When you drive past vines in a vineyard are you like me and wonder, “Who the heck picks all of those grapes at harvest time?” The answer depends (I guess) on the vineyard owners. All you have to do is ask or watch for announcements at harvest time to find out who does their picking. You may discover they solicit volunteers to help with the task.
If you’re up for a fun adventure, I’d recommend you check out the opportunities to volunteer for grape picking at River Bend Vineyard & Winery in Chippewa Falls, WI.
This year, we did just that – we volunteered to pick grapes (twice)!
Here is my review on our mornings harvesting grapes at the vineyard.
First a quick history – Back in 2009, River Bend Vineyard & Winery opened their tasting room in the Chippewa Valley. They have since become an award-winning winery. Rightfully so…their wine and spirits are awesome!
As their vineyard has grown over the years, owners Donna and Al have found creative ways to solicit volunteers to help with harvest time. When they announce their designated picking dates in the fall (spanning over a couple different weekend mornings) each day people from their customer base, friends and family eagerly show up to free grapes from the vines.
We were so excited to join as volunteers to help collect this year’s abundant crop of grapes. Both harvest days were a perfect combination – beautiful sunny fall day, a ready and willing crew of 40 something volunteers and tons (literally) of ripe grapes ready for the harvest.
We signed up for the event via Facebook and received an email from Al the day before to let us know what to expect weather wise and a few tips to prepare us for the day. He shared ideas on what to wear and what cautions to take (like bees). (Day 1 was unseasonably hot; Day 2 was much cooler. Gotta love September weather in Wisconsin – shorts & tank tops one weekend, jeans & jackets the next!).
Since it was hot on Day 1 we were pretty confident in our choice to wear shorts. When we arrived at the event we were surprised to see some of the other people wearing long pants…hmm…wonder why?
At 8:00 am we all went inside to the beautiful and welcoming tasting room where they treated us to breakfast – a wide array of sweet treats, juice, and coffee to get us prepped for the morning of picking (you know, just a little carb loading for energy!).Each day Donna greeted the group with a brief description of the morning’s events. She told us how much time it would take, what kind of grapes we’re helping harvest, what kind of wine they plan on making with the grapes and of course where in the vineyard we’d be picking.Afterward, we headed out to the designated harvest spots in the vineyard to meet one more time and hear a few more tips from Al. There we were given a pair of gloves to wear and a handy-dandy tool needed for plucking the grapes. They even had sunscreen, bug spray, and bottled water available if needed. Amazingly (even though it was my first time) I felt prepared for the task. Way to go Donna and Al for providing great instructions to help the volunteers feel well prepared!Check out the half-ton collection bins. Wow, they hold a lot of grapes! I had no idea how quickly the big bins would fill up.
To prevent injuries there were no pruning shears allowed for anyone. These grape forks worked surprisingly well.Harvesting partners were all assigned a row, one on each side of the vines, given a 5-gallon bucket each and told to work our way toward the winery building. When we got to the end of the row we would be close to the finish line and reap the rewards of all our hard work.
It was fun to listen to all the stories and conversations shared by the participants as they got into the groove of the morning. My partner and I were quietly absorbed in the process of plucking grapes. Just about the time my bucket was full, a friendly staff member came by to switch out my bucket so I could keep on a plucking.The grapes were clever while growing. Some of the clusters were so weaved in and out of the vines, it took the two of us to free them from the vines.
I also figured out it was wise to place my bucket directly under the vine as I was cutting. Some clusters were so big and dropped really fast. Perhaps it was my novice technique, but some fell quickly to the ground before I could catch them. No worries though, we remembered if that happened we were to just pick them up and put them in the bucket right away and all is good. The winemaking process takes care to get rid of anything not needed to produce the delicious wine.In the 2-3 hours of picking our crew collected 9 half-ton bins full of grapes on Day 1 and 5 tons on Day 2. Day 1 harvest alone equals about 3,000 bottles of wine – not bad for a morning of harvesting eh?! So yeah…you can thank us next time you’re enjoying that awesome tasting bottle of wine!It was fun to watch everyone gather around the full bins and take their victory pictures. Of course, we had to do so too!As promised, after completing the harvesting of our rows we received tickets good for two beverages of our choice at either the winery or the distillery and lunch.
Day 1 – I chose to go with a nice cool & refreshing glass of Chardonnay. I saw quite a few people who had chosen Josh’s famous Bloody Mary’s from the distillery. Both days, as I looked around it appeared the troops were very pleased with their beverage choices. Lunch on Day 1 prepared by Firewoods Pizza (I ate it so fast and forgot to take a picture of it). Day 2 lunch prepared by Marigold Food Truck – Panini sandwiches. Both lunches were delicious, filling and definitely hit the spot. Both food trucks are always a hit with the vineyard customers. Ah…River Bend Vineyard & Winery is certainly in a beautiful setting. Their outside seating area is so inviting. We were fortunate on both days to find a nice spot on the patio where we could relax and enjoy our wine while looking out at the grassy area. (Day 2’s beverage choice – River Bend Blend.)It is common to see people bring blankets or chairs to sit on in the grassy area while they relax, enjoy the scenery and sip their wine and/or spirits. We finished up our harvesting on Day 1 before the crowd of the day arrived, so I was able to soak in the full view of the grassy area. It is gorgeous!As I was sitting there relaxing and sipping my glass of wine on Day 1, I glanced down at my knees. Oh my, I had really gotten into freeing the grapes from their vines! So what – my knees were just a little dirty and red from crawling on the ground to get to the lower hanging fruit. Like I said, I was absorbed in the process. I learned my lesson and had the answer to my question from the beginning of the day when I wondered why some people were wearing long pants!
If I were to add a hot tip for the day it would be: If you like to get into the work and crawl around on the ground, it is best to wear long pants or bring something to pad your knees.
We did so on Day 2 and were very happy with our choice to wear jeans and bring knee pads. Other than my crawl-as-you-go technique giving me tender knees on Day 1, I had no complaints about the two-day event. I definitely had a fun time!
Bottom line is: Yes, you betcha, I’d (we’d) volunteer to help harvest grapes again. Oh and, of course, I’ll (we’ll) be back for another glass of their delicious wine before the season ends! (Tasting room hours.)
If you’re in the area, I hope you get a chance to stop by River Bend Vineyard & Winery – you’ll be glad you did. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will enjoy their welcoming staff, tasting rooms, and of course, their award-winning wine & spirits. Three cheers to a couple great days of picking grapes!