Harvest is a sensory experience much like wine tasting. The wine experience begins in the vineyard and the actual harvest itself is an immersive experience. Harvest days begin early when the pre-dawn sky is still blue-black. The Fence Stile team rises before daybreak, heads to the vineyard, and prepares supplies and equipment for the day's work. Most harvest volunteers are also up and on the way to the vineyard just as the sun rises.
Sight is perhaps the first of the senses engaged. The sun emerges over the horizon and pearls of morning dew glisten off the vines. A range of vibrant green hues signal the energy and vitality stored in the vines, canopy of leaves and grapes. The culmination of the season from winter dormancy to bud break in April to summer's lush growth leads to harvest day, when the grapes are finally ready to pick. Volunteers for the harvest party bring their own energy to jump start the day with camaraderie, greetings, and introductions. Participants gather for a glass of juice and instructions on where to pick, how to pick and the harvest plan for the day. Smiling faces of fellow volunteers and the Fence Stile team are evident as we prepare to embark on this communal experience. After all, beautiful clusters of plump, juicy and luscious grapes await on the vines, full, ripe and ready for picking.
Specific sounds are part of the experience as harvest commences. Each person takes a pair of clippers and buckets and walks to the end of a row of grapevines. Random bird noises screech and caw in the distance. These recorded predatory bird calls are played on a loop in the weeks leading to and during harvest in order to scare away birds that would feast on ripe grapes. Friendly conversations and banter begins as folks partner up to pick grapes on each side of a row. Everyone is partnered to help each other locate and pick grapes hidden behind leaves. Periodically, the Fence Stile team offer reminders to stay hydrated and work as a group throughout the early morning.
Located 2.6 miles from Downtown Excelsior Springs and 40 minutes from Kansas City, the vineyards lack the harsh, abrasive noises of the city. Perhaps a truck from a neighbor might rumble along the gravel road past the winery. For the most part, laughter and stories and perhaps the rustle of leaves in a breeze form the soundtrack to the morning. Conversation includes favorite memories of past harvests, sports scores, updates on kids and work and sometimes tips and tricks on picking are shared. Once in a while, the tractor growls as it rumbles along the row to move a macro bin filled with grapes. Harvesters ask questions about the grape, the kind of wine we plan to make, the season and if this year is better than previous years. We welcome all of the conversation and interest in sharing our passion – the transformation of grapes from the vine into wine in a glass. In fact, picking with our guests is one of our favorite thing to do. We get to know each harvest participant in a more meaningful way and relish the time spent with everyone. We could not complete harvest without each person that helps.
Scents of fresh-cut grass and sweet grapes fill the morning air mixed in with sunscreen and perhaps bug spray. As macro bins are filled, the aroma of ripe grapes builds. We can't help but try a few grapes. We taste these grapes throughout the season to see how the flavors are maturing. On the morning of harvest, the flavors explode with the promise of what will be in the glass. We encourage our harvesters to taste the grapes, taste the free-run juice on the crush pad and also taste wine from these same varietals so they can experience the transformation from grape to glass.
By late morning, everyone has some grape juice on them mixed in with a little sweat. We have a saying - if you don't want it in your glass, don't put it in your bucket! Everyone is very careful not to put MOG - material other than grape - into their bins. The vineyard team does a quick sort as buckets are emptied into the macro bins and then again when the bins are emptied into the crusher/de-stemmer. Harvesting is a hands-on activity!
By late morning, the shared communal experience from the vineyard moves into the tasting room for lunch, wine and more stories. The chef-prepared harvest lunch not only offers well-deserved sustenance after the morning's work, but also another sensory display of color, aroma, taste and texture. We often see phone numbers, pictures and stories exchanged over lunch and overhear plans of the next get together. The morning ends with "thank you" and hugs. No one seems to care that we are all sticky from the morning's labor. Sharing this experience with guests and harvest participants energizes the team during the afternoon. Within hours of picking grapes, the team on the crush pad starts the process of crushing, de-stemming and pressing grapes that will become the next vintage of wines to be shared over more stories.
Every vintage has a story. Each harvest is a part of that story reflected in the weather conditions before and during harvest, and the decisions made on harvest day to best preserve the inherent qualities in the juice of freshly-harvested grapes. Anyone who helps harvest has a deeper understanding of the wine when they visit the tasting room again and experience that particular vintage. We cherish having our guests become part of the story and look forward to the shared experience.
Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery
Brand and events manager, chef and cellar rat Pete Dulin documents wine, food and operations at Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery through writing and photography.