Deena C. Bouknight, Contributing Writer
It is harvest time at both large farms and small ones. Friday, September 13, was chosen as the ideal date to pick grapes at a private vineyard in Otto. Friends and family showed up for the annual activity that involved snipping with pruning shears clusters of ripe, juicy grapes.
Tony Deakins, who has volunteered to help a local vintner harvest grapes for the last four years, said, “I love to do anything that gets me outside.”
The vineyard’s approximately 175 plants, Norton, Barbera, and Cabernet Franc varieties, were heavy laden with deep purple to almost black bunches. However, volunteer pickers conveyed they had seen better yields in previous years.
“We did not put the netting over them like we usually do,” said Maria Braud. “When we don’t do that, the birds get to them.”
Although the Western North Carolina Mountains are not ideal for growing grapes due to too much rain and too much humidity, which causes fungal diseases, enough fruit can be grown for making homemade jams and private stores of wine. In the United States, California as well as some areas in Oregon and Washington offer ideal climates and soil conditions for establishing vineyards.
After volunteers snipped off all the grape clusters, the fruit was taken in bins to a scale. Weight was documented in a journal to determine the 2019 yield as compared to previous years. Under a tent, volunteers sorted dried up or damaged grapes from the quality bunches, which were eventually put into a de-stemming machine that also slightly crushed the grapes to open the skin.
It was Sal Tartamella first time volunteering to bring in the grape harvest. His property abutts the vineyard property. “I just wanted to learn what goes into wine making and to help out.”
A small amount of stems left in the fermentation vat actually adds to the desirable character of what eventually becomes wine. Too many stems, however, result in a “vegetative state.”
“I’ve seen this wine evolving over the last few years,” said Deakins, who enjoyed some of last year’s wine during the creekside picnic luncheon offered to all volunteers who helped with the grape harvest. “It keeps getting better. I like the drier wines and this wine is dry.”
The goal is for the natural sugar content of the grapes, measured by what is referred to as degrees Brix, is between 21 to 24. The grapes at the private Otto vineyard measured 22.5. Accurate natural sugar content in the grapes means that additional sugar is not necessary. The right amount of yeast added results in the red wine eventually achieving the desired 11 to 12 percent alcohol content.
Hundreds of grape vine varieties are available to plant; learning which ones produce which types of grapes for various uses requires research. Muscadine varieties are more native to the area. However, they typically result in sweeter wines – not the drier wines.
Anyone interested in planting grape vines for future harvests can consult the North Carolina Winegrowers Association and attend an annual educational conference.