Grape harvest begins at 8 in the morning and ends at noon for volunteers at Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Paola, Kan. Pairs of volunteers work on each side of grapevine rows. Holding pruners in one hand, each person gently brushes aside lush leaves, cleanly cuts the tendril above the cluster of grapes and deposits the fruit in a lug, a plastic tub that holds 25 pounds.
From late August to late October at Somerset Ridge and wineries across Missouri and Kansas, volunteers help gather tons of fruit destined to become wine. Not only do the vineyards rely on and need the help, it’s also a way for customers to connect with a local product.
“Our volunteers are passionate, committed amateur harvesters that leave with a story to tell,” said Cindy Reynolds, who, with her husband, Dennis, planted Somerset Ridge’s first vineyards in 1998. “These are people that have been to our winery and are invested in our wine.”
It’s also a rewarding experience for the volunteers, said Jamie Shaw, a past volunteer at Somerset.
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“I took the opportunity to see how the process works. I felt like I was on a mission to clear a section and move on. There’s a sense of accomplishment and immediate gratification.”
Not only did Shaw learn how to prune grapes, but she also discovered how the staff actively maintains the vineyard.
“I gained an appreciation for the effort that goes into a family-run operation,” Shaw said. “You see how much work is involved year-round to care for the vines.”
Shaw also found kindred spirits with other volunteers. “The sense of community was strong and unexpected.”
Michelle Meyer and her father, Les Meyer, co-founded Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery in 1994 in Basehor, Kan. Harvest is a family-friendly event that “makes lots of memories” for volunteers.
“We have included volunteers in our harvest crew since 1994,” Michelle said. “We have guests that pick every year and sometimes every weekend.”
Holy-Field’s volunteers receive a harvest crew T-shirt.
“We have done T-shirts with a different theme every year since 1998,” Michelle said. “Returning guests often wear their T-shirts. It becomes a big competition to see who has the oldest harvest crew T-shirt.”
Richard Price has volunteered there since 1998.
“I volunteered the first time to have a different experience at a winery. … I go for the fellowship and camaraderie that has developed over the years,” Price said. “I take a group of 12 people with me each time I go. You meet people from all over Kansas and Missouri as you visit and pick. Holy-Field sends out cards to the group leader for the holidays and encloses enough pictures for the entire group.”
In Kansas City’s Northland, Vox Vineyards uses an average of 20 volunteers on a harvest day.
Vox winemaker Whitney Schmidt said the day starts with a vineyard tour and “ends with food, wine and a cellar tour.”
The Reynoldses rely on 60 to 100 volunteers at Somerset Ridge to harvest multiple varietals over five weekends. Up to 40 volunteers pick “strategic sections of grapes” during the week, depending on what grapes are ripe.
Volunteers work steadily as they chat and fill lugs. Volunteers and vineyard staff collect full lugs and empty them into half-ton bins on the trailer bed of a tractor that travels between rows. Full bins are then ferried to the crush pad.
“The bouquet of ripe grapes is metaphysical in the middle of the vineyard,” Dennis said. “It’s Zen-like. Like fly-fishing, you’re so focused on what you’re doing.”
Harvest is also a vital time that affects the bottom line of family-run agribusinesses. Grapes are harvested only once each year. An efficient harvest is important to maximize quality and yield. Juice from the pressed grapes will become a winery’s inventory of bottled wine for years to come.
Timing the picking
Knowing when to recruit volunteers for harvesting grapes is an inexact science. Like a long-range weather forecast, predictions by grape-growers and winemakers are subject to change.
“There’s a short window of time, a few days, to decide in advance when to harvest,” Cindy Reynolds said.
Rain, insects, wildlife and other factors may affect grape growth, depending on a winery’s location.
Hot, dry weather in late July looked promising for Somerset Ridge. In early August, the Reynoldses were less concerned with heavy rainfall in the Kansas City area than other wineries.
