Grape Harvest Days are Here Again….in Texas!
It’s July, it’s Texas and again it is time to start the grape harvest. Can it be?
Compared to Texas, in most wine producing regions things happen at a much more leisurely pace. The vines push out their buds in May followed by the long slow process of grape formation and ripening through September and harvesting in October. However, here in Texas we have an impatient season.
Texas Like France?
As you may have heard, Texas is rather large being about the size of France. From north to south, it measures just about half the width of our whole contiguous lower forty-eight states. At its lower tip, Texas is farther south than Miami and in the north almost touches Colorado. Being mostly southward and generally in a warm region, vineyards start early and move at a torrid pace to harvest. The grapes being so eager for harvest here that they nearly scream at you with their lustrous ripeness saying, “Get me off the vine, darn it!”
Actually, in Texas the grape harvest starts in the southern region in early to mid-July. As you move up through Texas north and westward into somewhat less tropical surroundings in the central Texas Hill Country the grape harvest may come slightly later during August. Only up in the high plains country around Lubbock and around the Guadalupe Mountains in the Trans-Pecos region does harvest arrive at a more normal pace in September.
An Uncertain Invitation
This year, quite unexpectedly, I received a call from my daughter Caroline saying, “Hi Daddy. Are you doing anything this weekend?” This was followed by a long pause. I have learned that this question often comes with an outlay of my personal toil and sweat. This time, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had volunteered us to help harvest grapes at Union Chappel Vineyards located in Fulshear, Texas, on the western outskirts of our greater Houston area.
OK, I will stop right here and say that I can imagine what you are saying to yourself right now….”Growing wine grapes around Houston (the town of perpetual sweaty foreheads and armpits) near the shores of a body of steamy bathwater called Galveston Bay is preposterous! Furthermore, I have already learned that wine grapes need hot dry days and cool nights to produce the quality juice that make good wines.”
Texas Likes to Do the Seemingly Impossible
Leave it to Texans to do what most people think is impossible. However, in this case, we have to give most of initial credit to few of our sweating brethren at a University of Florida. They crossbred French and American varieties of wine grapes and repeated the process several times until they came up with a new hybrid grape called Blanc du Bois. Believe it or not, this grape actually loves and thrives in hot and humid coastal areas like we have in southern Texas. Blanc du Bois is a white grape with a lineage that includes a hearty, golden Muscat grape. Muscat, as you may recall, can be traced back almost 4,000 years to some of the grapes used to make the first wines in history produced in regions around ancient Persia. However, that’s enough viticultural techno-blab for now. Let’s get back to the main reason for this particular blog today – The Texas wine harvest is here. Yes, it’s back despite the fact that it is only July and we are in the midst of the hottest summer since 1980.
Harvest Day Arrives
Knowing my aversion to early Saturday mornings and also aware that my daughter’s dislike of this to be even greater than mine, I had some apprehensions. But, nevertheless we pledged to pry open our sleepy eyes and meet at 6:45 am for the drive out to Fulshear where we would imbibe a few cups of that important morning liquid: Thick strong coffee, thus giving us some added staying power to hit the vineyard with early gusto. There we met Caroline’s mother-in-law, Joan Carruba, who is a family friend of Michael and Carole McCann, who started the vineyard in the early 1990’s. She joined our cadre along with her son-in-law Jason and his three children who likewise had taken up the gauntlet of the early morning vineyard harvest.
When we arrived in the vineyard, the sun was rising and already warm on our faces. A crew of family, friends and area locals assembling under a Gazebo tucked between rows of grapevines hanging ripe with their golden fruit. Juice, bottled water and tasty morsels were plentifully spread and awaited us. The McCann’s wisely know that a vineyard harvest force, like a good infantry, travels on its stomach.
The morning Gulf Coast air hung particularly heavy. This year the summer has been a hot one with weeks of temperatures in the upper 90’s and also breaking the century mark on several occasions bringing back memories of 1980 that was one of the hottest on record in Texas. So, thank heavens for the early start, the strong cup of Java, and the friendly showing of volunteers that were on hand to start the bunches of Blanc du Bois on their way for their ultimate destination, the Haak Vineyard and Winery (www.haakwine.com) in Santa Fe, Texas (Galveston County) owned by two superb people, Raymond and Gladys Haak.
“Oh Lord, Protects Us from Fire Ants and Wasps”
The festivities were opened with comments of appreciation for the morning turnout from the McCann family and a short prayer of thanks for an excellent summer growing season and harvest. It concluded with, “and, oh Lord, please keep the vineyard volunteers safe from the perils of the chiggers, fire ants, wasps and sunburn.” With Pruning knives drawn, empty plastic bins under our arms, and being suitably slathered with successive layers of insect repellant and sunscreen, our group joined the volunteer forces ready to do battle with the vines in the field.
