Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Whidbey Island Winery: Zen and the Art of Grape Harvesting

Autumn has blown in sunny rainy windy cloudy crazy here in the Pacific Northwest as usual. Orchards and vineyards are in full-on harvesting mode, and for some farms that means extra help is needed for short bursts. With many wineries in our region, opportunities to get in on the action are abundant.

I decide to connect with the spirit of my farming ancestors and sign up for this weekend's grape harvest at Whidbey Island Winery near Langley. We spend a morning picking grapes—then we get fed a catered lunch with all the wine we care to drink. I'm good with that. In fact, I'm great with that. I learned a few lessons along the way though.

Lesson #1: Check the ferry schedule—carefully. Duh. This should be a no brainer, right? I live so close to Puget Sound that I can often smell the salty sea air. I ride ferries a lot. Julie and Mary Ann arrive at my house at 6:45 (a 6:00 a.m. alarm is especially brutal on a Sunday morning). We pull into the Mukilteo ferry terminal for the 7:30 ferry. We’re first in line. For good reason. There is no 7:30 ferry on Sunday. We wait 40 minutes for the 8:00 ferry.

Elizabeth Osenbach, who owns the winery with her husband Greg, says of the turnout today, “It’s incredible. We couldn’t do this without the volunteers because we’re a small operation.” Last year I couldn’t get anyone to join me. This year five friends jump at my invite.

Elizabeth instructs our motley band of 20 volunteers to gather ‘round just outside their main building. “Welcome and thanks for coming!” Today we're picking Madeline Sylvaner, the primary grape in their fruity, fragrant Island White blend. We follow Elizabeth down to the lush green rows of grapes and get a quick lesson in harvesting. “A few moldy grapes are okay, but not if it’s over half the bunch.”

Lesson #2: If it rains the night before, bring your rain gear. Double duh. Rain pants and jackets are like a second skin to an outdoorsy Mossback between September and June. And grape leaves full of raindrops shed lots of moisture when you’re rooting around searching for grape clusters. My jeans get soaked.

Three hours pass quickly, and soon we’re hosing down the big plastic buckets and scraping mud off our shoes. Then we mill around patiently while Beth the caterer sets up the wonderful feast on the lawn. The lavish spread includes salads, fruit and cheese (it’s a winery after all!), black bean and chicken burrito fixin’s, and sweet Marion berry pie and brownies. The food is divine. Huge kudos to Beth ! An early fall windstorm knocked out power on Whidbey the day before, and she had to get up before dawn to prepare everything before our noon lunch. And of course the wine with lunch is fabulous

Lesson #3: Just pick grapes. (Okay, this is where the Zen comes in.) When you’re picking grapes, don’t fret about things like getting wet or losing a half an hour of sleep. Just pick. Breathe in the aroma of sweet ripe grapes and rich brown earth beneath your feet. Listen to the toad ribbets echoing from the forest behind the vineyard.
Enjoy the weight of a fat cluster of grapes dropping into your hand as they release from the vine with a thonk of your clippers. And know you’ll enjoy the fruits of previous year’s labors very soon with lunch. Salud!

When You Go
The bigger wineries mostly use paid labor for harvests, but smaller wineries often rely on volunteers. Check out the growers on the Washington State Wine Commission or Oregon Wine.org websites.


Suzan Huney said...

Hi Jill,
I'm enjoying your blog. Wish I had been at the grape harvest! Pictures are lush. Keep writing!

barronwagner said...

Everything Jill says is so true- I had the pleasure of going with Jill on her grape-picking adventure and luckily I did remember to wear my rain pants. Even so I had wet grape vines dripping on my head. But great fun and can't wait to do it again next year! -mab