Sepia-toned movies like French Kiss, Sideways and A Good Year paint a romantic image of life on a vineyard. Who wouldn’t want to abandon beige office cubicles for sunny rows of grape vines? Or exchange suit pants for jeans? After a blissful five-day stay at Antigua Residencia, a lovely hostel on a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, I decided I needed to see for myself.
I contacted (read: cyber stalked) Stinson Vineyards in Crozet, Virginia about volunteering for a couple days during harvest season. A family-run operation, Stinson is an eco-friendly boutique vineyard at the foot of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. As I pulled up the gravel drive, past the old farmhouse overlooking the colorful fields beyond, it was as if life was imitating cinematic art. I quickly shot my boyfriend a text insisting we buy a vineyard.
Two days later, exhausted and sore, I had a hell of a lot of respect for vintners and a much more realistic view of what it actually takes to produce a perfectly balanced bottle of wine. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the dream of replacing office retreats for harvest parties. As Ben Franklin said, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”
Rain, frost, sunshine, humidity and temperature are just a few of the things to contend with while managing a vineyard. All affect the quality of the wine and Mother Nature can be a real banshee. Healthy soil, grape type, the fermentation process, and even the way the grapes are crushed affect how the final product turns out. When you harvest is just as important and unfortunately you don’t always have control over that either. I learned the most coveted commodity a vintner can have is a reliable harvesting team. With so many factors to consider and elements outside your control, it’d be easy to become a Type A stress case, but what’s the fun in that? A cool head, a steady hand, and a healthy dose of perspective are what’s required.
No sooner had one of the volunteers sliced his hand open with a pair of harvesting shears then the horror stories began. A local guy had snipped his thumb straight off with his clips, a wine maker at a neighboring vineyard caught his arm in a malfunctioning de-stemmer while trying to clean it, and apparently there is a disturbingly high number of people falling into giant vats of fermenting grapes and suffocating from the overwhelming C02 levels. It made me really appreciate the celebratory glass of wine we had at the end of a long day.
I once read a job description that required applicants to be able to stand, walk, use their hands, reach, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, sit, climb, balance and regularly lift 10-25 pounds. It was for an office manager position. The day after harvesting the merlot and the malbec, my back, arms and legs were on fire. From hauling lugs to cleaning out giant vats, wine making is not for the sluggish.
The hardest part for me was “punching down,” a glamorous activity that refers to the breaking up and pushing down the solid mass of grape skins, stems and seeds — called the cap — that rise to the top of the vats during fermentation. This helps the wine have a richer color and flavor. You take a long stick with an X on the end and punch through the cap repeatedly a few times a day. By the end, I resembled Carrie on prom night.
After I finished Mrs. Gray’s 10th grade chemistry class, I swore I’d never take another. Thankfully my varied career as a failed actress, waitress, fundraiser, digital strategist and communications nerd never required it. Walking into the wine lab at Stinson Vineyards was like hopping a time machine back to high school science class. There were beakers piled in the large sink, bottles of chemicals, a Bunsen burner, and stacks of binders with figures and measurements neatly recorded. The process of making wine involves a chemical reaction in which sugars are turned to alcohol and carbon dioxide because of the presence of yeast. As it turns out wine making is all about chemistry.
While it was wildly exciting to try wine making, there was a lot of monotony. Harvesting grapes involves repetition. Day one was the systematic removal of grapes from the vine. Grab bunch of grapes, clip off at the stem, drop into lug, repeat. Day two was de-stemming. While the de-stemmer removes most of the stems from the cluster of grapes, there are thousands of smalls ones that make it through. Once the grapes pass through the de-stemmer, they land on a vibrating metal table that acts as a conveyer belt. Your job is to stand there and pick out as many of the stems as quickly as possible. While it may sound tedious, I’ll take that over updating an Excel spreadsheet any time.
By Abby Sugrue of Breakfast Included
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