The Pirate Life of Winemakers During Harvest

One Santa Barbara Vintner Explains the Industry’s Most Exciting and Exhausting Season

The author, Mattias Pippig, the captain of the Sanguis pirate boat.
Courtesy Photo

When people who aren’t in the business of making wine ask about harvest, they do so with a certain twinkle in their eye, thinking it must be something magical and expecting an affirmation that it’s just wonderful. And yes, it is wonderful, but probably not at all close to the way anyone imagines it to be.

So as my 11th harvest at Sanguis on Santa Barbara’s Eastside was winding down a couple Sundays ago, I found myself scrubbing down our press with sulfur after rinsing it with scalding hot water for the umpteenth time, and it finally occurred to me: Harvest is like being on a boat, but not any boat, a pirate boat.

When you start on your journey, it’s exciting. Everything feels new, and you’re thinking about the treasure that lies ahead. But after some weeks en route, you start wondering why you signed up for this. Yes, all these fermentations smell great, but it’s endless work to keep them smelling that way.

The winery starts to feel like a vessel, and you’re stuck in this vessel with the same mates for what seems an indefinite period of time. You get to leave occasionally to sleep and eat and drink some grog to keep your sanity and gain your strength back — but not often, and not for long. Days turn into nights and nights turn into days, and, after a while, there’s no difference. It’s disorienting, and frequently too hot, and sometimes too cold, and most always earlier and later than planned. Yet the work goes on, the vessel never stops, and someone always has to be awake at the wheel and the sails to keep the thing on course and moving forward and not tipping over.

The mates along for this harvest ride at Sanguis.
Courtesy Photo

Your mates are good guys and you rely on them and develop deep relationships with them. They are not normal people because normal people wouldn’t choose this line of work. They don’t necessarily have missing teeth or hooks for hands, although one of the mates can in fact take out a tooth for show, and another almost got a hook for a hand this summer after nearly sawing off some fingers on another job.

You learn things: that there’s a better way to do something, that you can’t do this on your own, and that doing most anything on your own is stupid because it’s more fun to share victorious battles with your mates. You learn that life without duct tape isn’t possible, and that life without music would be completely pointless. You learn what it’s like to be really tired and that coffee from Ethiopia roasted by the capable hands of some guy in Portland, Oregon, is indispensable — thus, you also learn that life is complicated, geographically and otherwise, if you want to get the good stuff. You learn that coffee is for being happy and tea is for getting things done. You learn that keeping your boat ship-shape is critical to finding your treasure.

You learn that sulfur is a useful tool to clean and sanitize equipment, but that it doesn’t just eat the bad guys — it eats everything, like your skin, and those cuts and little wounds on your hands that you pick up along the way. They never heal so long as the journey goes on.

But because you’re constantly moving and working on this harvest boat, you can eat anything and everything too, and as much as you want. At the beginning of this year’s journey, we started out all kale salads and good intentions, but we soon decided that hams and pies are more piratical.

Eventually, you start telling the same stories when you’re eating hams and pies with your mates, because you’ve been cut off from the outside world for too long and don’t have any new ones to tell. After a while, you find that you’re wearing the same clothes for quite a few days in a row, but you don’t really care, because what’s the point?

Every so often you get a little break, pull into harbor, and drop anchor. You shave and put on some fresh clothes, which makes you feel like a million bucks, and you get to see your lady. But you know that you’ll be back on the boat soon, and you’re too tired to be any fun anyway, so you mostly eat and sleep. Ladies aren’t too crazy about this, and they start wondering the same thing you’re wondering: “Why am I doing this again?”

What the pirate treasure looks like halfway through the Sanguis harvest.
Courtesy Photo

Back on the boat, there comes a point when the days start to blend into each other, and even though everything smells great, you almost cease to care because those good smells mean more work and your body doesn’t want to do any more work — it wants to sleep, eat, and sleep more, and then eat more ham. Everybody gets a little testy a little too easily, and progress only prevails because everyone knows everyone else is tired too.

Once you pass that point, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can be pretty sure it’s not an oncoming train, because all the grapes have been picked, most of the wine is in barrels, and there are only so many punch downs and press days left. Once done with those, all there is to do is drop anchor, spruce up the old boat, wrap up the equipment, and go see the ladies. Activity comes to a virtual halt, and everybody goes on their merry way, glad that it’s over.

Then a strange thing happens: After a few weeks of having our land legs back, we miss the whole thing and each other terribly, and must be patient in waiting to hoist the sails for the next journey in another nine months. Of course, the exact timing isn’t even up to us. We’re just along for the ride.

Matthias Pippig makes Sanguis wines in a converted warehouse on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Tastings are appointment only. Call 805-845-0920 or see


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