Volunteer pickers work for a free meal and a taste of the fruits of the harvest
In the cool of the morning they arrive, smiles on their faces and energy in their steps. They pick up clippers from a basket on the shady veranda and head to the field. Except for the hum of the passing traffic and the rustle of the grapevine leaves, the arbor has been quiet. But that soon will change.
In the next four hours about 100 volunteers will have harvested 18,000 pounds of grapes and they will head back to "The Vineyard Room" for their reward a buffet dinner and all the wine they can drink at Holy-Field Vineyard and Winery. The vineyards are about eight miles east of Tonganoxie on U.S. Highway 24-40.
Michelle Meyer Havey, one of the owners of the vineyard, distributes bushel baskets to those in the group and instructs everyone to start on the ends of the rows and work their way inward, clipping grapes as they go.
"Once you hit your neighbor, then you're done," she said.
Volunteers who on a recent Sunday ranged in age from 2 to 73 picked up five-gallon buckets and disappeared into the vines.
Sha Eppley, Tonganoxie, wore a long white cotton dress, sneakers and a baseball cap as she worked. Her husband, Chris, clipped large bundles of green grapes nearby. This was their first working visit to the vineyard, she said.
The best part about the experience, she said, was "it makes you appreciate what goes into making a bottle of wine."
Nearby, Susan White, Lenexa, stood on tiptoe to reach the grapes.
"The biggest challenge of doing this is the height of the grapes, and the twisted vines," she said. "I feel like I haven't made as much ground as I did the first time."
"It's a lot harder than you expect it to be," White said. "You start out thinking you'll just walk along and take the grapes off the vine, but there's more to it."
White held up her gloved hands, showing large slices through the cloth of both thumbs. She said if it weren't for the gloves, she would have cut her hands.
"Sometimes it's hard to see where you're cutting to know where the grapes are attached to the vine."
Havey nears, cell phone, clippers and knife attached to a belt around her waist.
"These are the people to talk to," she says about White and her friends. "They've been here before and they've picked all the gold medal-winning wine."
"Does that mean I get a free bottle of wine?" White quipped.
Havey explains that this year one of the wines, the Seyval, won the gold medal at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition.
More than 2,100 wines were judged. Holy-Field wines won 21 international awards this year in different competitions.
Volunteers harvested most grapes for all of the wines on "Picking Sundays," Havey said. This tradition evolved from customers' questions about the vineyards.
The vineyard itself evolved as a project begun by Havey and her father, Les Meyer.
"Dad and I started planting grapes in the late 1980s," she said. "We didn't start out with 13 acres."
Today the winery, which opened in December 1994, hosts about 10,000 vines, which are expected produce an estimated 5,000 gallons of wine this year.
But it's not the volume that matters, Havey said.
"On a lot of our different varieties we could let them produce a lot more, but we don't because that would hurt the quality. The most important part of making good wine is to have good fruit to work with."
And of course, hands to harvest the grapes are imperative. Grape harvest is labor-intensive, she said. "You can't pick the grapes with a combine."
Grape-pickers come in all ages. A year ago, Donna Schoellkopf, Kansas City, Kan., brought her two granddaughters, then 3 and 2 years old, to pick grapes. The weather was not conducive.
"It was pouring down rain, so we made raincoats out of trash bags and off we all went," she said.
This year she returned with the granddaughters and her mother and daughters.
When a truck laden with grapes backed up to the crushing site, it was greeted by Les Meyer and his shock of white hair and beard, a red bandana tied around his head. He deftly unloaded the containers of grapes from the truck, and turned them over to volunteers who poured the grapes into the crushing machine. As stems fell out of one end of the machine, grape pulp moved through transparent hoses toward the presses where the juice was squeezed from the pulp.
From there the winemaking process continued as the juice traveled by hose to vats in the wine cellar.
"I'm happy today," Meyer said. "They're doing a wonderful job of picking, and the sugars are above where they're supposed to be."
The pickers are starting to trickle in from the field, a few at a time, anticipating the buffet lunch the winery offers to volunteers. Meyer, too, looks forward to the meal. "The fun part will start in about 15 minutes when we go inside to eat," he said.
Taking a moment from his work with the presses, Meyer holds an empty wineglass and catches a glassful of juice as it comes out of the presses. He offers a taste to guests, then tips the glass to his lips.
"Ahhhhh," he says, "This will make good wine. The grapes did their job. Now it's up to us to do ours."
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