PORTSMOUTH — Spending a morning picking grapes with the Sakonnet River serving as a picturesque backdrop sure beats working, said Jim Rugh.
“It gives you a chance to do something that gets you back to earth,” said Mr. Rugh, an insurance agent by trade who was wearing his official “Got Wine?” picking hat at Greenvale Vineyards Monday. “Too many people are sedentary in the office; this gets you out.”
Mr. Rugh was one of about 30 volunteers who spent part of Columbus Day harvesting grapes along with Greenvale’s own pickers.
“We have a pickers’ list with 350 to 400 names that we’ve been accumulating for the past 15 years,” said Nancy Parker Wilson, general manager of vineyard, which is part of a farm that’s been in her family since 1863. “There are usually 15 (harvest) days over a two-month period. We’ve called volunteers each time because the weather has been so good.”
Hurricane Sandy shortened the harvest season last year, “but the year before that we picked until Nov. 15,” she said.
Mr. Rugh, who’s been volunteering his services at Greenvale for six years, said the weather has been great this year for volunteers. “This is the fourth time I’ve been out (this year),” he said. “Like they say at Twin Rivers, ‘Let it ride.’”
On harvest days, volunteers check in at 8 a.m. before donning gloves (the grapes are sticky). They’re asked to commit to a minimum of four hours.
“She won’t pay you if you don’t,” quipped Mr. Rugh.
That’s right. Volunteers are compensated — just not in cash.
“They get paid in wine, based on $8 an hour,” said Ms. Wilson. “A bottle of Skipping Stone (Greenvale’s blend of 90 percent Cayuga grapes and 10 percent Vidal Blanc) is almost $16, so that’s two hours.”
On Monday, volunteers were working the rows of Chardonnay, which are among the eight acres of grapes under cultivation at Greenvale. Ms. Wilson’s parents, Cortlandt and Nancy Parker, first started to grow grapes for Sakonnet Vineyards in 1982. Besides the Chardonnay, Greenvale also grows Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, Cayuga, Pinot Gris, Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec. (The farm also has cortland apple trees, which Ms. Wilson’s grandfather planted in the 1930s.)
“We’re meeting all the pickers’ grandchildren now, we’ve been at this for such a long time,” said Ms. Wilson, who guessed that about six tons of fruit would be picked that day. “We had a funny fruit set in June, so our yields are a little bit off from what they might normally be because it was so wet and cold. They’re self-polinating plants, and some of those little flowers didn’t turn into grapes. They like the sun, they like dry.”
The farm has to account for off years by supplementing its business with “value-added” products such as live jazz, tastings and special events, she said. “Last year our yield in the Pinot Gris was 11 tons, and this year our yield is one and a half tons. So you have those kind of fluctuations when you’re farming,” she said.
But just because this year’s yield is down doesn’t mean that next year’s wine will be second-rate. “Oh, it’s going to be delicious. The flavor in the grapes is very yummy,” said Ms. Wilson.
After the harvest, winemaker Richard Carmichael, who’s been with Greenvale since 1997, will receive the grapes at Newport Vineyards.
“He will put them through the de-stemmer/crusher and press them out,” said Ms. Wilson. “The juice gets put into a tank where it settles and it will be fermented and aged in oak barrels. Then it just sits there. Richard will test the barrels every once in a while to make sure there isn’t something funny happening — some wild yeast fermentation or some bacteria that’s creating a bad flavor — and then he’ll put it all in tanks and have it stabilize for another three or four weeks before it gets into a bottle.”
Ms. Wilson points to a large container of Chardonnay grapes at her feet. “We’ll bottle that in June,” she said.
Tender loving care
Caring for the grapes is very labor-intensive.
“Each one of these vinifera plants are touched 17 times a year. We’ve got 24,000 plants,” said Ms. Wilson, noting that pruning, identifying the vines, tying them to catch wires, bud-thinning and shoot-thinning are among the many tasks. “Our biggest battle is with mold and mildew, and we have an infestation always in June for beetles.”
Picking all of the grape clusters and “getting some of the bad stuff out” is key, said Ms. Wilson’s 20-year-old son, Parker, who was helping out Monday. (He’ll get cash over wine, his mom said.)
“I have pictures of him picking at 3,” she said. “He would come with me, every Saturday and Sunday, out here. It would be Parker and me.”
For whatever reason, Malbec is the toughest grape to grow at Greenvale.
“We have a heck of a time with the Malbec and I don’t know why. We’ve got a quarter acre of it that may bring in a quarter of a ton,” she said. “The Chardonnays do really well and the hybrids are so delicious. And the cab franc does great.”
Anyone who’s seen the 2004 movie “Sideways” knows how the main character, played by Paul Giamatti, waxed poetic about his favorite variety of wine, Pinot Noir. After the film was released in 2004, sales of Pinot Noir increased substantially in the United States.
You won’t find Pinot Noir at Greenvale, but it’s not for lack of trying. The vineyard first attempted growing Pinot Noir grapes in 1983. “We were just getting into this thing and it’s a very high-maintenance grape. We were sort of non-high-maintenance people and we weren’t ready to deal with that,” she said.
Luckily, a nursery from the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York had mistakenly sent eight rows of Cabernet Franc along with the Pinot Noir. “And they flourished. So we pulled out the Pinot Noir and replaced it with the cab franc. The whole region is growing Cabernet Franc because of that,” said Ms. Wilson, who didn’t rule out the vineyard trying to grow Pinot Noir again at some point.
“Sideways” still ended up benefitting the vineyard, however. “We actually got a lot of business because of that,” said Ms. Wilson. “They came in looking for Pinot Noir and I would say, ‘No, but we’ve got this …’”
Volunteers are always welcome on harvest days at Greenvale, and no experience in necessary. For more information, visit www.greenvale.com.
Check out a gallery of photos from Monday’s harvest and wine tasting below.