don’t seem to be in an emergency-hurry.  I’m curious, but the plane awaits and I drive on.  Later, I learn… harvest was happening!  To me, it seems inconvenient to harvest at night.  In addition to the expense of the large, overhead lights, the workers have to wear headlamps; their daytime schedules are all messed up… and… it’s cold!  But, that’s exactly the point.

Night harvest is all about pacing the fermentation of the wine and 30 degrees makes a big difference!  Think about it… You know how, on a hot summer’s day, when you get into your car, grab the water bottle you left there while you were gone… hoping for a thirst-quenching drink you take a big swig, and it’s hot enough to make tea…?!*   Ick!!  Not refreshing at all!  During harvest, understanding this principle is very important.  If a large water bottle gets hot sitting in the sun for a few hours, imagine the temperature of the juice inside a tiny little grape!  If the workers pick the grapes during the heat of the day at, say 80 – 85 degrees, as the grapes pile up in the bins, the heat starts the fermenting process before they ever get to the winery to be de-stemmed.  In the words of Joe Healy, the winemaker at Bella, “it’s a runaway train.”  Even with cooling tanks, there is very little that can be done to control the fermentation once it starts.  If the temperature during fermentation gets too high, the fermentation process can kill the yeast and the wine will not, ultimately, ferment.  Obviously, this is not good!  Even if it does ferment, no one wants to drink wine that tastes like it’s been boiled.

On the other hand, if the grapes are harvested at 50 – 55 degrees, they are still cool when they arrive at the winery a few hours later.  At a cooler temperature, the winemaker can more easily control the fermentation process and it makes better wine.  According to the Wine Makers Academy:

Warm fermentations can lack character as well as any terroir you might be hoping to capture in your finished wine.  Cooler fermentation temperatures help preserve the uniqueness of your specific fruit and helps the character and terroir shine through.
Pacing the fermentation is critical to making good wine and, as leaders, pacing is critical to our outcomes.

We must perceive the best timing to launch any initiative and then, pace the initiative so it doesn’t explode beyond our capacity to handle the results, always keeping an eye out that the pacing might be too slow to be competitive.  Pacing is also essential in change-management.  We must pace the change so our teams continue in step with the processes…not too fast, not too slow.  It goes without saying, but in our personal lives, we thrive or wilt, flourish or are crushed, according the pace we keep.  Too fast and we burn out… too slow and our energy fizzles.

As a runner, I particularly relate to the idea of pacing.  When I ran the Napa Valley Marathon a few years ago, I ran with an experienced marathoner who, wisely, instructed me to keep a slower pace at the beginning, so I would have enough energy to finish the long race.  How wise he was!  I had hoped to run a fast race, but I was happy just to finish!  As we run the marathon of life and leadership, pacing may be one of the most critical components to finishing well.

So, even though harvesting at night is a bit inconvenient, it is strategic for getting the best wine!  What feels inconvenient to you, but may help with pacing issues?

Photo Credit:  Linda Blackerby

*Side note:  In the southern states of the U.S. people routinely make tea by leaving a gallon jar of water steeping with six large tea bags in the direct sun for several hours. Take out the tea bags, pour it over some ice, add sugar if desired… et viola… sun tea!