Sunday, August 31, 2008

At Buckingham Valley, it's all hands on deck

Catching up to winery proprietors is about to get a whole lot more difficult. Harvest season will begin, in general, next weekend and continue until around the middle of October. It’s not quite that they’re setting up cots in the vineyards, but some days it might feel like that.

Jerry Forest and his family at
Buckingham Valley Vineyards in Buckingham, Pa., have been going through this ritual longer than just about anyone in the region. They planted five acres in 1966. A few years later, the winery was in operation. Today, they have 12 varieties of grapes planted over 20 acres of the 40-acre farm. So, go ahead, figure out how many bunches of grapes they’ve taken off the vine since their dream became a reality.

“Sure, its exciting,” he said a few days ago, responding to a question about the harvest. “It’s a lot of fun. And well, it’s damn hard work physically, but it’s just so rewarding that we enjoy it.”

The length of the season, he said, depends on a variety of factors, including “the year, the grapes the whole bit. It can be very variable. Nut what happens is, we have 150, 200 tons of grapes out there. And when they come ripe, when the PH and the acid and the color and the sugar are all in balance, we run out and pick ‘em. So we have to be ready almost any day for that five-week period. And in our case we also buy a lot of grapes from other vineyards, so a guy will show up here on a Sunday afternoon or Sunday evening with 10 tons of grapes and we’ve got to be ready to process them. Most of the other vineyards pick with volunteer labor, bicycle clubs and Boy Scouts and whatever they can find. In our case, we machine harvest. . . . We’re able to pick four to six tons an hour with one person picking, and that’s usually my son Jon, and we bring them in from the vineyard within minutes; sometime within five minutes of being picked the grapes are being processed because the vineyards are all around our house. We don’t take any machine-picked fruit from anywhere other than our place.”

Their harvest push really starts in July and August, as they bottle much of last year’s harvest to make room for this year. “That’s what we’re doing right now. We just bottled 2500 gallons of wine yesterday and today because we have to empty the tanks and make room for the new harvest. So everything we picked last year and even the year before, some of the reds, are now being put in bottles over the next couple of days or weeks. We have about 80,000 gallons in stainless storage tanks and by next week mot of them will be emptied, cleaned and readied for the new harvest.”

Forest noted that during the first decade or two of operation “we used to have 30 or 40 pickers out there, and they would pick all days long and we would gather up the grapes in the afternoon and we’d press way into the night.” Advancements in the process, and he said they’re using their sixth generation of a wine press, have considerably shortened the day. “Now we pick from 8 a.m. until 10 or 11, we press from noon to 3, and then we clean up and have dinner and we’re all done,” he said. “It’s totally different, a much more relaxed way of harvesting.”

Getting through harvest doesn’t necessarily mean that the work ends for Jerry, wife Kathy, and sons Jon, Kevin and Chris. Jerry said they’re spending time moving the wine from tank to tank, then making the Nouveau (a young, semi-dry red) and Nouvelle (a young, semi-dry white) that are bottled right before Thanksgiving and continue to be sold through what’s always a busy holiday season. “So January first or January second, we take a deep breath and we lay back a little,” Jerry said. “We traditionally over many years used to close in January and February, but we can’t do that anymore because [our clientele nowadays] expect us to be here. So now we’re open 12 months a year. We take off Mondays only. We go out to lunch on Monday.”

Nissley hit the mark with its finale

We like to sit far from the stage and just people watch. Two of these pictures show a long view of the wooded vista at around 6:30, an hour before the concert. The 30th anniversary Seyval Blanc, generally one we'll pass over in favor of the Vidal Blanc, went perfect with the snacks that we brought along. And we also opened a bottled of the Vidal, which never disappoints for two drinkers who much prefer their wine dry. Finally, a look at the stage once the sun fled the scene.
The concert that wasn't originally scheduled did all right for itself. Nissley Vineyards & Winery has originally planned just eight concerts as part of the 26th annual Music in the Vineyards series, but what owner Judy Nissley called popular demand prompted her to added a ninth event last night.

The weather, humid and cloudy all day, broke as if on cue, clearing and cooling by the time the band Flashback With Donna Mark made its Nissley debut ay 7:30. Not sure what others thought, but I'd bring them back in a heartbeat and the large crowd dancing on stage and out on the grounds would seem to support that view. They played a mix of music before the break, then stuck with the '70s for the second part of their show.

It was a small crowd compared to, say, last week. But Nissley, who hadn't planned the normal amount of advertising for this one, had said she would be happy with a more intimate group, the smaller numbers allowing for more room to dance. And that's pretty much how it unfolded. Now, it's on to harvest.