I’ve been interested in taking part in a grape harvest at a vineyard for several years, especially since I got acquainted with Texas wines in late 2012. It seems like every year I either had a conflict, was out of town, or simply out of vacation from my job in the corporate world. Grape harvesting doesn’t have a set schedule and you have to be ready when the winery invites you to a harvest. I still had a few vacation days left, so when I received an invite from Perissos Vineyard and Winery to help harvest their Syrah crop, I was in. At popular wineries these events fill up quickly so without asking my wife, I signed us both up within 10 minutes of the invite email. She was totally in too by the way.
There are a few ways to get in on grape harvests at wineries. Some reserve the event for wine club members, so if you’re a club member at your favorite winery ask about harvest volunteering. Other vineyards and wineries give invites to the general public. It’s probably best to check their website often, follow them on social media, or make sure you’re on their email list. Lastly, word-of-mouth and simple relationships with vineyard owners can get you invited. For us, the wine club membership at Perissos got us invited.
Perissos Vineyard and Winery is located outside Burnet, Texas near Inks Lake State Park. Since we live in Houston and the harvesting started early at 6:30 a.m., we got a hotel room in Round Rock and drove to the winery the next morning. Most volunteers arrived right on time and after a quick doughnut and cup of coffee, we were given quick instructions and headed out to the rows of Syrah grapes that were to be harvested. It was still before sunrise when we started and nice to have the relatively “cool” temperatures to work in for the first couple of hours.
The harvest invite suggested we bring garden pruners, gloves if desired, sunscreen, and a hat. We brought all those things and were thankful that we did. The winery did provide pruners but it was nice using our own. Harvesting the grapes wasn’t too hard. Just grab the bunch of grapes, find where the stem joins the vine, snip, and drop the grapes into a 5 gallon bucket. Sounds easy and for the most part it was. However, some of the grapes wound themselves around the trellis wires, each other, or the vines. Those were sometimes difficult to sort out and untangle but would only slow down the process slightly. The Syrah grapes usually had an inch or two of stem before connecting to the vine and were pretty easy. We did two rows of Petite Sirah and their stem was usually very short and consequently harder to cut off the vine. We also learned that bunches that have gone almost completely to “raisin” stage are wanted and needed in the harvest. It’s all part of the character of the end wine.
One thing I’m thankful for is the vineyard was planted and trained so that the top of the vines were just above my head height when standing. There was no bending over for me to harvest the grapes. Just a little getting up under the leaf canopy. I’ve seen vines in Napa Valley and believe me, I wouldn’t want to harvest there.
We harvested 10 rows of Syrah and two rows of Petite Sirah in four and a half hours. Seth Martin, co-owner of Perissos, stated that he likes to “field blend” the Syrah with a little Petite Sirah to add some structure to the wine. Both grape varietals when crushed will go into the same tank for fermentation. After all the grapes were brought to the crush pad, Seth stated that we had harvested 10.2 tons of fruit! That was almost double the yield from the same number of vines last year. It’s been a very good year for grapes in Texas.
Some of the volunteers, myself included, watched the crush process. Seth would fork lift the bins holding several hundred pounds of grapes unto the crusher/destemmer. At one end you could see the stems come out. At the top you could see the grapes and juice dropping down to be crushed and then pumped into a fermentation tank of about 2,300 gallons. I personally climbed the ladder to watch the grapes/juice being pumped into the tank. This will be stabilized and balanced for a short period and since the juice came to within three inches of the top of the tank, some will be pumped off to ferment elsewhere.
The volunteers were treated very well and the Martin’s and crew were great hosts. We were given water, bananas, and protein bars during the harvest and treated to sandwiches, and of course, great wine at the end of the harvest. Four and a half hours in the hot sun harvesting grapes for a glass or two of Perissos wine? Yes! Totally worth it.