By JEFF WILKIN
Leaves in the trees along Route 40 in Schaghticoke are turning red and gold.
Leaves on Mary and Gerry Barnhart’s grape vines are starting to turn light yellow — the growing and harvest seasons at Victory View Vineyard have ended.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also a relief,” said Mary Barnhart, a former elementary school teacher turned vintner, of finally picking thousands of grape clusters. “You get them off before you have any weather problems.”
Apples and pumpkins are big sellers at orchards and farm markets in September and October. Grapes are important for Capital Region vineyards, and picking is just about complete in many areas.
“This has been a pretty good year,” said Gerry Barnhart. “Quantity was down a little bit from last year, maybe 10 percent or so, but the quality of the fruit is excellent this year.”
Barnhart, former director of the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources and the current president of the Upper Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association, said other local wine makers should have had similar success. “Most of the people who have vineyards have been getting nice fruit and decent yields,” he said, “so we’re looking forward to having a good wine making season.”
The Barnharts began their grape operation in 2008, with a quarter-acre of mostly Marquette grapes, for red wine. They conducted their first harvest in 2010 and now, with 3.5 acres in play, grow white La Crescent, red Marechal Foch and white La Crosse grapes, among other varieties. Victory View produces between 6,500 and 7,000 bottles of red and white wine annually, most of them sold at the vineyard off Route 40.
Weather has been a factor for both growing and harvesting this year. Early summer’s wet and cool conditions meant slow starts for many vineyards.
“Grapes like hot weather, mostly dry,” Barnhart said. “Ideally, we’d have 85 degrees every day and an inch of rain on Saturday night. Since early August, although it’s almost been a little cooler than normal, it’s been dry. And the vines did really well in the second half of the growing season.”
At Capoccia Vineyards and Winery in Niskayuna, three acres worth of grapes have been harvested and crushed. “We’re just making wine right now as we speak,” said Justin Capoccia, one of the winery principals.
Rain and cold were never major worries this fall.
“Down the stretch we had good weather,” Capoccia said. “There was maybe one day of rain in the last weeks and the grapes ripened up perfectly.”
Kurt Johnston didn’t have to worry about weather for grapes — he imports most fruits for red and white production at Johnston’s Winery in Galway. But he’s still checking temperature conditions for raspberries and blueberries that grow in his fruit garden.
“They had the right mix of sun and water and they did just great,” Johnston said of his 2014 crop. “My wife and I picked 20 pounds on Wednesday.”
Red and blues will be used for “Johnston’s Grenache” and “Johnston’s Blueberry Wine,” respectively. As long as the weather stays warm, buckets of berries will come out of the garden.
“I’ve got flowers out there and fruit that’s still not ripe,” Johnston said. “It’s a guessing game now. I’ll get another 20, another 50 pounds, I don’t know.”
Michael DiCrescenzo still has some work ahead. Eight tons of grapes have been picked on 13 acres at his Altamont Vineyard & Winery. Another 15 tons must still come in.
“We’re probably a little behind,” DiCrescenzo said. “We’ve been real busy, Saturday festivals, events, just opening up tank space. We have a lot of wine we still have to bottle. We’re juggling stuff around in the winery, also.”
DiCrescenzo isn’t worked about the weather. “We’re farmers,” he said. “We just deal with it.”
Some grapes will be out in the cold, but that scene is planned. “We do an ice wine, so we leave some grapes to freeze,” he said. “We’ll pick those in the middle of December, we’ll get the regular grapes in the next two weeks.”
The Barnharts and their picking crew — mostly family members and friends — picked the majority of the crop during weekends in late September and early October. That was about eight tons of grapes; Gerry and Mary picked the remaining fruit of the vine — about a ton and a half — late last week.
A touch of frost
Unlike some farmers, grape growers don’t have to worry about the first frost of the fall.
“Frost is all right,” Gerry Barnhart said. “As long as it’s not a real hard freeze. A frost will pretty much kill the leaves on the vines, so the vines aren’t going to contribute a lot more to the ripening of the fruit. But you can let the fruit hang after a frost as long as it wasn’t a hard freeze.
“What can be an issue is if we get heavy rains this time of year,” Barnhart added. “When grapes are near ripe, they’re kind of like tomatoes. If you get a real heavy rain, they’ll soak up a lot of the water and actually split open. And that causes all kinds of problems because it offers an opportunity for disease and bugs to get inside the grapes and really ruins the quality.”
Grapes have been picked as early as Sept. 8 at the Schaghticoke operation. “This is the latest we’ve ever harvested,” Barnhart said.
At Victory View, the crusher, presser, fermentation tanks and other equipment are located in a navy blue barn that’s just a two-minute walk from the vineyard. “We pick the fruit when it’s perfectly ripe and it’s in the crusher and in the fermentation tank within hours,” Barnhart said, “so there’s no loss of freshness involved.”
The harvest season begins the busiest time of year for wine producers.
“It’s non-stop,” Barnhart said. “Once you start to pick, there’s just a lot that has to go on in the first two to three weeks after harvest to produce the wine. While we’re picking, there’s a crew running the crusher, a crew running the press. As soon as everything is crushed or pressed, fermentation requires a number of steps every day.”
For red grapes, fermentation includes skins, seeds and some stems for color and flavor elements. Barnhart, on a stepladder next to a nearly six-foot-tall tank, used a stainless steel masher to “punch down the cap” — kind of like churning the fermenting grapes. Now that grapes are off the vine, Barnhart will be on the ladder every day.
“First thing in the morning, last thing in the evening,” he said.
Soon, yellow leaves will fall from the Victory vines.
“It will be bare vines until I come out in February and start pruning them back,” Barnhart said.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.