Take your pick: Facing early harvest, local vineyards seek harvest volunteers

Because of sustained hot weather in central Virginia this summer, the harvest at some wineries is running a week to two weeks earlier than usual. Vineyards are looking for volunteers now through the end of October. Photo: Paul W. Because of sustained hot weather in central Virginia this summer, the harvest at some wineries is running a week to two weeks earlier than usual. Vineyards are looking for volunteers now through the end of October. Photo: Paul W.

Ready to pick some grapes? Awesome. But before you tap the date into your iCalendar, there’s something those feisty, ripening clusters want you to know: Your schedule means nothing to them.

“One year we picked vidal with a 30-minute advance notice,” says Karl Hambsch, the winemaker at Loving Cup Winery in North Garden. “When I woke up, the forecast had suddenly changed to boatloads of rain, so I called the family and said, ‘We’re picking nowAs a volunteer, you probably won’t be rousted out of bed, but wineries will appreciate it if you keep your schedule flexible as they determine the window of opportunity to harvest, often just a few days in advance.

Pitching in to pick grapes loosely reflects the rural European tradition of villagers helping with—and then celebrating—the harvest. This is still common in many wine-producing areas, notably in Italy and France, and popular enough to support its own category of tourism.

In Virginia, sustained heat this summer has led to early ripening, so picking will commence at some wineries one to two weeks earlier than usual. Many producers rushed to rent refrigerated trailers—to store the fruit before the crush—as early as August 19, according to Steve LeSueur of Worldwide Trailer Rental, which supplies Horton, Jefferson, and Barboursville vineyards, among others. “Last year, they wanted them just before Labor Day,” he says.

Regardless of the weather, picking schedules vary. Debby Deal, owner of Palmyra’s Cunningham Creek Winery, says she’s looking for volunteers now through the end of September, while David Foster, owner of Mountain Run Winery, in Culpeper, needs help September 1 through early October.

The tangible rewards vary—a meal with wine is often served—but the real payoff is bonding with others who pitch in their time for a unique agricultural experience.

Five Oaks Vineyard, Barboursville

The winery is a relative newcomer to the area, but owner Robert Shepard’s vines date back to 2011. Volunteers will be picking medal-winning chambourcin, as well as traminette, vidal blanc and cayuga. Breakfast is provided, and pickers take home a bottle or two of wine. Contact: info@five oaksvineyard.com.

Glass House Winery, Free Union

Owner Jeff Sanders jokingly calls his volunteer opportunity a “hard-labor fantasy camp.” But there’s always plenty of interest, so while all are welcome to apply, Glass House Wine Club members get first dibs. Picking starts between 6:30 and 7am, and shifts run three to five hours. The winery provides snacks, cold drinks, and usually lunch and wine. Bottling volunteers are also needed during the year. Contact: jeff@glass housewinery.com.    

Loving Cup Winery, North Garden

Plan ahead if you want to pick grapes at Loving Cup Winery, the sole organic vineyard and winery in the state. “Only our Wine Club members get to work harvest, and you can’t buy your way in—you have to work your way in,” Karl Hambsch says. Eight hours in the vineyard, usually completed in two four-hour shifts, get you into the club. Volunteers can pitch in year-round with everything from shoot thinning to picking. Shifts often end with a cold glass of sangria on the veranda, shooting the breeze with Hambsch. Sign up at lovingcupwine.com/wineclub.html. Contact: info@lovingcupwine.com.

Mountain Run Winery, Culpeper

At Mountain Run’s three vineyards—in Aldie, Hume, and Fredericksburg—grape gathering starts just after dawn, and shifts last as long (or as short) as you’d like, followed by a light breakfast. Ever wanted to foot-stomp grapes? You’ll get your chance here, and home winemakers can even purchase fruit to bring home (BYO buckets!). Contact: mountainrunwinery@gmail.com.

Cunningham Creek Winery, Palmyra

Owner Debby Deal has two jobs for harvest volunteers: picking and sorting. Picking generally starts soon after dawn, depending on the weather. Sorters work inside, assembly-line fashion, separating the good grapes from the detritus. Plan to spend two to three hours as a sorter, or about four hours as a picker. Volunteers get a special harvest T-shirt and a bottle of wine after six volunteer hours. Contact: debby@middleforkfarm.net.

Volunteer tips

Picking: Wear comfortable closed-toe shoes or boots, dress in layers, and bring a hat, gloves, and a water bottle (it gets hot among the vines).

Sorting and bottling: Mostly done under cover or indoors; wear comfortable shoes and clothes you won’t mind getting stained, and carry a water bottle.

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