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  • A new harvest: Old farmers may faint, video gamers pout

  • Video gamers would hate me right now.
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  • Video gamers would hate me right now.
    I'm fingers away from a joystick that directs a monstrous, half-million-dollar machine that can do the work of an army 150 strong. Inside this window-wrapped command module, I soar over towering green leaves that rustle underneath the see-through floor. Way up here, it's all smooth and steady, thanks to a pneumatic seat that absorbs punches from the rocky, sloping terrain, thus saving my inelastic spine from a pounding.
    Nerd nirvana? Or modern-day farming? You pick. I'm just the passenger in this shiny, yellow grape harvester.
    The guy in charge of this hydraulically elevated, mean machine and all of its tempting buttons, gauges and gadgets is Rusty Smith, a tech-savvy, but still hands-in-the-dirt farmer who works at Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill.
    His job this time of year is to ride this bad boy over vines and let the back-and-forth bow rods shake the ripe grapes free. Steel hands then send these tender fruits onto conveyor belts, past sorters and into bins before they are pulverized into juice that will eventually become alcoholic and quaffable for my pleasure.
    Rusty guides this machine up and down tidy rows of merlot, syrah and pinot gris grapes that are spread across 205 acres, a space city slickers like me instantly calculate to being equivalent to a gathering of 2,250 Wienermobiles. Now that's big!
    He might spend all day or night inside this climate-controlled cab, but he doesn't mind. He has a couple of iPad-sized screens that allow him to watch the speed of his giant wheels and the pinch factor of picking heads that shake grapes but don't scratch the plants' trunks or branches.
    Rusty has windshield wipers on the front of his aerial office, but he doesn't need them this year. Not only was the growing season textbook-perfect, but harvest has been under mostly sunny skies, a nice reward from last year when slopes were slippery with unrelenting rain. Anyone connected with grape growing this year will tell you it's been a breeze. The best part about harvest? "The finish," says Rusty, a farmer of few words.
    He points to one of his Crayola-colored buttons. "I use this one to shut my shaker off," he says. Shut your shaker off, I repeat, stifling a laugh. But he just continues to look forward, his broom-bristle-brown mustache does not even twitch toward a smile.
    Hmmm. Harvesting is serious, the culmination of a year's worth of really hard work. I guess I won't ask him my burning question: Has this machine, so rarely seen in the Rogue Valley, ever sucked up a wayward wine-club member or anything else odd?
    Adding to his comfort, Rusty also has a radio/CD player, though I don't hear any music. I sit in silence most of the time because the cab is soundproof and Rusty is not a talker. I don't think he even said much as we flew over vine tops, and I sputtered stuff like, "Wowie-zowie, Rusty, this is freakin' crazy and so much easier than farming on foot."
    How quickly I've changed. Up until now, I only have known the harvest by hand. Most of the vineyards blanketing this state are picked by someone with cutters and a bucket. Often, it takes time to select the perfect specimen.
    Three months ago, I was standing in front of a wall of syrah leaves, studying each one before making a decision. I was lured to Carpenter Hill Vineyard in Medford at the crack of dawn by David Gremmels and his Rogue Creamery crew to help pick 60,000 — yes! — supple, youthful syrah leaves to wrap around precious wheels of handmade Rogue River Blue.
    This blue cheese, as you may know, is made only from the end-of-season, higher-butterfat milk from brown Swiss and Holstein cows that have grazed on grasses, herbs and wildflowers along the Rogue River. Six syrah leaves, each uniform in size, shape and texture and without tears or other imperfections, are needed for each 5-pound wheel.
    My contribution — a stellar collection of seven leaves — won't be enjoyed until next September after this season's cheese has had time to age in top-secret caves and then is swaddled in these edible leaves soaked for eight months in Clear Creek Distillery's pear brandy.
    David, the creamery's big cheese, says he has tasted all types of locally grown leaves — chardonnay, zinfandel, riesling, malbec, tempranillo — but syrah subtly highlights the huckleberry and pear flavors in this gourmet blue, and the grape leaves' tannins balance the savoriness, fruitiness and saltiness of the cheese.
    Last year's Rogue River Blue is available now, but before you tear into it, consider that the leaves you peel off represent someone's exacting toil.
    For that matter, the next time you open a bottle of local wine, why not first toast the nameless vineyard worker who spent almost a year caring for vines that cling to slopes nicknamed "cardiac hill," or unprintable words, in the wet, fog and heat until finally harvest was over and winter work began. Here's to them.
    TASTED: Moose Munch with your merlot? Chocolate cherries with your chardonnay? Harry & David has hired winemaker Linda Donovan of Pallet Wine Co. in Medford to make nine different wines from grapes grown mostly in the Rogue Valley. Chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir, priced from $15 to $35, will be available to taste and buy starting at a celebration Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 27-28, in Harry & David Country Village, 1314 Center Drive, Medford.
    EVENT: Now that the weather is sending us a message that warm nights don't last forever, tasting rooms and wine retailers are pulling the fun inside. Call your favorite wine spot to ask what they're doing for Halloween and the chilly nights ahead. If you wear a costume at Pacific Wine Club in Medford Friday, Oct. 26, the $10 tasting fee for six wines is severed in half.
    Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@mailtribune.com
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