La Vendange, American Style

A tale of grape expectations.

Illustration by Pat Kinsella

The text came at the end of august. “assuming the weather holds,” my friend Tayloe Dameron, owner of Upper Shirley Vineyards in the heart of plantation country east of Richmond, wrote, “Saturday morning we will have our first grape harvest. If u wish to come by and help harvest or just check it out please do!” Did I ever. I had been waiting for 30 years to take part in a vendange, or grape harvest. Little had I imagined that it would occur right here in Virginia.

Sure, the state has long had its sights set on being a wine producer. Jamestown passed a law requiring all men to cultivate at least 10 vines. Washington worked at it for a decade, and Jefferson for three. These efforts using Old World vines (vinifera) were doomed because of New World insects (Phylloxera) and disease. The local Norton grape brought success, including kudos at the 1873 and 1889 World’s Fairs, but Prohibition slammed on the brakes. In the past decade, though, Virginia has finally become a major player on the national wine scene.

My first vendange was supposed to happen the year I graduated from college. Somehow during my time at UNC, when keg beer and grain punch were the usual fare, I had acquired a taste for vin rouge. Perhaps it was while savoring the leftovers in bottles that Hew, an SAE brother, brought home from his job waiting tables. Or maybe it was the night when my girlfriend (now wife) Jessica and I went to La Residence for her birthday, courtesy of her mother, and I first tasted a luscious merlot-laden Saint-Émilion.

So I lined up a volunteer job for me and a buddy, Tim, at a Bordeaux vineyard in mid-September, the guesstimated time for the vendange that year. As luck would have it, however, the grapes were late, and we ended up pitching hay for a misanthropic farmer. At the end of a long day of sweaty, itchy work, all hands of both genders (about 10 of us) would strip off our clothes and leap into a giant cistern to relieve the misery. The farmhouse meals, while tasty, were too skimpy to sate our labor-fueled appetites. After a week, before the grapes ever ripened, Tim and I hit the road, hitchhiking south—to go paint a house.

Tayloe’s text was not totally unexpected. The previous week, I had visited Upper Shirley the day after a violent storm had narrowly missed his vineyard. More storms were in the forecast. “If you can keep the grapes on the vines four more days, I can make a good wine,” the recipient of the grapes had told him that day. “Six more days, and it will be an excellent wine. Ten more, and I can make a gold-medal winner.” Tayloe looked tense. He was going for the gold.

On the morning of the vendange, I arrived at Upper Shirley with some trepidation. A primal vendange scene in Patrick O’Brian’s novel The Catalans has long been etched in my mind: The pickers work with expert skill, moving swiftly down the vines. When one sees another miss a cluster of grapes, he knocks her to her knees—as tradition demands—whistles loudly for all to watch, grabs her head in both hands, and then puts his mouth to her forehead and crows like a cock. Truly.

Upper Shirley’s first vendange turned out to be everything I had hoped for, and less. Less work, less buggy, less itchy and back-breaking. The fat, dusky bunches of petit verdot, a dark, flavorful grape originally from Bordeaux, were mostly chest high. A gator was on hand to pick up the bins, so no schlepping. And many had answered the call. Having made it through the 10 days, and with the outpouring of support, Tayloe was buoyant.

I was handed some clippers and listened to the instructions on what not to throw into the bin, namely unripe grapes, which the sorters can’t pull out and which wreak havoc on the flavor of the wine, as well as fingers, for obvious reasons. I grabbed a yellow bin and hit the row in progress. I soon found myself across the vine from and chatting away with Muschi and Fred Fisher, spry grandparents, part of three generations of the Westover Plantation family, which was out in force. Charles and Lauren Carter, owners of Shirley Plantation, were there too, as was the well-known Richmond restaurateur and caterer Joe DeFazio.

The vendange is a festive occasion, the culmination of months of hard work. We picked more than four tons of grapes, and while I nicked myself enough to draw blood, no fingers went into the basket, and no one crowed like a cock on my forehead.

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