The physical labor that goes into winemaking: Uncork the Forks

The 2015 teroldego harvest at Southold Farm and Cellar. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

The 2015 teroldego harvest at Southold Farm and Cellar. (Credit: Lenn Thompson)

Two weeks after I spent the better part of a day picking and processing grapes at Southold Farm+Cellar, parts of my body still ache. Yes, that’s a commentary on my present level of physical fitness — and no one would ever suggest that picking grapes is work meant for someone who stands 6 feet, 3 inches — but it’s also a reminder of all of the hard work that goes into the wines we love drinking so much.

Most people picture the life of a winemaker as an artistic, romantic one spent walking through vineyards, examining the grapes, perhaps plucking one from the vine to taste it before returning to the winery to taste wines and blend them before bottling.

Those things do happen, of course, but the reality is far different. Most of our local wineries are farms — and farming means hard, physical labor, long hours and sore bodies.

I try to volunteer as a harvest worker at least once a year, partly because I like seeing for myself how healthy the fruit is (or isn’t), but also because it lets me feel like a part of the local winemaking community in a way I couldn’t otherwise. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who do this for a living offers me just a taste of what their lives are like, but that taste is important to me.

It’s also incredibly humbling work. This year I was joined in the vineyard by a handful of other volunteers and a crew of five Latino vineyard workers. In the time it took the amateurs to pick roughly three of the 20 rows of grapes, the five professionals picked the rest. It always amazes me to see how quickly they work and how much better they are at it than laptop jockeys like me.

Immigrant vineyard and cellar workers really are the backbone of this industry. Too few people get to see and appreciate their contributions. Without them, you’d not be drinking what you’re drinking.

Harvest season isn’t just hard work; it’s chaotic, too. Vineyard managers and winemakers may try to schedule picks and map out what grapes or juice are going into which tanks or barrels, but things rarely work out as planned. Weather changes. Diseases flare up in the vineyard. Logistical challenges present themselves.

Southold Farm+Cellar co-owner Regan Meador was excited to have a group of volunteers to pick the North Fork’s first teroldego crop. He was looking forward to picking himself. But he’s making his wines under a tent at Lenz Winery and he had to spend most of the day there, pressing earlier picks off of their skins, shoveling the leftover pomace out of bins, cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning, and trying to figure out where the four bins of teroldego we were picking would fit. The glamorous life of a winemaker, indeed.

That’s not to say that it’s all hard work. This is a passion-filled business, too. There is a romantic side to it all.

In a year or so, when Regan, his wife, Carey, and their family release their first estate-grown teroldego, it will be an important first for them — one of many culminations of all their time and effort.

My family will feel a connection to that wine as well. I helped pick the grapes and I dumped nearly all of them into the destemmer myself — because being too tall for picking meant I’m just the right size for lifting the grapes up into the machine.

Southold Farm+Cellars 2015 Teroldego — which will have a fanciful name like all their other wines — will also be a tangible reminder of a day spent with my 8-year-old son, who worked harder that day than I ever imagined possible. He picked. He cleaned. He moved lugs (the bins that hand-picked grapes go into for transport) on and off the tractor. He talked everyone’s ear off with a million questions about every step of the process. And, most surprising of all, he didn’t complain. I think he loved it, actually. I’ve never been more proud of him.

I hope he’ll volunteer with me again next year. My sore muscles should recover by then.

Lenn Thompson