The morning called me up at six am. This was a day to harvest. I made plans to be at the vineyard in Stonington, Connecticut, to work for free, this Friday morning. The weather was moderate and cool. My adrenaline coursed my veins without hesitation, as I ate breakfast, let the dogs out and drove to Jonathan Edwards Winery.
All of my life, I’ve lived with wine. As a kid, dad showed me how to make home-made wine in the kitchen: Welch’s grape juice, a packet of yeast, a washed-out reusable plastic bottle and a stopper. (The notion that you can teach your kids to understand the properties and responsibilities of wine in the home has proved invaluable.) Later in my college-days, I remember driving in my 1971 two-door Buick LeSabre, up and down the rolling summer hills of the Finger Lakes ‘lake country,’ in upstate New York, capturing the sweet air passing through the 145 plus vineyards dreaming of wine. Back in 1994, when I was in Los Angeles, I landed my first job with Gallo Wine Distributors, managing twenty-one large grocery stores in the heart of Hollywood. And years later, after my divorce in Rhode Island, I worked at Greenvale Vineyards, as a cutter, tasting-server and tour guide, living, again, with wine.
In all of my experiences, my sense of wonder has increased, to do more, within the spirit-culture of wine making. I believe in holistic-healings, the Dionysian mysticism, the religious symbolism and my own intuitive truths of family, as attractions. Maybe it’s the evolution of my soul working and living a natural existence. My solaces of wine, theater and chocolate are combinations for a new vitality. My heart relishes this craving, as a healthy addiction to my soul: the human existence of interacting passions, as the very essences of life.
The winding drive up to the winery built an impending excitement. I was waved-in by Chris, the vineyard foreman, to park and sign-in. His friendly smile and genuine attitude was welcoming like some unspoken secret – something organically beautiful – hiding in the vineyard. And, being there, I was going to find out.
Everyone gathered, until we had our motley harvest-crew: young, old, retired, out-of-work, seasoned and virgin pickers (like me), alike. But, we all accepted each other, equally, because we all wanted to share the same experience together: harvesting the same grapes in the same vineyard for the same accomplished feeling. This was my first awakening.
Chris drove us to the back-lot to begin on the Chardonnay section. As we gathered, he gave us the basic instructions, and handed out cutters to begin. As simple as it was to cut the bunches, there were rules about how to harvest. First, the snips are very sharp and one can cut a finger, or two. Second, handle the grapes with firm care, and place gently in the buckets. Third, move the colored buckets inside the vines so they’re not kicked by the tractor. Fourth, have fun!
The seasoned workers brought their stools, buckets and even chairs to place in front of their ‘pole-to-pole’ or ‘buck-to-bucket’ work spaces. And the conversations began as quickly as the shears began click-clack cutting. These strangers, friends, and older acquaintances relaxed and worked, while discussing their lives between rows of grapes. The cool grey morning settled everyone into an open rhythm. Our goal was to produce 12.5 tons of Chardonnay by days-end (and, wouldn’t ya know it, we came very close!). This was my second awakening: human interaction and neighborly dialogue is vital to produce a good days’ work.
Immediately, I stopped at a bucket and listened, while I clipped bunches of grapes. My ears amazed my senses at how important and fulfilling everyone was working. Everyone’s individual conversation become one human voice – a cacophony of dialogues. The natural timing of the snipping-beat produced a melody with everyone’s voices. I was swept-up, into this collection, sharing with my fellow harvesters, and made new friends. As we cut and finished a section, we would say ‘goodbye’ and move to the head-of-the-line, and restart a conversation with another. All day we rotated and kept many different conversations going on as we came back to one another shifting and cutting. Because there was no money, only wine as our payment or reward, there was no politics or rivalry – quite the opposite. In fact, volunteering produced more ‘hard work’ by everyone helping each other; this natural camaraderie went to a new high when each of us rotated and kept an eye-out for unseen bunches of grapes. A working ‘golden rule’ motto, emerged: “If I had a vineyard, I’d hope people would have the same care.”
Then I was struck. I wasn’t hurt, but blinded by the cut on my left index finger. A sense of immediate shock blunted my pain. On my row, I looked up and noticed the majestic morning beauty. Each of the rows were draped in white, like a ritual. These were virgin grapes, naturally grown for the first time this year, and ready to be plucked to make wine. The lush green vines, with their wide leaves, tried to hide it’s savoring fruit. The white netting laced on-top and the blue azure reaching into the heavens produced a romanticism only in novels, poetry and movies: a marriage between Man and Nature. I was part of a human ritual to celebrate life, family and love. A strong softness swept me with the passing breeze. I could feel this inherit force cut me, as I had cut each grape bunch. I, too, was bleeding. I felt the blood tingle, from my finger, as I watched it drip, and deposit into the ground, as if I was now part of an ancient cycle of existence. In every culture, through the ages, wine has been the life-blood. No matter the religion, and before the Romans and Greeks, wine has been the source of our civilization.
In my transcendent moment, I could breathe. I looked at my sugared-hands and bleeding finger. I was now in-tune with the vines. My blood mixed with the grapes’. I took two grapes and rubbed them on my cut. No sting. The natural sugars coagulated with my blood and closed my wound. Instinctively, I did this without thinking. I silently rejoiced. In my solitary moment, I was in a timeless connection. Standing on this farm, in the middle of Connecticut, in North America, I journeyed to the primal root of my heart.
Everyone harvesting got to know each other well. Our friendliness took to laughter. Each of us became close, like brothers and sisters. We created a new family within the Jonathan Edwards’ family winery. At three-thirty, our day came to an end with the last row of Chardonnay. We accomplished a good day’s work together. We were exhausted and filled-up with ear-to-ear smiles. Our reward was near: three bottles of wine (of our choice), and either a cooler of beer, or glasses of wine!
Within these moments, after our labor together in the vineyard, under the September sun, between the rows of Chardonnay grapes, gave us, each, a moment to reflect: Grace. And, everyone, volunteers and employees, came out and expressed their wholesome thanks. The harvest work wasn’t over, but our efforts for the day were much appreciated, as we appreciated the experience of being together – working together for a common good – Vino!
In these days of fever-pitched politics, low-wage economics and feast-or-famine successes, this day was a ‘cut’ above. Even with all of the made-made technologies in cellphones, internet and computers to quicken our memories, we can never replace the natural rhythm of the human touch. My awakenings proved that our human sensitivities are not lost, but are within a hope of an untamed essence. It’s our primal need to communicate and create together; we are living passions being played out to live together. Our harmony is only enjoyed by embracing the virtues of our hearts with wine, for example. Living together is working together for a common soulful good. Technology and business may aid us in our efforts to make life easier, but the true reward is our will to work hard toward mutual companionship: to live and care with others, as friends and family.
In one day, we became one union – heart-to-heart and grape-to-grape – to make wine. This vineyard harvest was an unforgettable joy. In every glass of wine, for the rest of my days, I will always treasure this memory. ~Cheers!