Rituals: The Pedigreed Pickers

Since when do Orange County’s fieldworkers wear designer shades and shoes?

I’ve been writing about Orange County’s rituals since 2008, and in all that time I’ve resisted using one particular phrase. But this time I can’t help it. As I stand on a hill looking down on a vineyard in Upper Newport Bay, it comes out as a defeated whimper: “Only in Orange County.”

Spread out before me in bright blotches against the neat rows of fruit—like the fieldworkers in a Gaugin painting, except well-dressed, beautifully coiffed, and slathered in Avobenzone—are dozens of people who’ve paid for the experience of picking in the fields. They reach into the green tangle, wresting clusters of grapes from reluctant vines. A few years from now, perhaps when they’re out somewhere on date night and taste the year’s vintage, they’ll boast, “Oh my dear, it’s that meritage. Remember when we brought in that autumn crop?”

It took only a generation for Orange County to move completely off the fields and into the big city. We left our ag past with such abandon that we barely had time to reflect on what we might be losing on the journey. Every once in a while, it helps to find some small ritual that grounds us again, to our past, and to the earth.

I’ve been hearing for a few years now about this annual pick-a-thon at the Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery, an unusual high-end vineyard, winery, and party cave. The event includes a grape stomping, so last year I went to indulge in my “I Love Lucy,” Season 5, Episode 23 fantasy.

If, like me, you’re surprised to hear there’s a vineyard and winery in Orange County, you’ll be even more surprised to learn that there are now 10, including some in the canyons. Some of the modern wineries even have tastings.

The location of Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery is proving conducive to reds. The vineyard has produced a meritage, a blend of traditional Bordeaux grapes: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec. The wine won a silver medal at the 2013 San Francisco International Wine Festival.

As I arrive, I wonder what smart farmer figured out how to get people to pay him to do the backbreaking work of bringing in his crop. I need look no farther than the top of the hill where the graying, bearded Richard Moriarty is running grapes through a crushing machine just outside a barn.

Isn’t he the guy who achieved local fame in the ’80s, promoting parties with themes such as the “Pimps, Hookers, Drug Dealers, and Lawyers Ball”? Bacchanalian, the press said. Not that I’d know. (Or maybe if I did go to one, I simply don’t remember.) He’s one of life’s original characters. I saw him at the Center Club a few years ago, and he told me how he’d strapped a 1974 Lamborghini to his wall as art. Sure enough, it’s up there in his home on the winery grounds.

As blue blood as he is—direct in line to the South Coast Plaza fortune—I would expect at his home vineyard to find him kicked back, arms folded over his chest. He’s pleased with this year’s field hands, he says, but, every now and then, there can be a few who spend more time talking and tasting, than picking.

This is a $30-a-head fundraiser and the groups that benefit—for example, the Southern California Hospice Foundation—change every few years.

Wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt that says “Whip Me, Stomp Me, Crush Me, Make Me Wine,” Moriarty clearly takes a firsthand interest in his crop. I think the genetics that make a good farmer get passed on, and he probably got them in spades from his mother’s family, the Segerstroms. Moriarty, who started the vineyard in 2001, tells me he got the first license in a century to make wine in Orange County. Because there weren’t any local experts when he started, he had to reach all the way to Napa for advice, flying consultants south at $200 an hour.

“Not anymore,” he says, proud that his 1,200 vines are producing 5 tons of bordeaux grapes.

I ask him why he’s donating his vineyard to charity for the day. “It would take a lot longer and cost a lot more money” to hire out the help, he tells me—a hundred people working for four hours at $10 an hour. Plus, he says, he likes to get the community involved.

Today’s pickers have paid $30 each to harvest grapes to the sound of piped-in jazz. Some are picking on behalf of their corporations, which have paid more. Like everything else in Orange County, it’s competitive. Still, some pickers are balancing wine glasses as they work.

“There’s grapes everywhere,” says a woman wearing flowered capris and Toms loafers. “I’m picking grapes out of my bra.”

Nearby, Toni Tartamella, a beautiful redhead with her hair swept back in a very Lucy-like wave, shows me how to pick the grapes by cutting them close to the stem.

“When I was little, my mother—she was a retired educator—she said, ‘You want things, you have to earn them. We’re going picking.’ ” Now a banking executive in Chanel sunglasses, Tartamella sees the irony: “Look what I’m doing now [for charity].”

I watch 30-year-old Joseph Barglowski of Costa Mesa in big rubber boots crushing grapes inside a tub. He’s attending with a group of friends for a birthday celebration. “This isn’t easy,” he says. “I’m so tired.”

I hop into a pair of those boots and try it myself. He’s right; it’s hard. My feet keep getting hung up on the stems. A few steps from the grape crushing is the real prize, the cave, because at the end of a hot day in the sun, it’s cool and smells like wood barrels and wine.

Vineyards and wineries in Orange County are not a new idea. The 19th century Germans in Anaheim made quite a go of it, operating 50 wineries before a blight wiped out their 40,000 acres of vineyards by the late 1880s. And of course, the Spanish priests at Mission San Juan Capistrano were growing grapes and bottling wine way before the Germans.

Today, we’ve moved so far from our agricultural past that we are paying for the privilege of picking food we don’t consume. And while we only need thumb through the pages of this magazine to see what we’ve gained along with all the concrete—arts, culture, fine dining—we’ve lost something, too: a tactile connection to the land beneath our feet.

It’s hard to say what the future of local vineyards will be, especially given the drought. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if they can make a go of it again, a hundred-plus years from now?

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