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Toiling in the Vineyards In Leesburg

By Patrick Getlein
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page E01
   


Know how to pick a good wine? Well, first you have to pick the grapes. And if you have an open Saturday over the next few weeks -- and you're willing to get your shoes a bit dusty -- you can experience firsthand the joys of the harvest, by picking the fruits of somebody else's labors.

For two weekends each fall, Willowcroft Farm Vineyards, just outside Leesburg, hosts volunteer harvest days, transforming the common winery-visit-and-tasting into a hands-on learning experience. About 50 volunteers spend the better part of several mornings cutting the grapes that will eventually become the year's vintage.

Of Virginia's 50 or so wineries, Willowcroft -- set atop Mount Gilead, at the tail end of the Catoctin Mountain chain -- is among a half-dozen that formally involve volunteers in the harvest. Some wineries host grape-stomping events for fun (and a fee), but I'm told that the resulting juice never makes it into a bottle. Nearly all wineries rely on migrant labor to pluck the thousands of tons of grapes harvested each year. Willowcroft, too, uses "contract pickers" to bring in the majority of its annual harvest. The volunteer harvests, owner Lew Parker hastens to point out, have a lot more to do with making friends and customers than bringing in the crop on time.

A former horse farm (it was home and burial ground of 1950s steeplechase champion Fitzrah), Willowcroft is perched at the end of a rocky, three-mile stretch of washboard road. The main house was constructed around a log cabin built around 1790; nearby is a century-old red barn. The on-site vineyards are just up the hill.

The earthen ramp that once conveyed Fitzrah and other horses from the pasture to their stalls in the barn now delivers visitors from the parking area into the tasting room. Underneath the tasting room is the winery -- a cool, damp, poorly lit space that's tiny even by Virginia standards. It is nonetheless the room where Parker and his wife, Amy, transform their annual harvest into 2,000 cases of wine.

Against one stone wall stand five steel tanks, about five feet tall. In the center are four short, fat tanks holding 400 gallons each. Several pieces of equipment recall high school chemistry class: a ring stand, graduated cylinders, Erlenmeyer flasks, a long thermometer. Along the far wall, several rows of oak barrels slowly leech their wooden essence into the wine inside.

Willowcroft is among the smallest producers of wine in Virginia, and one of the closest to Washington. Depending on the harvest, it makes between five and eight different wines from grapes grown on the farm and from leased vineyards nearby. Each fall, the Virginia grape harvest begins in late August with seyval. Then comes chardonnay, followed by Riesling and finally the late-maturing red wine grapes. This year, Parker says, the volunteers will probably pick chardonnay.

Vintage 1996

I visited Willowcroft during last year's volunteer harvest, a sunny, cool September day. By the time I arrived at 11 a.m., about 20 volunteers had been at work for around four hours. It's not an all-day assignment, though. Volunteers start early when it's cooler and break at midday for lunch -- and, of course, wine -- provided by the Parkers. "Part of the harvest tradition," Amy Parker says.

Though a few Virginia vineyards have turned to mechanical harvesters, the vast majority still use human labor to harvest the grapes. "It's your last point of quality control," explains Lew Parker. "In a bad year, when you've got some rot or problems in the vineyard, you can tell a hand harvester not to pick the grapes. But you can't tell an automatic harvester that."

Harvesters begin at opposite ends of a row in groups of two and work toward the middle. Using special pruning clippers, they move along slowly, pulling back the foliage, clipping the ripest fruit and loading it into shallow plastic crates called lugs. Each lug carries about 30 pounds of grapes.

Parker supervises the volunteers, walking swiftly up and down the rows, pointing out clusters to toss and to keep. The cutting process is very close, careful work. But snacking is permitted. "We're harvesting six or seven thousand pounds of grapes," he says. "We don't care if 15 people eat a pound of grapes each."

But "they won't eat much," adds Amy Parker. Chardonnay grapes are about a third smaller than ordinary table grapes and more opaque. The overall flavor, when ripe, is a balance between the sweet, juicy pulp and the thick, slightly bitter-tasting skin. Tasting a single chardonnay grape kicked my saliva glands into high gear. I certainly didn't consume my pound of grapes.

