Cultivating a Community: Celebrating Virginia Wine Month in the Valley

When I heard that local vineyards were getting volunteers to come out early on Saturday mornings to harvest grapes, I thought that this was the most amazing account of “Tom Sawyering” that I had ever heard.  Instead of whitewashing a fence, the entire vineyard industry has convinced laymen to give up their Saturdays in order to perform manual labor. What makes this more astonishing is that these volunteers will not even be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, quite literally, for another year or two until the grapes are pressed, fermented, aged, and then released as wine to the public.

Writer and wine enthusiast Keili Rae, her fiance Jeremy Gunden, and other volunteer grape harvesters have completely proven me wrong. Keili and Jeremy went out to Bluestone Vineyard in Bridgewater to pick grapes several times this fall. “It made me want to trade in my cubicle for a vineyard, even after ten hours of sweating in the sun,” Keili told me.

Jeremy and Keili harvesting grapes at Bluestone Vineyard. Photos courtesy of Keili Rae.

She did admit that there were a few negatives to picking grapes, though. “I saw things I didn’t want to see, like spiders and fruit flies,” she said. “But I have a whole new appreciation for the sheer hard work that goes into making wine. I’m already looking forward to helping out with next year’s harvest!”

Keili has already started expressing her wine appreciation by co-founding the website with Jeremy earlier this year. The site provides profiles of Virginia vineyards and wineries, information about each of Virginia’s wine regions, and basic wine facts that make the complexities of wine easy for anyone to understand. Now their time volunteering at Bluestone Vineyard, with wine maker Lee Hartman, has given them some additional insight, not just into wine tasting, but into a crucial part of the wine-making process as well.

Keili tasting some wine in preparation for writing her next vineyard profile for Virginia Wine Nose. Photo courtesy of Keili Rae.

When I asked Lee how he felt harvest went at Bluestone Vineyard this year, he said he was initially concerned about those few weeks of rain the Valley had late in the summer. Late season rain can negatively impact the natural sugar level in the grapes and can dilute flavor. Rain can also put grapes at risk of fungus and disease. Luckily for Bluestone Vineyard, those rainy days were closely followed by several sunny days, which Lee said especially helped the reds reach the necessary quality levels to make a very nice vintage. After such a close call with the weather, Lee is relieved that harvest is over and he can now focus on the wine production.

Showing off  some grape-harvesting handiwork at Bluestone Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Bluestone Vineyard.

Wisteria Farm and Vineyard in Stanley recently finished its harvest as well. “We were able to harvest our grapes at their peak with the help of all our great volunteers,” owners Moussa and Sue Ishak said after they picked the last of their Norton grapes. Moussa commented that spring freezes meant that, while production is down from last year and the summer drought that followed provided some challenges, in the end, “the grapes are much nicer than last year and we were able to achieve the desired sweetness for a great wine!” 

Volunteers at Wisteria Farm and Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Wisteria Farm and Vineyard.

CrossKeys Vineyards in Mount Crawford is not that far from Wisteria, but experienced opposite weather problems. “A warm spring facilitated a slightly early bud break at the start of the growing season,” Kelly Mattran, Tasting Room Manager at CrossKeys Vineyards, told me. An early start to the growing season will probably mean an early harvest. “Heavy rains in September moved the picking process along more quickly,” said Kelly. In the end, with the help of staff, volunteers, and a vineyard crew, they successfully brought in fruit from all 18.3 acres of their vineyard, giving Head Wine Maker Stephan Heyns plenty of great fruit to work with for the 2012 vintages.

Volunteers at CrossKeys Vineyards sorting the grapes that were just picked. Photo courtesy of CrossKeys Vineyards.

Randy Phillips, owner and wine maker of Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mount Jackson, always stresses about the weather before harvest, but then seems to find that, despite the worry, things always work out each year. “Every year is different,” he said. “There was excellent quality in the fruit harvested overall, but the Syrah did particularly well.” Randy is very appreciative of all of the friends of Cave Ridge Vineyard who volunteered their time in order to better understand where the wine they drink comes from. 

Volunteers with owner Randy Phillips at Cave Ridge Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Cave Ridge Vineyard.

All of the vineyards I spoke with love harvest volunteers because they truly enjoy sharing their passion for wine with others. Vineyards are a great place to build your wine knowledge and socialize with the local community. And in the end, that is really what community is all about – growing, working, and learning together. Though sharing a glass of wine with friends at the end of a hard day’s work never hurts.

Cave Ridge Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Cave Ridge Vineyard.

Wines from Cave Ridge Vineyard, Bluestone Vineyard,  CrossKeys Vineyards, and Wisteria Farm & Vineyard are on sale by the glass and bottle at Wine on Water in downtown Harrisonburg.

Katrina Hudy is the Manager of Wine on Water in downtown Harrisonburg and a member of the HDR Promotions Committee.


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