“The heavy stuff stayed north of what we like to call the ‘Louisburg split,’ ” Dennis Reynolds said. “We have been lucky all season (so far) to have dodged hail, heavy rains and wind north and south of us.”
Spring hail damaged leaf and bud growth at some area wineries. Rainfall and cool weather can delay ripening, the increase of desired sugar level and drop in acidity in grapes prior to harvest. Wet conditions may introduce grape black rot. This fungal disease can degrade a grapevine’s leaves, shoots, fruit stems, tendrils and fruit during hot, humid weather.
Dennis struck an optimistic note about this year: “We are preparing for an early harvest. One of the best years we’ve had.”
Veraison, a French term referring to the change of color in grapes, indicates the onset of ripening. In addition to this visual cue, grape growers and winemakers measure the degrees Brix, or sugar level, of a grape’s juices, with a refractometer. Harvest commences when a grape reaches the target level.
“We have a plan for each wine before harvest begins,” said Vox Vineyards’ Schmidt. “We’re looking for that sweet spot where the alcohol potential, acidity, pH, phenolics and aromatics are just right.”
After the morning harvest at Somerset Ridge, volunteers are treated to a hearty reward.
“We celebrate harvest with lunch and wine. It’s a European-style experience,” Cindy Reynolds said. “Chef Carmen Cabia of El Tenedor prepares a Spanish-style lunch for one harvest day. We work with chefs to prepare other harvest lunches. My mother, Kay Tucker, is a professional chef. She has prepared harvest lunches for many years using vegetables from our garden.”
Holy-Field Winery also treats volunteers to a homemade harvest lunch, such as brisket, fried chicken or other farm-style meals.
“Most weekends the meal includes some crop from our family garden, usually as salsa,” Michelle Meyer said. “We provide sangria for adults (21-plus) and juice for children, along with tea, water and lemonade. Guests visit the cellar to see the crush and pressing. They taste juice from the grapes they helped pick. It’s a fun agritourism experience for guests of all ages.”
Meanwhile, winery staff work steadily at the crush pad to weigh hefty bins. Then they feed clusters into a crusher/destemmer. The machine separates fruit from the stems. Any material other than grapes is sorted out by hand. Grapes are crushed and pressed as soon as possible on the morning of harvest. The pressed juice is piped into tanks, where the winemaking process will ensue in the months after harvest is complete.
“People are looking for an authentic local experience,” Cindy Reynolds said. “People are proud to live in the Midwest. By harvesting grapes, they understand this is a product that comes out of their soil. They understand that their effort in September results in our wines the following year.”
Pete Dulin is a Kansas City-based food and beverage writer who specializes in beer. His most recent book, “Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland,” was published by Arcadia Publishing in 2016.
How to volunteer
Call the winery to reserve a spot for a harvest date. Dates and times are subject to change.
On harvest day, wear sunscreen, bring a hat if desired and dress in layers for the weather. Bring gloves. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that can get dirty. Pruners are provided. When cutting clusters, don’t cut blindly through leaves. See what you’re cutting to avoid injury.
▪ Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery
29725 Somerset Road, Paola, Kan. 913-491-0038. somersetridge.com
Harvest dates: Sept. 16, Sept. 24. Additional dates to be scheduled. For harvest updates, visit the website and click on Newsletter Signup.
▪ Vox Vineyards
19310 N.W. Farley Hampton Road, #3, Kansas City. 816-354-4903. voxvineyards.com
Harvest dates: Oct. 14, 21 and 28, 8 a.m.-noon. Oct. 14 and 21, 1-5 p.m. To sign up, email email@example.com or sign up at the Tasting Room, 1099 Welt St., Weston.
▪ Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery
18807 158th St., Basehor, Kan. 913-724-9463. holyfieldwinery.com
Harvest dates: Aug. 27, Sept. 3, 10, 17, 24 and Oct. 1, 8 a.m.-noon. Call the winery to RSVP.