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In a chapter in 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' Tom convinces several friends he meets that whitewashing a fence is great pleasure. With a bit of bargaining, Tom negotiates and collects a small stash of treasure from each boy who passes by in exchange for the privilege of working on the fence. Tom reflects that all it takes to make someone want something is to make it hard to get.

That timeless story floated around my head as the sweat dripped off my brow harvesting grapes the other day. It was very warm for mid September as I joined a small group of fans of the Sandstone Ridge Winery & Vineyards, harvesting some of the first grapes of the season. The call had gone out to friends and family of the vineyard that harvest time was here and if interested, we could reserve our spot on the picking team for the day. Harvesting will continue into early October, but like Tom Sawyers friends, I wasn’t going to let this first opportunity slip by! Although I make my own wild berry wines, this was a chance to see behind the scenes production on a professional level.

I am an enthusiast of Standstone Ridge wines and the beautiful winery and vineyard owners Bob and Connie Dubiel have created high on a ridgetop in West Central Wisconsin near Osseo. The Dubiels, along with family and friends have crafted an enterprise in these hills-finding just the right climate and soil to produce grapes and award winning wines with unique and rich flavors. Although the winery is only in it’s second year, this 40 acre vineyard, along with a second smaller one in a valley near Pleasantville, have been painstakingly developed for some time with plenty of sweat equity and pride.

Our early morning group of volunteers gathered at the beautiful wood and stone winery for coffee and rolls and introductions. There was enthusiasm and a bit of anxiousness to get started, even though most of us had no idea what lie ahead in the countless rows of grape vines waiting outside. Bob gathered us in the center of the vineyard and gave instructions on the proper use of harvesting tools, picking techniques, which berries to toss and which to keep. We’d start on several rows of plump white Brianna grape as the morning sun quickly started warming the ridge top. Even with our late spring, deluge of rain early and now near drought conditions, Bob reported and we witnessed how productive this crop was-the bunches of grapes very large and delicious. He gave us one rule-eat as many of the grapes as we’d like, proving the myth that wine grapes are terrible eating so very wrong.

White plastic crates were spread out between the rows and soon filling as we started getting the hang of this harvesting thing. Pickers would pair up on either side of the vines and spread out the heavy foliage to find and clip off clusters-some camouflaged well while others wound around the supporting trellis. After a while, a rhythm almost develops while picking, meditative, as one cuts and grasps several bunches in the hand before moving on. Quiet conversations between harvesters worked slowly down each row until finished, the white bins now full and ready for pick up. These grapes would be sold to another winery and I joked to Connie that we’d work harder if we thought this fruit would be poured into a glass next summer from the Sandstone Ridge cellar!

Bob moved us to a different grape, a red Sabrevios which was much easier to see and pick. The deep purple of the bunches stood out in stark contrast to the green leaves. Grapes can be trained to grow either high or low on the trellis, so for myself, the high bunches were within easy reach. The Sabrevios were more fragile and having purple stained hands and clothes become quite fashionable. Sometimes these reds had a dirty knack of tangling themselves around the wire or send tendrils to anchor down the bunches, making it wholly a puzzle to free them into my crate. A couple more family members arrived and within a few hours, we’d finished our assigned rows and thankful for the break as the day really warmed up under the cloudless sky.

The Dubiels provided a wonderful lunch and even more welcome, shade under a beautiful pavilion in the center of the vineyard. The shared labor brought down any walls and soon the shelter was filled with chatty friendly people just enjoying the breeze and scenery. Six wines were brought out to enjoy with our meal and perhaps help encourage anyone who wanted to do a little grape stomping. Several did and the red and white grapes were soon a slurry of “must” (which Bob would donate to the forest critters and not use for wine). It’s more ceremonial than anything, but produced giggles and red stained feet and well worth it for entertainment value. Good friend Howard and I even convinced his wife Bobbie to roll up her pants to give it a go. (I think she really wanted to all along!).

The family and hired hands returned to harvesting, with Bob giving us the option of joining back in, but suggested that maybe we’d rather relax, sample another glass and take in the view. Yeah, that sounded good to me. On another harvest day, I’ll be convinced like Tom Sawyers buddies, that it is a great privilege and honor to be out among the vines, filling crates and staining hands. Honestly, I know most of us here will be back-the Dubiels are just great people, and this a beautiful place. But for the rest of the day, I think I’ll just kick back, relax, enjoy the panorama in front of me and the fruits of their labor.

Steve Meurett lives, works and plays in West Central Wisconsin and spends about every free moment outdoors where his passions lie. His outdoor interests take him on and off trail, pursuing mountain biking and skinny skiing, photography and hunting, while keeping an eye on wild mushrooms and the next fruit for craft wine. Steve is the Trail Director at The Levis Mound Trail System and member of the Clark County Trails Advisory Committee. He resides, teaches and is a photographer in Neillsville. Steve can be reached at steve@meurett.com.

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