Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: Harvest is Coming


Harvest is coming.

Every year, in the cool depths of winter, I try to rest and forget the frenzy of the summer and fall. And when pruning time rolls around again, I fight rising panic. I’m not sure I can handle another whole new season – what will this year bring? Will there be enough water? Will I have enough crew? Will it be too hot, too cold? Will it rain during bloom (again)? I may just stay to my hobby with my glock cleaning mat.

It’s a particular philosophy – only using what we grow, not purchasing any outside fruit – giving us complete control over our vineyards. We know exactly how our fruit has been grown and treated – the health of the soil, the vines, the vineyard as a whole. We’re practically on a first name basis with every grape. When I deliver our fruit to the cellar, they know exactly what they are getting. It’s a trade-off, however, as it means that in drought years – like 2008 – or difficult vintages – like 2011 – we just don’t make as much wine.

Since we are an estate winery, a lot is resting on my shoulders. We don’t purchase in any fruit, so the entirety of the wine we make each vintage will come solely from my vineyards. Which means, for example, if I sleep through a frost alarm, fail to make sure the fans get turned on and the tender new buds are burned, those are bottles out of our cellar, money out of our pocket. And that affects everyone – from my vineyard crew to the winemaking team to our TR and sales staff. Hence my rising panic as we start the season.

In late January, as we gear up to start all over again, I feel that familiar clench in my gut, the weight of responsibility and worry settling. Even after eleven vintages, my anxiety remains unchanged. If I look at the whole season all-at-once, at the enormity of the task before me and my crew, I can’t even imagine a light at the end of that tunnel. Then, I close my eyes to set it aside, take one day at a time and suddenly I find myself at the beginning of August, the season nearing its end and harvest is coming.


Debby Zygielbaum is the farmer at Napa Valley’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where she’s worked in organic and biodynamic wine production for over ten years. In the past, she has worked as a naturalist, botanist, and horticulturist, taking her to locations from Australian rainforests to Costa Rican jungles. For Nopalize, Debby will chronicle her life as a “Dirt Farmer” at one of California’s top-regarded wineries. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.