The sun was setting as the grape harvester was driven into position astraddle a row of Niagara wine grapes. Harvesting began Aug. 14 at the St. James Winery, and hours are long for the crew responsible for the harvest.
The sun was setting as the grape harvester was driven into position astraddle a row of Niagara wine grapes. Harvesting began Aug. 14 at the St. James Winery, and hours are long for the crew responsible for the harvest. When the grapes are ready, “you work from the time the sun goes down to when the sun comes up,” said Sam Cobb, assistant farm manager and operator of the huge machine. The grapes are harvested at night, to preserve the peak sugar content of the grape and to reduce the pressure inside the grape caused by expansion from warm daytime temperatures. As a bonus for the workers, “it is a lot nicer to be working at night versus during the heat of the day,” Sam continued. The harvest continues for about 4 weeks; the Norton grapes are the last to ripen and will be picked mid-September.
According to farm manager Scott Veatsch, St. James produces all of its own Norton variety grapes.
“We buy grapes as needed from southwest Michigan or northwest Arkansas—we have growers that we know and work with,” he explained.
St. James grows not only Nortons and Niagaras, but Catawbas, Chambourcin, and Vignoles varieties. The Seyval wine produced from the Vignoles was a big winner last year in regional contests.
“We have about 127 acres in active grape production, with plans to plant more at the 185 acre winery,” said Scott.
How does mechanization alter harvest time?
“Before, it took about 40 pickers per acre, working all day, while the machine harvester can pick an acre in about 45 minutes,” Scott explains.
Viticulturist Raul Rosas has almost twenty years experience growing grapes in both Missouri and California. His eyes sparkle as he shares the secrets of great grapes: “you need to listen to what the plants are telling you!”
They require pruning, pest and humidity control; irrigation at times, weed removal, and canopy management (grapes completely smothered with leaves may be prone to rot or mold). Hard work and passion for the job are key.
“You care for the plant almost as if they were your own children,” Raul continues, by tending them through each season; with mid growing season, the busiest time. This year’s harvest is a good one. “The quality is amazing,” Raul shares.
During harvest, each cluster of grapes is gently separated from the vine by the harvester machine, leaving the vines intact. Grapes are then sent to a waiting gondola pulled by a tractor, driving alongside the harvester machine in the next row. Once the gondola is full, the harvester toots his horn signaling the full gondola to leave; another tractor pulling an empty gondola pulls up, and the process of filling the new one begins without missing a beat. The machinery is driven at the pace of a fast walk. Once filled, the gondola is switched from tractor to truck, then pulled the few miles down the road to the crush pit at the St. James Winery.
There, one edge of the gondola is hoisted by overhead crane to tip the just-picked grapes into a stainless steel vat in the first step of processing. The grapes are first separated from their stems and any stray leaves, then sent via pump and hose to a huge crush ‘drum’ inside the temperature controlled warehouse. Rice hulls are added to the grapes to suspend them gently as the juice is separated in the crusher. From there, winemaker Aaron Spohr states, “the white grape juice will go directly to tanks, while the reds will ferment with their skins on for seven days” and then pressed before going into their tanks.
Executive Winemaker Andrew Meggitt and Aaron Spohr manage wine tanks of all sizes, from small locally made oak barrels, to the five massive Westwing tanks that hold 25,000 gallons of wine. The Niagara grapes being harvested now at St. James may likely become Velvet White wine. St. James’ Velvet Red is the most popular in sales for the company, with a bottle sold every 15 seconds, in 18 states across the US.
Tricia Burkhardt is Marketing Communications manager for St. James Winery. She said St. James received ASAP (Agriculture Stewardship Assurance Program) certification by the Missouri Dept. of Agriculture, for agricultural sustainability—“the first one ever presented.” At St. James, agricultural waste of over one million lbs./year is composted and returned to the soil as fertilizer, eliminating burden on landfills and improving soil quality. The Department of Agriculture’s certification status recognizes responsible stewardship of the land, and safe food for consumers.
On Saturday Aug. 26, The Gardens at St. James Winery will host their inaugural Crush Festival, with live music and brewery/winery tours; folks can stomp grapes just like Lucille Ball did in a memorable “I Love Lucy” episode, and wine barrel making will be demonstrated by a Lebanon cooperage. The beautifully landscaped Gardens is located between the St. James Winery and the Public House Brewing Company; the event will be held from 11 am to 10 pm. Says Tricia, “We hope everyone will come to enjoy the start of the grape harvest and share this exciting time with us.”