By Deirdre Parker Smith
GOLD HILL ó They started picking about 6:30 Friday morning. The sun was just coming up, and the temperature was almost pleasant.
They were determined to quit by 10:30 because, as vineyard owner Tommy Baudoin says, “No sense picking when you can’t breathe.”
Tommy and his wife, Amie, have a 7-acre vineyard on John Morgan Road, off Stokes Ferry. It’s on land that has been in Amie’s family, the Morgans, for generations.
One day, they hope to open a small winery at their vineyard, to be called Morgan’s Ridge.
Extreme heat has been almost cooking the grapes on the vines, and picking the first white grapes, a seyval blanc, was a now-or-never thing.
Amie’s mother, Rae Huneycutt; a friend, Steve Morgan; and Bobby Rushing, who helps Tommy on the farm, were the only ones out early.
It isn’t easy work, and as the sun turned from orange to searing white, it was hot, sticky work, as the grapes oozed juice.
Amie, her mother and Steve were picking on the east side, the sun at their backs. Tommy and Bobby were on the west, the sun in their eyes.
Buckets were filling up fast with golden-green clusters of the grapes. Hanging at the edge of the vines were smaller, greener clusters, a second growth that wasn’t ready for picking.
“This variety is very surprising. Even after the freeze, we had to thin it twice. It doesn’t put out enough foliage to ripen all the fruit,” says Amie.
The seyval blanc grapes are at the top of the vineyard, on an easy rise, and comprise seven rows, with sparse clusters, nothing like last year.
“Some grapes are softening up, some look really good,” says Amie. “The sugar is so sweet, it’s like syrup.”
The family dogs, particularly Weimaraners Willie and Heidi, are “helping.” Mostly standing close by to gobble anything that hit the ground. Last year, Amie had to put them on a diet after the harvest.
Some grapes are shriveled and raisin-like, perhaps from mildew, a fungus or the extreme heat, but what’s left will be “real sweet,” Amie says.
If a cluster has both healthy and unhealthy grapes, Amie cuts out the unhealthy part and drops the good in the bucket.
Right now, flies are the only buzzing thing in the vines, while dozens of birds, mostly robins, fly overhead, hoping to steal some fruit. The rest of the vines are covered in netting to prevent that.
Tommy lifted the netting off the seyval blanc on Thursday.
Bobby has obviously done this a lot. He weaves through the lines of vine, supporting wires and irrigation line to pick up a full bucket from the opposite side of the row and dump it in a larger bin.
Amie points out how tight the grapes are on the cluster, with some squeezed out and shriveled for lack of space.
Before 8 a.m., the smell of the grapes is barely noticeable, but Amy says that by the end of the day, the smell can be sickening.
Tommy expects to get 500 pounds per row of seyval blanc this year ó compared to last year, when he harvested about 1,500 pounds per row.
Easter’s freeze wiped out the chardonnay grapes. The N.C. Department of Agriculture estimates grape production will be down by 24 percent this year.
Amie, Tommy and crew will probably pick the syrah, a red wine grape, next Sunday. They’re only expecting about a ton or so, that might produce 100 or 150 gallons of wine.
For such a small amount, they will process those grapes on site with a hand-cranked crusher and destemmer and experiment with the results.
Tommy explains that red grapes are crushed, destemmed and then put in a vessel of some sort, a fermenting bag or tank, then they add the yeast and wait. Once the primary fermentation is finished, they rack it off into something for storage and let it make wine magic by itself.
Mark Brown at Old Stone Winery in Granite Quarry will crush the seyval blanc today, starting around 11, again working only a couple of hours due to the heat.
Brown is buying all of Tommy and Amie’s crop, except the syrah, as he branches out from muscadine wines, which are sweet, to wines that are more dry.
Tommy moves down the hill to the merlot grapes, now a deep purple, almost black, which have produced small clusters.
“When the canes on the merlot start to turn brown and the stem gets brown, then it’s really ripe and time to get to work.”
One man told him to pick grapes “the day before they rot.”
The cabernets are a dark purple, too, but still have a few green grapes per cluster.
The sangiovese, another red grape, are a little larger, but the clusters are “a quarter the size they were last year.” The spring freeze took its toll.
Tommy’s rule of thumb: Less fruit, more foliage, better wine. The leaves are busy photosynthesizing, feeding the grapes; fewer grapes can mean the juice is sweet and full of flavor.
The sangiovese are a little lighter purple, and the rising sun shines through them just a bit. Sangiovese grows well in Italy and Spain and here. It will be one of the last varieties they will pick, maybe three weeks from now.
The syrah is near the bottom of the hill with smaller clusters. Again, last year’s were twice the size, but the sugar content is at 20, a good number, and those grapes probably won’t go much more than a week before picking.
Tommy likes to keep his vines high off the ground. Could it be because he’s more than 6 feet tall? He smiles. But the real reason is it helps to keep the molds and mildews off the grapes and keeps away other diseases and insects because air flows underneath the vines.
He leaves foliage, and some of the leaves are quite large, at the top and estimates each grape cluster needs 15 to 20 leaves to ripen. The larger the leaves, the larger the clusters.
At the base of the gentle rise of the vineyard are the chambourcin grapes, bigger than any of the other varieties, with looser clusters that let lots of air through.
“These can hang much longer than anything else,” giving them a well rounded flavor.
Tommy and Amie started cleaning the field six or seven years ago, then planted the first vines in 2004, with a small harvest in 2005. Last year, they harvested 30 tons. This year? Maybe half that, but Tommy suspects these grapes will make good wine because they’re survivors.
“Last year, for every foot, I had four large clusters of grapes. This year, for every foot, I have half a cluster, but they’re better grapes. … I cannot wait for the sangiovese to ripen. Wine made with that will probably be the best ever,” due to the concentrated production and the freeze-thinned vines.
Seyval blanc produces what Tommy describes as a cool, clean, crisp wine, a good white table wine.
Once Brown has the grapes at Old Stone and crushes them, he can start the fermentation process. White wines take less time than reds.
So by next spring, patrons of Old Stone Winery may be sampling a wine Mark Brown made from Tommy and Amie’s grapes.
And Tommy and Amie will be on their way to creating Morgan Ridge Winery.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.