Volunteering at wineries is fun

As September approached, e-mails started arriving announcing that ``crush'' was beginning. Crush is a highlight of the annual wine production cycle when, in Washington, more than 100 tons of grapes need to be harvested and prepared for fermentation. For wineries it is six weeks of long, intense days. For my family, it is a time to soak up the excitement of the harvest as volunteers at local wineries.

My husband, Richard, and daughter volunteered at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville. Its brochure describes the care taken in making wines, mentioning such factors as ``hand-sorting at crush.'' As it turns out, a few of those hands were from my family!

Richard was assigned with six others to sort through grape clusters just delivered by truck from eastern Washington. Their task was to eliminate clusters that were not in perfect condition as the grapes moved along a conveyer belt to the de-stemmer. After being de-stemmed, the grapes were transferred to a slower conveyer where they were again inspected.

My daughter, Deborah Neyhart, a Mercer Island resident, was in a second group of eight volunteers who removed grapes which were green, too young or too old. After this double sorting, the grapes were lightly pressed and fed into fermentation tanks. Occasionally, the DeLille winemakers would provide encouragement such as, ``You only have a few more bins until lunch'' as they surreptitiously inspected.

DeLille's management appreciates the help.

``We believe our volunteers do a far superior job to any part-time and causal labor we could hire,'' said Jay Soloff, the winery's co-owner and partner, adding that DeLille also uses volunteers for bottling and shipping.

At the end of the day after the last bins of grapes had been sorted, the volunteers cleaned up and received their reward of a bottle of Chaleur Estate Blanc worth about $35. This year more than 150 volunteers helped out at DeLille. More people will assist with bottling which begins in June.

Last week DeLille hosted an End-of-Crush dinner where volunteers shared wine stories and drank DeLille wines. During the party I enjoyed talking with Mercer Islander George Mack who holds the longest volunteer record at DeLille, starting 11 years ago during the first crush. Don Vogt, another Mercer Islander, won the drawing for a bottle of DeLille Grand Ciel. It is a single-vineyard Red Mountain cabernet sauvignon, which will make its debut in 2008 and will be worth more than $100.

My husband and I took advantage of another volunteer activity a few weeks ago by picking grapes in Grapeview, Wash., in the south part of Puget Sound on Stretch Island. Vineyards this side of the mountains grow some less-known grapes that can mature in our cooler region. We were picking Island Belle grapes, which are used by Hoodsport Winery to mix with merlot to create an Island Belle/merlot blend.

People have been volunteering for years at this vineyard which has vines more than 50 years old. With this being only our third harvest, we were considered neophytes! However, a number of veterans -- literally -- helped out. A group of now-retired Army officers answered a help-wanted ad for grape pickers when they were stationed at Fort Lewis more than 10 years ago. The harvesting event is their annual reunion.

Hoodsport Winery owner Peggy Patterson told us we picked about 1.5 tons. The winery rewarded our hard work with a sumptuous feast.

While on Stretch Island, my husband and I got a chance to do something we had not done in three previous harvesting trips. We visited the site of the old St. Charles Winery, the first winery in Washington given federal approval to operate after prohibition. Its oldest vine was planted in 1872.

Volunteers are welcome at many of the state's smaller wineries to help with the harvest and crush. During the slower season they assist with bottling and shipping.

Betz Family Winery in Woodinville also uses volunteers extensively. Owner Bob Betz was once the winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He enjoys teaching his volunteers; you could almost call it Betz Family Wine College!

``We have our team of volunteers involved with a range of winery activities, so they get a broad overview of the winemaking process,'' he said. ``They are wine lovers who want to be around winemaking and add to their knowledge of grape varieties, wine types, styles and the cause-effect relationship between winemaking procedures and the sensory results.''

Many of the volunteers have been with the winery for several years, he said, adding that they understand how to run the equipment to de-stem and crush the grapes. They enjoy punching down: the twice daily mixing of skins and juice as fermentation proceeds, he said. Some have chemistry backgrounds and ``enjoy following/testing/measuring the juice during fermentation,'' he said.

Those who offer free labor to the winery include ex-military officers, officials of companies, attorneys, business owners, wine stewards, human resources directors and retired people, he said.

``Our volunteers have become close friends,'' Betz said.

Other wineries using volunteers include Whidbey Island Vineyard, E.B. Foote, Facelli and Matthews. Information about volunteering is at a number of Washington wineries' Web sites.

Helping out at a winery will aid in your appreciation of wine because you will realize how much hard work goes into that bottle sitting on the grocery shelf.

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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