Once frost warnings hit, you know fall has arrived—and winter will be here soon enough.
But for Andy and Kathleen Weber of Northern Cross Vineyard, it means it’s time to head outside their 1830s farmhouse in Valley Falls, and start the harvest. Twenty-four rows containing nearly 1,500 vines of white and red varieties like La Crescent, Prairie Star and Marquette, lay ready and waiting.
But this family of four needs help. Many hands make light work, so they invite friends, family, colleagues and customers to join them at the vineyard, and get picking.
Over the course of two Sundays in late September and early October, the Webers host as many as three dozen people—adults, teens and kids—for a pair of harvest parties, first showing guests how to pick grapes and then sharing a hearty meal with them, and of course, a glass of wine.
“Meeting new people—picking grapes with a bunch of people I’ve never met, has just been great,” says Beth Kahabka, who attended both harvest parties this year. Her husband recently reconnected with Andy, a childhood friend, over Facebook.
“Honestly, it’s the highlight of my fall, coming here and helping,” says Laura Manning, a longtime friend of the Webers, who came to help out alongside her husband, Steve. “It’s sort of like an Amish barn raising,” she says, referencing the way in which neighbors and friends lend a hand.
A lot must be done in a relatively short amount of time, says Kathleen Weber. “We aim to keep our grapes on the vine as long as possible, but we definitely need them off before the first frost.”
It’s also a matter of picking the grapes when the sugar content is just right, something which requires a refractometer. “I look at how the sugar bends the light waves,” Andy Weber says. It deserves mentioning that he’s completely self-taught.
Harvest party guests are told ahead of time to wear rubber boots and carefree clothes as things will get messy, and bring along a pair of pruners. Once in the field, they move down the line picking, dropping grapes into a yellow plastic harvest tote, also known as a lug. Once filled, the lug is carried to a trailer, and driven uphill to the processing area where it’s weighed and logged.
Pounds upon pounds of grapes are dumped into a crushing and de-stemming machine, which does exactly what it should—and quite surprisingly, does it rather well.
After that, Weber gets to the science of things, adding potassium metabisulfite (a preservative) and yeast to the juicy mash. He presses the mash that same day and pumps it into a tank to start the fermentation process.
Weber says he expects a yield of about five to six tons this year, which will ultimately become anywhere from 60 – 80 cases of wine (as many as 960 bottles), all slated for sale at their tasting room and several area farmers’ markets.
If you’re not sure what to go for, Kathleen recommends the Frontenac, their specialty. “But La Crescent is our most popular,” her husband says.
The Webers opened their vineyard in 2014, and have since only used estate-grown grapes in their wine. Although full-time at General Electric, Andy devotes his weekends and evenings to wine-making.
For those of you still surprised by the concept of Saratoga – Capital Region wine, he says we have the cultivation of hearty hybrids to thank. “Marquette, Frontenac [vines] in particular, are good to minus 30 degrees,” he says Which means these vines can not only survive a brutal northeastern winter, but prove fruitful the following summer.
In fact, if the Webers are successful, the area will soon become its own distinct wine region and span seven counties: Albany, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie and Washington.
Alongside 17 other wineries, they have petitioned for formal designation from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as the Upper Hudson American Viticultural Area, and grant them identical legal status as the Finger Lakes region. The Webers says they expect the regulation to pass sometime in 2017, and a wine trail will follow.