As dawn breaks each morning this time of year, millions of grapes glisten with dew like clusters of jewels hanging heavy in the vast vineyards. These canary diamonds and amethysts are waiting, just waiting to be plucked and appreciated.
And they will be. In the northern hemisphere, September through October is when these jewelry store owners fling open their doors for the thousands of volunteers who relish the chance to participate in wine harvest season.
The bounty of future fine beverages stems from vineyards all across the United States — not only in what most of us consider wine country: Sonoma and Napa valleys in California.
Hundreds of volunteers stream toward vineyards in Kansas too.
Planting the first vines in 1986 and opening to the public in 1994, Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery in Basehor, Kansas, is the oldest vineyard in the Midwestern state. Michelle Meyer and her dad, Les Meyer, care for 17 vineyard acres to produce 10 native American and French hybrid varieties of grapes: Seyval, Chardonel, Melody, Vignoles, Valvin Muscat, St. Vincent, Chambourcin, and Cynthiana are a few. Those grapes transform into 15 wines.
Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery has been invited to The Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition 17 times, and has returned with a trophy for a winning wine seven times, including its Valvin Muscat 2014 Kansas vintage at the North American competition in 2015. People can purchase or enjoy the wine onsite at the tasting room and gift shop, vineyard room banquet hall, and wine deck and gazebo. The cellar below the tasting room is where the just-picked wine grapes are de-stemmed, pressed, clarified, filtered, and fermented, but it's the activity beforehand that earns all the buzz.
"Wine harvest season, being out in the beautiful fields: This is what people like to talk about," Michelle Meyer says. "This is when you make wine. This is your big hurrah, your payday."
Of course, a farmer's schedule is always dependent on the weather, so that harvesting window expands or contracts accordingly. "We've been picking since August 21, and we're about to be packing it up soon," Michelle Meyer says. "The beauty of this field is that they don't get ripe at the same time. About every week, I've been devoted to picking a different variety."
The timing of the harvest is one of the most important decisions a grower or winemaker can make each year, because when you pick the grape determines the sugar levels and pH balance. Across the U.S., the harvest window is generally the same, but there's a slight difference of a few weeks.
In Kansas, harvesting usually starts in mid-August (once it was mid-July) and lasts through the end of September, sometimes through first two weeks of October.
The East Coast, such as New York and Virginia, starts a little late because of more moderate temperatures. In the Niagra region on the Canadian border, people pick a lot later, into December and January when it's really cold. They're making ice wine so they have to wait for the grapes to freeze on the vine. On the West Coast, they pick their sparkling-white-wine grapes earlier than Meyer picks her grapes because the western growers want a higher acidity.
According to Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, authors of the New York Times best seller Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine and founders of the online Wine Folly publication, the most well-known grapes have a typical harvesting order in the northern hemisphere, including the U.S. and Europe:
Reds: Pinot Noir
Whites: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Whites: Chenin Blanc and Viognier
Reds: Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz
In the southern hemisphere — namely South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand — the order is similar, but it happens between February and April.
On Sept. 23, Meyer gathered 112 registered volunteers to help her the following day, a day earlier than planned, because of a threatening rain storm.
"Rain can dilute the sugars and can promote fungus disease if I let them hang another week. So they're coming off, and oh, God they're so pretty," Meyer says.
People love to help harvest their local vineyard every year — sometimes every week — during the season, she says. Others travel from afar to pick grapes as a fun family activity. Meyer lets the volunteers sample the fresh juice."You're tasting the freshest grape juice you're ever going to taste," she says.
They tour the winery and cellar, where the wine is immediately processed. Each volunteer receives a commemorative T-shirt and a big lunch after their morning's work. Children who find the wine fairies hidden among the vines get a prize-winning front place in line for lunch. At Thanksgiving time, Meyer mails each volunteer a photograph showing him or her working in the vineyard.
Grapes must be picked early in the cool of the morning before the day warms up. "The minute they're picked, they're going to start deteriorate, so we're always done by noon; you can pick nine tons in three hours or less," Meyer says. You want to process them while they're cool and still coated with their native yeast. Some grapes are thin-skinned, and if the berries break, growers don't want them sitting around in the heat.
Because Meyer is working with volunteers, the start time is a reasonable 8 a.m. Each person receives a pruner and a big plastic bucket because the whole vineyard is always hand-harvested. Afterwards, she serves the volunteers a big lunch.
"This is the general public. They're not farmers; they're coming for the agricultural experience," Meyer says. "It really gives people an understanding of the agriculture behind wine. People think about the packaged product. If you can give somebody the experience of bringing it in, that's pretty cool. They like it. I couldn't do it in a timely fashion without my volunteers. It's a win-win."
People often want to buy a bottle of wine made from the grapes they picked. Naturally.
So Myer sends an email out to all her volunteers and customers that, say, a 2016 vintage of a certain grape is coming out. A white wine can be ready within four to six months, sometimes by Christmas. Holy-Field's white wines are fruit-forward, aromatic and are not oak-aged. "That's just a style choice," Meyer says.
The vineyard's red wines can be ready in about two years, because they're barrel-aged in American or French oak first, and then bottle-aged. They also have port wines and some sweet wines that pair well with spicy foods.
Holy-Field's Tailgate Red is one of their best-selling wines. It's a light, fruity, semi-sweet red wine. It's a great gateway into red wine, Meyer says. In her experience, Meyer has noticed that many people like to talk about dry wine because that's what they think is the "right" kind of wine, but they really like fruitier wines. Midwestern reds typically have a higher acidity, she says.
"The beauty of going to a winery is you get to taste something local and find something you like," Meyer says. "I always encourage people to drink local. There's so much out there, you're never going to taste it all. Try something new."
— Images: Pixabay.
Amy Sowder is a New York City-based food and fitness writer who's also on Chowhound's editorial staff. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Ice cream is a strong motivation for her running habit. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.