Though cutting is the primary volunteer activity, there are other tasks. Standing under a tarp outside the barn doors, Randy Williams, a computer instructor from Herndon, and his sons Cody, 4, and Jacob, 2, have avoided the hands-on intricacies of the vineyards. "We figured we would trash the vines if we tried to help," Williams says.

Williams and his wife school their children at home, and the morning's visit to Willowcroft was part of the lesson plan. "We're learning about vineyards and how they make grapes and how grapes are crushed and turned into juice and how juice is turned into wine," he said. Jacob seemed more interested in running around enjoying the fresh country air than in the chemistry of wine, but Cody helped empty some lugs into a steel chute leading to a machine making labored scraping and whirring sounds.

Standing at the other end of the chute, by the grape press/stemmer-crusher, was David Collins, then Willowcroft's vineyard manager (he's since moved to another winery). The chute down which Cody and his father dumped the grapes feeds into a rotating cylinder perforated with holes slightly bigger than a nickel. As the cylinder rotates, the grapes fall through the holes and into the press. The stems are pushed out and fall to the ground.

The press consists of a finely perforated drum the size of a small water heater laid on its side. Inside the rotating drum a steel plate slides back and forth, squeezing out the juice that drips into a pan below. The juice is then pumped into a large steel refrigerated tank. At this point, the liquid looks very little like wine and a lot like, well, sludge.

"Tomorrow it'll be very clear," Collins says.

Overnight the impurities fall to the bottom of the tank. The juice then will be "racked" off and moved into another tank and treated with yeast to begin fermentation. Once the fermentation process is established, the juice is pumped into oak barrels where it remains for about eight months until it becomes the soft, buttery, golden wine known as Willowcroft Reserve Chardonnay.

Good Taste

Sometime this week, the Parkers will pick 100 grapes at random and check the sugar levels, analyze the acidity and check the pH. Then they'll taste them. Though all four tests will determine if it's time to harvest this year's crop, good taste trumps chemistry. "Mature taste," says Parker. "That's probably the most important characteristic."

This year's volunteer harvests are scheduled for the next two weekends, depending on weather and fruit maturity; would-be harvesters must call ahead to make an appointment. With more than 12 acres of vines planted and favorable weather conditions throughout the growing season, Parker says his vineyards this year will produce at "110 percent of average," enough to keep a small army of volunteers in the weeds.

Lew Parker bought what had been a horse farm in 1979 primarily as a place to allow his daughters enough space for 4-H Club projects. He planted the first grapes in 1980, a second more significant planting in the spring of 1981 and made his first wine in 1984, as a hobby. Previously, Parker had been an executive at a biotechnology firm.

"I didn't know a thing," he admits. "I wasn't an avid wine consumer. I didn't know anything about growing grapes. I didn't know anything about making wine."

Parker, whose former hobby pays the bills these days, is now well-acquainted with winemaking minutiae. But he knows only too well that such details are not for everyone. "One of the great unfortunate things about wine," he says, "is it's the only industry that intimidates its own customers," sometimes keeping people from ordering wines in a restaurant or from trying new ones.

Some of Willowcroft's wines, particularly the Reserve Chardonnay, are exceptional. There are better wines made in Virginia, but tiny Willowcroft has managed to win awards in competitions on both coasts, and locally from its peers in the Vinifera Wine Growers Association.

As important to the Parkers, the wine sells.

"We're small," says Amy Parker. "We make about 2,000 cases a year and we sell out every year. That's the theory: Stay small, make a high-quality product and sell it out."

Though some wine shops carry Willowcroft and other Virginia wines -- Willowcroft's distribution system consists of a van-load of wine and Amy Parker at the wheel -- the best way to get it is to make the drive to the winery, even if you don't have the urge to pick grapes and experience farm labor firsthand.

Lew Parker looks forward to welcoming the volunteers. "People tend to think of the wine as their wine when they harvest the grapes and come back and say, `Let me taste that wine I made last year,' " he says. "They become friends."

Willowcroft Farm Vineyards (38906 Mount Gilead Rd., Leesburg, 703-777-8161) is planning to begin its yearly harvest weekends next Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 20-21)and possibly Sept. 27-28. Reservations are required. No fee; harvesters are provided with lunch. For more information on Virginia wineries that solicit volunteer picking, contact Virginia Tourism at 1-800-VISITVA (1-800-847-4882) or 202-659-5523, or check the Web site at http://www.virginia.org.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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