Bringing In the Harvest
By Marie Morganelli
Standing at the conveyor belt, I’m trying to keep my balance. It’s a brisk 55 degrees inside the winery. Gloves on, sweatshirt tied around my waist at the ready, I stare intently at the endless supply of grapes coming down the line. I do my best to grab every stem, leaf, bit of debris, and even a confused stinkbug or two, so that only the ripe merlot grapes make it into the vat.
I’m so intensely focused – I must win! I must not let anything by! The integrity of the wine depends on me! – I sometimes forget that others surround me, each of us intently focused on the same task.
Someone finally breaks the silence: “I feel like we’re Lucy and Ethel with the chocolates!” We all get the reference. The winery staff smiles politely, never saying out loud what I can only guess they were thinking: that they inevitably hear that from someone every single time.
Until I experienced sorting grapes for myself, I never would have thought that standing at a table picking out leaves and bugs for hours at a time would be fun. Now that I have spent the better part of a week helping to bring in the harvest, I can honestly say this was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
I knew I had made the right decision to volunteer the moment I turned onto the long gravel driveway leading to the winery. Hanging a right past the Crow Vineyard & Winery sign, the corn fields gave way to a compact farm, complete with grain silos, a cattle barn, a smart-looking farmhouse (that doubles as a B&B) and a farm dog named Myrtle waiting to make my acquaintance.
Co-owner Judy Crow was there to greet me as well, with a smile and an offer of coffee and breakfast. I declined both, and she led me to a bucket of clippers, told me to pick out my preferred pair, and showed me how to clean them.
I, and the small handful of other volunteers who had gathered, hopped onto a waiting Gator. Judy transported us to our first harvest station while Myrtle gamely trotted along behind us. We quickly got to work. It was time to harvest the merlot grapes and there were many rows ready to come in off the vine.
In the Vineyard
Harvesting grapes is pretty straightforward. The vines were heavy with grapes, so we simply clipped off the bunches and gently tossed them into the waiting bins, known as lugs.
Clip, toss, clip, toss. Sometimes I stood, other times I kneeled, depending on where the grapes were hanging along the vine. One smart volunteer brought a small portable folding stool to move with him as he cleared section after section.
We worked in companionable silence as we filled the lugs, leaving just enough room at the top so they could be stacked without crushing the grapes.
Of the two days that I spent picking grapes, day one was much quieter. One person wore headphones as she worked, but most of us did not. I loved the sound of nothing at all. Sometimes I would hear the wind pick up and rustle through the leaves. Once, a flock of geese flew by. As if on cue, we all stopped clipping, stood in unison, looked up, and watched the geese fly over our heads.
By day two, with mostly the same group of people, our silence gave way to easy conversation. Several of us had a connection with Italy, due to our heritage (the winemaker), citizenship (me), or having lived there for many years for work (a fellow volunteer). In breaks of conversations about Italy and wine, winemaker Mike, a trained opera singer, would serenade us with snippets from Italian operas.
Getting my hands dirty
After leaving a career where my days were filled with computer screens and emails, the opportunity to literally get my hands dirty while doing meaningful work meant a lot. My hands wound up covered with grape juice after both harvesting grapes and sorting them. The rest of me didn’t get that dirty, though if it had, I wouldn’t have minded the mess. I enjoy a good dirty job, and always have.
Perhaps it’s this connection with the land that the concept of terroir is all about more so than the land itself. The vineyard manager, Brandon, has the responsibility of learning the viticulture, but anyone can – and should – learn the value of simply putting their hands in the dirt and working the land. I am convinced that knowing how you are directly connected to your food and drink that you helped create makes it taste even better.
All in the family
Crow Vineyard and Winery is a family affair. Owned and operated by Roy and Judy Crow and son Brandon, they also have a small yet dedicated staff. Over the course of the four days that I spent there, I asked pretty much everyone how long they had worked there. With the exception of one woman who had just started the week before, the staff has been there for years. That’s a sign that what I saw on the outside – that Judy treats everyone like family, while also being a shrewd businesswoman – is what keeps things running behind the scenes, too.
We finished sorting the last of the Malbec quicker than expected. We credited the hearty grapes for that, making our work faster by being easier to sort. I was the last volunteer still on the line, and offered to help if there was anything else that I could do. “Are you sure?” asked Judy, somewhat incredulously. “All we have left to do is clean.”
“You’ll get wet and probably covered with grape juice,” Brandon warned.
“No problem,” I said. “Happy to help.”
Brandon handed me a hose and I got to work. I spent several hours helping team members scrubbing, rinsing, and stacking the seemingly endless supply of lugs that will get stored away until next year’s harvest.
I’ll be ready to get my hands dirty then, too.
Marie Morganelli writes about travel, personal finance, higher education, and lots of other things. You can read more of her work at http://www.precisewords.org.