We worked our way successively down the rows of grapevines first peeling back a well placed covering of netting that was the only barrier between the sweet ripe grapes and the local bird population. I know firsthand the importance why netting is so important. Several years ago, I tried my hand at growing grapes on the back fence in my yard in north Houston. Being a total novice, I attentively cultivated my grapevines for several months watching the little bunches evolve into larger clusters and eventually turning into mature ripe fruit. One morning when in my “expert” eye the grapes looked just about right for picking, I went to work thinking that when I returned home in the evening, I would pick the small crop of grapes that I had artfully grown. Well, little did I realize that birds were actually as smart as I was, or more likely, even smarter. They also knew the exact moment when the grapes were perfectly ripe. When I returned, I was surprised to find not a single grape left on my beloved vines. Just a lot of fat bird sitting happily on the telephone wires above making what sounded to me like laughing sounds.
Battle with the Birds
Once the netting on the McCann’s vines was pulled back, the exposed, golden-hued Blanc du Bois grapes hung heavy in bunches mostly hiding under a shield of broad green grape leaves. The repeated harvesting process involved reaching under a grape bunch cradling it with one hand while drawing the blade of the knife with the other hand severing its life giving stem. However, we knew full well that where one life ended, another would begin. These clusters would have a second life as a cool quenching liquid to be enjoyed with good food, friends and family at a future time. Caroline and I continued this process while we leapfrogged our way down the rows past others pickers. We filled our personal bins that gained weight with our traverse. Occasionally it was necessary (maybe even mandatory) to stop and taste the crop. Of course, this was just to make sure that certain lots were meeting our own special standards for high quality fruit. Eventually, our bins were too heavy to carry so we dragged them around until a tractor with a big white bin came by into which we dumped the freashly harvested grapes.
The volunteer pickers and their activity were at times as interesting as was the picking itself. They were young and old, small and large, as well as individuals and couples. In some cases, whole families were involved many with children or grandchildren at their sides, all well behaved and engaged in this pleasant form of manual labor. In these days and times with every kiddo having his or her personal iPod, smart phone, video game or other electronic contrivance, it was grand to see all occupied in something as simple, natural and manual as picking grapes. Everyone seemed interested, inquisitive and having fun as a family and as a communal group, smiling, sweating, talking, joking and generally enjoying the pleasantries of the fine summer morning.
All in all, we harvested about two and a half acres of Blanc du Bois that morning. At completion, they sat in large white bins under the spread of a hefty live oak tree in the adjoining field. They were awaiting loading onto the truck that would make its way around the southern Houston outskirts to the Haak winery for crushing, fermentation, aging and eventually bottling.
Let the Fun and Dancing Begin
With the hot hard work done, the harvest hoard assembled behind the McCann homestead where awaited a fun fare of activities for the children: A water slide, games, clowns, and face painting, along with a lively Zydeco band playing in the background. Most welcome of all were the cool refreshments and, for a very modest fee, a complete all you could eat barbeque lunch. The assembled group of pickers sat in the shade readily engaged in more talking, joking, laughing and, best of all, feeling fulfilled with the knowledge that they accomplished a job well done and helped one fellow Texas farmer bring in a successful grape harvest.
I must say that a good time was had by all. Let the dancing begin!
[Acknowledgement: Photographs by Caroline Carruba]
Want to Join in on the 2009 Texas Harvest?
Well, it is just beginning and there are ways to get involved. First, find a winery near you. This is easily found on the Texas Department of Agriculture’s list of Texas wineries at: http://www.gotexanwine.org/findwinesandwineries.
You can identify your region on the map and then follow the links to the list of wineries in that region with additional descriptions, maps and contact information. Some have their own vineyards and offer grape picking, crushing demonstrations and even grape stomping events where you can stomp like Lucy (if you are old enough to remember the I Love Lucy show from the days of black and white TV). If the winery doesn’t have harvest festivities, they can likely refer you to a vineyard that can use your assistance or that have harvest activities.
Examples of these harvest festivities in the Houston area are:
Pleasant Hill Winery Crush for Fun – Weekends, July 18 through August 9, 2009. More information at: http://www.pleasanthillwinery.com/CFF.ad.2009.pdf
Messina Hof Winery and Resort Harvest Festival – Weekends, July 18 through August 16, 2009. More information at: http://www.messinahof.com/harvest09.php
If you have the desire or passion to do your own thing in a bigger way and want to start your own Texas vineyard, I heartily suggest that you get in touch with your Texas regional viticultural extension agent. This is your personal vineyard consultant, paid for with your Texas tax dollars. You can find them online, at:
The extension consultants can give you the skinny on how to start, what grapes grow well in your area, probably a few horror stories, and what you need to learn so that your chances of success are better than average. There is a shortage of Texas wine grapes and you can help make up the deficient. Also, if you want to talk face-to-face with Texas grape growers, other newbies and the viticultural and enological experts in Texas all at the same time, come to this year’s Texas Grape Camp in November sponsored by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA): http://www.txwines.org/grapecamp/default.asp.