LINCOLN -- Every fall, Turtle Creek Winery owner and winemaker Kip Kumler needs helpers to harvest 5 tons of grapes from his 4,000 vines (the grapes are used to make less than half of his total 1,000-case annual production).
It's easy to see how folks would flock to a vineyard on a sunny autumn day. But when you volunteer to harvest grapes for free, and the arrival time is shortly after dawn, and you're faced with venturing out in a downpour, there's a point when you have to wonder if you're a little crazy. On a very damp Sunday morning recently, a dozen volunteers -- 20-somethings to seniors -- suited up for the winery's main vineyard. And there wasn't a complaint in the crowd.
For Lisa Paul, a nurse practitioner, and her husband, Chris, head of engineering at a software company, picking grapes is the neighborly thing to do. The Lincoln residents harvested pinot noir the week before and are here to pick chardonnay. Paul pushes aside a thatch of grass to reveal low-hanging clusters. Clipping off a golden bunch with sharp shears, she flicks off a damaged grape, then plucks off a healthy one to to taste it. "It's amazing -- the flavor," she says, commenting on the sweetness and the tactile characteristics of the grape skins. "Can you tease out those qualities when you drink the wine?" she wonders.
Janet Rothrock, who educates kids about how food is grown at nearby Drumlin Farm, was curious about the grape-picking experience. "I've picked apples before, and raspberries at the u-pick. I wanted to see how this all works." Rothrock thinks that climate change could one day make New England prime wine-growing territory. "Not that that's a good thing," she says. "That's if we don't do something about it."
Kumler teaches a class, offered through Boston University, about the vineyard cycle. Volunteer Laura Ryan met him there. "[The class] was, basically, how to grow a bottle of wine," says Ryan, who works in insurance. She has pushed aside white mesh netting used to prevent birds from eating the grapes, and is filling a shallow crate, called a lug box, with fruit. "I'm a big advocate of knowing where your food comes from," she says. "I like to contribute and give back."
That spirit of community is a common theme in the group. David Jammalo, a home winemaker from Ashland, also picks for a New Hampshire grape grower. Gina Koprowski, an avid cyclist, regularly rides by the vineyard, then took a tour of the winery, and signed up for its wine CSA. Former Texas residents Bill and Shari Price, who just recently moved to Massachusetts, are thrilled to connect with new neighbors.
Kumler knows the attraction for the pickers is more than curiosity. "Wine touches them in ways that are personal," says the winemaker. "They have an instinct to learn more. They get satisfaction handling the grapes. People become invested in it."
In turn, he would be lost without the volunteers. "As a small winery, I have to be integrated into the community," he says. "There are benefits to that."
His rain-soaked volunteers would probably agree.
Turtle Creek Winery, www.turtlecreekwine.com