Time to harvest and stomp grapes at Hill Country vineyards
The sun was rising over Hoover’s Valley in Burnet County, and I was snipping my first bunch of grapes from the vine at Perissos Vineyards. At the crack of dawn, I was among dozens of other temporary vignerons who had turned out for the vineyard's first harvest of 2022.
As summer wanes, vineyards across the Texas Hill Country are gathering their first wave of wine grapes of the year with some serious help from volunteers.
Perissos lies within Hoover’s Valley, a ghost town community nestled between the Colorado River to the northwest and idyllic Central Texas hills to the southwest. Eighteen planted acres of wine grapes create neat rows that surround an immaculate stonework winery at the center of the vineyard.
I was clued in to the Perissos harvest through an online invitation that elicited help with the Viognier harvest. The terms were stated as such: “Join Us Saturday, July 23, 2022 6:45 a.m. - Until Done.”
I had limited experience with grape picking, wine drinking, and pronouncing Viognier (vee-ON-yay), but I thought it could be rewarding to participate in a bonafide Hill Country grape harvest. Over 50 of the best wineries on Texas soil lie within our fabled hills, and Perissos is a rising star among them. With a pile of awards from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the most prestigious contest in the country, I wanted to see and taste for myself what goes into making a top-notch bottle of wine.
“We’re at a point now where we could not do it without everyone that comes out to volunteer,” said Dalton Humphreys, Perrissos' general manager.
The winery has traditionally reached out to its thriving wine club membership for help during harvest season but opened it to the general public as well this year.
After signing a waiver and grabbing a pair of pruning shears, I made my way into the depths of the vineyard. Most of the vines were still covered in their protective netting, shielding the precious, ripening grapes from marauding birds and raccoons, but I soon found myself within the rows of fully ripened Viognier.
Later in the day, Humphreys gave me a quick breakdown of the Viognier grape, characterizing it as a bright, crisp, and slightly acidic southern French grape with hints of apricot and apple, once it is processed into wine.
"In terms of a summer wine, it's beautiful,” he said.
It was still cool when we began the harvest. The sun was hidden behind the same ridge that harbors Longhorn Caverns, and everyone was working out the kinks in their snipping style.
While it was simple and straightforward work, I was surprised the vineyard would entrust its invaluable vines to the untrained hands of volunteers. It takes roughly four years for a grape vine to start producing, and these particular Viognier vines were 15 years old.
Harvesting was uncomplicated: Find a grape bunch, snip it off at the stem, and drop it in a bucket. Repeat this process until no grapes remain. In this case, there were 5.5 tons of grapes on 16 rows of vines.
For a group of strangers doing manual labor, everyone was impressively positive. More than 70 volunteers worked alongside permanent vineyard staff, snipping our way down the rows as the sun rose higher in the sky. The vignerons, led by vineyard foreman Thomas Martinez, went up and down the rows, giving out pointers and collecting full buckets of grapes to be hauled off by a tractor.
According to Martinez, the work done outside of harvest time does not require nearly as many hands.
“For the harvest, it's a lot of people,” he said. “For the rest of the work, trimming and pruning, it may only be me and three people.”
Perissos is a family-owned vineyard with Laura and Seth Martin behind the operation. The Martins bought a tract of land in Hoover’s Valley in 2003, and, by 2005, they established their very own vineyard and winery.
The entire Martin family seemed to be involved in the harvest. Laura and Seth lent a hand wherever they could, and their kids delivered snacks and drinks to volunteers or snipped away at expert speeds.
This was unmistakably work, but it was easy to get caught up in the romance of working on a family-owned vineyard in the hills, knowing the grapes you're picking will be used to make wine you could be drinking the following summer.
“It's a beautiful family-run winery,” said Lynn Galyen, an Austin resident and Perissos Wine Club member. “I thought it would be nice to be a part of the process and see what really goes into the wine that we drink.”
The Viognier grapes we picked were immediately processed. It is still common practice for vineyards to have grape stomps, as is done at Perissos, but these particular grapes were destined for a high-tech press that could extract as much precious juice as possible from the fruit. After going through a lengthy fermentation process in a stainless steel tank, the sugars in the juice are converted into alcohol, and you have wine.
By summer of next year, these grapes will become a 2022 Viognier available for purchase at $38 a bottle.
By 11 a.m., all of the grapes had been picked. I can’t say that the four hours or so I spent working among the vines flew by, but I can say it was a good time. Everyone was slinging wine and grape puns, sharing stories, finding common ground, and simply enjoying the experience.
We were all treated to a 2015 Viognier at the winery, and, even with my limited palate, I could tell it was good stuff: light and crisp with hints of apricot and apple, just like Humphreys said.
I spoke with Sean Reddy and Celeen Fairbrook, who were on a date, along with Fairbrook’s family. Reddy was visiting from Austin, and Fairbrook is a Kingsland resident. Both of them seemed to be having a great time.
“I love it here. It's so much fun, very relaxing,” Reddy said. “It's beautiful. You can’t not have a great time.”
“It helps you appreciate the whole process of winemaking,” Fairbrook added.
As we all enjoyed our wine and a light lunch of fruit and sandwiches surrounded by aging barrels of Perissos wine, Laura Martin proposed a toast: “We were worried, with all the heat, that nobody would actually volunteer. Thank y’all for coming out in the midst of all this crazy heat we’re having in Texas. Thanks for helping us get the fruit off the vine. We really couldn’t do it without y’all.”
Perissos is an ancient Greek word found in the Bible that means “exceedingly abundant; beyond what is imagined or hoped for.” While I only spent a few hours at their vineyard, I believe the Martins have managed to cultivate an overflowing passion for winemaking that matches their winery’s namesake.
This was only the first harvest of the year, more opportunities for picking as well as grape stomps will be scheduled as the summer rolls on. Find a full list of Highland Lakes wineries at 101HighlandLakes.com for websites and addresses.
GRAPE STOMPS & MORE
10257 U.S. 290 West, Hye
Grape stomp and tour on Saturdays in August at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m.
101 Durango, Johnson City
Grape stomp on Aug. 20 and 21
2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall
Grape stomp on Aug. 27 and 28
464 Becker Farms Road, Fredericksburg
Grape stomps on Aug. 27 and 28 and Sept. 3 and 4. The Sept. 4 event features a "Lucy and The Italian Woman" costume contest in honor of the famous grape-stomping "I Love Lucy" episode.
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