On the Job: Wine Harvest Volunteer

By Wendy Hoke

Driving east toward Northeast Ohio’s wine country on an October morning one is facing heavy gray clouds that occasionally part to allow the sun to shine through. It’s harvest time for winegrowers, a labor-intensive activity that takes place over a few days. And that means volunteer opportunities for those who want a taste of working a vineyard.

Larry Laurello, Jr. and his wife, Kim own Laurello Vineyards, a boutique winery in Geneva that was established by Larry’s grandfather, Cosmo. Harvest time means counting on the generosity of neighbors and volunteers: on this crisp Sunday morning, the Laurellos have gathered friends, neighbors, and members of the St. John High School wrestling team, among others, to help harvest their grapes. Using their network of Facebook followers, newsletter subscribers and church, school and family friends, the Laurellos have convened a group of pickers to harvest the last of the Cabernet Franc. No experience needed; just bring gardening gloves, dress for outdoor weather (boots are recommended) and “be ready for some work, some play, and some food.”

The offsite vineyard where they grow Cabernet Franc and Pinot Grigio grapes in Conneaut sits on the crest of a hill, off a dirt road near Ashtabula County’s famous covered bridges. A smattering of political signs line the front lawns. It’s quiet this morning, but there’s a lot of activity at the farm as the harvest is underway.

Dave and Nancy Genger have owned the property for 20 years. “It’s a great day for picking,” Dave Genger says from his tractor. “It’s not too hot, so we won’t see a lot of bees. And the grapes won’t get too warm.” With no rain in sight, the assembled volunteers have nothing but the rows of vines awaiting them.

The group gathered early as the sun came up, hauling plastic crates for the fruit and armed with clippers. A quick primer on harvesting by Larry and they are set upon the rows of vines: when the rachis (the main stalk of a grape cluster) is red and the grapes are tightly bunched, you’re looking at two clues that the fruit is ready for harvest. By mid-morning, this crew of pickers, volunteers, neighbors and retirees, has already harvested half of the Cabernet Franc vines.

Dave Thompson lives less than a mile from the farm and this is his first year as a volunteer. “I retired as an electrician (General Electric) in Conneaut,” he says. “You’re never too old to learn and I find that working with friends and working outside is good for me – keeps me out of trouble,” he says with a chuckle.

Thanks to a call for volunteers via Facebook, the Laurellos have plenty of help, including about six members of the St. John High School wrestling team here with their coach and ready to do some community service. Coach Scott Blank says this is a great experience for the kids to learn something new.

A few hours into the morning, freshman David Cumberledge comes up for air. It’s hard work outside and he’s a bit sticky from clipping, “but it’s cool to be a part of this process. Larry (Laurello) helped us out a lot.”

Jim Cufr grew up on a farm and said he enjoys being outdoors. “I’ve always enjoyed drinking wine but I never had a concept of what goes into the making the wine,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from Larry and Kim.”

Climate, soil conditions, pH balance, acidity, the favorable impact of far-away hurricanes, all have an impact on the harvest and in the flavor of the wine. Today’s harvest will go to the crusher by afternoon and into fermenting tanks for two weeks before they get pressed and stored in barrels to age for at least two years.

Cufr and his wife, Ellen, who also is harvesting today, have just returned from Napa and Sonoma. They have become regulars on the harvest for Kim and Larry. “This is the third harvest volunteering,” says Ellen. “Laurello Vineyards is the place to be. They are super people.” Jim adds that, “the quality of their wine is so good,” rivaling some of what they’ve had in California.

There’s a quiet rhythm to the hum of conversation and the snip of clusters and the thunk as clusters hit the plastic tubs that line the rows. The coolness of the day is good news for anyone allergic to bees, including Kim Laurello. She is armed with an Epi-pen just in case.

“We’re a boutique winery,” she explains as she snips. “The smaller wineries like ours rely on volunteers to help with the harvest.” She maintains email lists and Facebook posts to make sure she’s got enough help and she’s grateful for the support. “It’s a lot like giving back to the community,” she says.

As the harvest begins to wind down, the wrestling team take the yellow, gray and green tubs of harvested grapes and dump them into large white plastic bins situated on the back of a trailer bed. Then the grapes will head to the crusher later.

But before they leave, Dave Genger grabs a grape from the bin and the refractometer from his coat pocket to measure the Brix – or sugar content – of the harvest. “If the sugar content gets above 20-21 on red wines, it will make a nice dry wine,” says Genger. The Brix measurement today is 22 to 23 – “very good,” he adds.

In thanks for their hard work, the Laurellos will host a hearty harvest dinner “something for them to remember the harvest,” says Kim. The experience has been a good one for this crew of volunteers.

Some of the volunteers already are saying they plan to be back again for the ice wine harvest in December.

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