From Vineyard to Table

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Michael Helton, of Hanover Park Vineyards 

Swishing through wet grass in muck boots, bucket swinging at my side, I joined the crew at Hanover Park Vineyards last fall for a day of picking Chardonnay grapes. The morning sun glinted across the vines, showing off water droplets clinging to leaves, while underneath the grapes hung heavy in ripened clusters. 

There were 15 of us in the field that morning; mostly seasoned Hispanic workers and a few others like me who simply wanted to experience a grape harvest firsthand. Together we listened as Michael Helton, co-owner of Hanover Park, instructed us on the harvesting process—grab a cluster of grapes with one hand, snip with the tool in your right hand, inspect the cluster to remove shots (the brown shriveled-up grapes), and then plop the cluster into the bucket.

“Grab, cut, inspect, plop.”
I made my way through row after row of perfectly trellised vines—grabbing, cutting, inspecting, and plopping—with the September sun growing hotter by the hour. By the time my arms had settled into a dull ache, the announcement of lunchtime brought a sigh of relief. We dumped our filled buckets into the tractor’s half-ton bin and headed to the farmhouse, where Michael’s wife, Amy, had prepared a delicious meal.
I spent the afternoon with Michael while he supervised the tons of grapes coming in from the vineyard, watching as they began weighing, crushing, and processing the fruit to extract the juice. I also listened as Michael talked about the history of Hanover Park and how it was inspired by his and Amy’s monthlong honeymoon in the south of France 20 years ago. The couple planted their first grapevines in 1997 and later converted their 100-year farmhouse into a tasting room. They now grow more than a dozen varietals on their eight-acre farm in Yadkinville, including Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Chambourcin.

I came away that day with a new appreciation for the grape-harvesting process and the N.C. wine industry as a whole. But I also wanted to know more. Why has the Yadkin Valley become such a hotbed for wine in recent years? And what can we expect from this year’s crop?

RayLen Vineyards

The Yadkin Valley Boom
With another harvest season upon us, I met with RayLen Vineyards’ head winemaker, Steve Shepard, to discuss the growth of vineyards in this area as well as the variables which affect the harvest. Shepard, who’s often called “the Godfather of N.C. wine,” came to North Carolina in 1989 when there were only six wineries in the state. There are now more than 100.
“We have a history of making great wine in this state,” he says. “Between the Civil War and Prohibition, North Carolina was the largest wine producer in the country, but it wasn’t until years later that the industry started to grow. The big growth spurt happened from 2000 to 2015.”
Because of North Carolina’s varied geography, climate, and soil, the wines produced here are often as unique as the land itself. According to the website, North Carolina is the only region in the world that grows every major type of grape variety.
So what caused the Yadkin Valley to become the hub of North Carolina wine making? Shepard says it has a lot to do with the earth beneath us. Here in the Piedmont, the red clay and heaviness of the soil puts more stress on the grapevines—and that’s actually a good thing. All that stress on the vines creates grapes that are rich and complex in character.
As for this year’s harvest, Shepard anticipates a lighter crop than last year due to several hard frosts in the spring that thinned the crop. “That’s not a bad thing, though,” he says. “A lighter crop means a better quality wine because it forces a more intense flavor and color into the grapes.”
Steve and his crew generally go through the vineyard and control the yield by dropping some of the fruit in mid-season while the clusters are green, but this year the frost did the job for them.
“All in this Together”
Harvesting a crop that you’ve been waiting on for a whole year is a big deal. Many vintners compare it to giving birth to a child. For months they’ve been tending and pruning, worrying about rain levels, and dealing with variables such as frost, pests, soil conditions, and weather patterns.
Then there’s the tension of figuring out when the exact perfect time to harvest will be, as winemakers prefer the fruit to stay on the vine as long as possible. Grape varieties ripen at different times, causing the harvest season to stretch from mid-August to October.
Shepard says the hands-on care that goes into each grape often surprises people.
“Each vine is hand-touched 10 to 15 times during the growing season,” he says “From trimming to adjusting to pulling weeds to hand-picking the grapes from the vine, it’s all done by hand.”
While he agrees that harvesting can be a stressful and meticulous process, he says it’s also a joyous one. This is when the fruit of their labor literally comes in from the fields.
“We have a full-time crew of five people who work in the vineyards, but during harvest time we reach out to family and friends for additional help,” he says. “We work with a few other local vineyards, too. Their crew helps us during our harvest, and we’ll help them during theirs. We might also sell or trade grapes with other vineyards during this time; for instance, if we have an excess of Merlot and need Cabernet.
“We like to call ourselves co-petitors,” he adds. “We work together, and we compete against each other, but we all want what’s best for the North Carolina wine industry. We’re all in this together.”
With another season’s harvest beginning, we all can appreciate the hard work that happens between the vineyard and the table. Let’s raise our glasses to winemakers like Helton and Shepard whose hard work is paying off as they strive to improve the legacy, in their soil and in their glass, of some of the oldest vineyards in our nation.

As published in Winston-Salem Monthly Magazine, September 2016.

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