Monday, September 9, 2013

The Grape Harvest-Sandstone Ridge

Howard and The Grapes

In a chapter of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom convinces several  friends he meets during the day that whitewashing  a fence is great pleasure.  With a bit of bargaining, Tom negotiates and collects a small stash of treasure from each boy who passes by in exchange for the privilege of working on the fence.  Tom reflects that all it takes to make someone want something is to make it hard to get.  That timeless story floated around my head as the sweat dripped off my brow harvesting grapes the other day.  It was very warm for mid September as I joined a small group of fans of the Sandstone Ridge Winery & Vineyards, harvesting some of the first grapes of the season.

 The call had gone out to friends and family of the vineyard that harvest time was here and if interested, we could reserve our spot on the picking team for the day.  Harvesting will continue into early October, but like Tom Sawyers friends, I wasn’t going to let this first opportunity slip by! Although I make my own wild berry wines, this was a chance to see behind the scenes production on a professional level.

 I am an enthusiast of Standstone Ridge wines and the beautiful winery and vineyard owners Bob and Connie Dubiel have created  high on a ridgetop in West Central Wisconsin near Osseo.   The Dubiels, along with family and friends have crafted an enterprise in these hills-finding just the right climate and soil to produce grapes and award winning wines with  unique and rich flavors.  Although the winery is only in it’s second year,  this 40 acre vineyard, along with a second smaller one in a valley near Pleasantville,  have been painstakingly developed for some time with plenty of sweat equity and pride.

Our early morning group of volunteers gathered at the beautiful wood and stone winery for coffee and rolls and introductions. There was  enthusiasm and a bit of anxiousness to get started, even though most of us had no idea what lie ahead in the countless rows of grape vines waiting  outside.   Bob gathered us in the center of the vineyard and gave instructions on the proper use of harvesting tools,  picking techniques, which berries to toss and which to keep.  We’d start on several rows of plump white Brianna grape as the morning sun quickly started warming the ridge top.   Even with our late spring, deluge of rain early and now near drought conditions, Bob reported and we witnessed how productive this crop was-the bunches of grapes very large and delicious.   He gave us one rule-eat as many of the grapes as we’d like, proving the myth that wine grapes are terrible eating so very wrong. 

White plastic crates were spread out between the rows and soon filling as we started getting the hang of this harvesting thing.  Pickers would pair up on either side of the vines and spread out the heavy foliage to find and clip off clusters-some camouflaged well while others wound around the supporting trellis.  After a while, a rhythm almost develops while picking, meditative, as one cuts and grasps several bunches in the hand before moving on.  Quiet conversations between  harvesters worked slowly down each row until finished, the white bins now full and ready for pick up.  These grapes would be sold to another winery and I joked to Connie that we’d  work harder if we thought this fruit would be poured into a glass next summer from the Sandstone Ridge cellar! 

  Bob moved us to a different grape, a red Sabrevios which was much easier to see and pick.  The deep purple of the bunches stood out in stark contrast to the green leaves.  Grapes can be trained to grow either high or low on the trellis, so for myself, the high bunches were within easy reach.  The Sabrevios were more fragile and having purple stained hands and clothes become quite fashionable.  Sometimes these reds had a dirty knack of tangling themselves around the wire or send tendrils to anchor down the bunches, making it wholly a puzzle to free them into my crate.  A couple more family members arrived and within a few hours, we’d finished our assigned rows and thankful for the break as the day really warmed up under the cloudless sky.

The Dubiels provided a wonderful lunch and even more welcome,  shade under a beautiful pavilion in the center of the vineyard.  The shared labor brought down any walls and soon the shelter was filled with chatty  friendly people just enjoying the breeze and scenery.  Six wines were brought out to enjoy with our meal and perhaps help encourage anyone who wanted to do a little grape stomping.  Several did and the red and white grapes were soon a slurry of “must” (which Bob would donate to the forest critters and not use for wine).  It’s more ceremonial than anything, but produced giggles and red stained feet and well worth it for entertainment value.  Good friend Howard and I even convinced his wife Bobbie to roll up her pants to give it a go.  (I think she really wanted to all along!).

The family and hired hands returned to harvesting, with Bob giving us the option of joining back in, but suggested that maybe we’d rather relax, sample another glass and take in the view.  Yeah, that sounded good to me.    On another harvest day, I’ll be convinced like Tom Sawyers buddies, that it is a great privilege and honor to be out among the vines, filling crates and staining hands.  Honestly, I know most of us here will be back-the Dubiels are just great people,  and this a beautiful place.  But for the rest of the day, I think I’ll just kick back, relax, enjoy the panorama in front of me and the fruits of their labor.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

49th First Day

Tearful moms and (even) dads, smiling kids, fresh pencils and waxy crayons-lunch money lines and hurried school breakfast.  Long lines of walking backpacks head to the 4K room trailing a teacher with unsure and somewhat afraid eyes.  6th graders went from the big dogs in the elementary school to the little fish in middle school-they'll make it and one of my favorite classes to come though in a while.  Once again the art teacher strolls the halls to see the fresh faces-they'll be filing into my room soon enough-my 49th first day in pictures.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Beach Ride

The Beach

Clark County Beach?  Well, not many and too small to qualify as a suitable location for a beach ride.  I’ve always been a bit envious of the fatbike stories I see about riders who maybe live close to Lake Michigan or Superior and have the opportunity to roll along for miles on end on uninterrupted sand.  Ironically,  located 150 miles from the nearest great lake, we actually have miles of uninterrupted sand as well.  So it’s not a beach, and there is no water edge, but we do have sand, the Clark County Forest ATV trails with no shortage of motorheads churnin up the soil, produce gobs of it.

Although the locals here call Levis Mound home, we do venture off singletrack from time to time to explore or at the very least,  have a change of scenery.  The subject of a “beach ride” came up over a few beverages and since fatbikes are our ride of choice, it was a perfect match.  Back in the day, we used to organize a mountain bike century-the “Quad Quiver”, but now, ATVs have the old trails tilled up into miles of deep sand-unrideable for normal mountain bikes.

Being fairly smart-the plan was to get onto the trails early in the morning (ATV riders seem to sleep in) when traffic is low and temps cooler.  Our jumping off point being Rock Dam, north west of Neillsville and ATV central.  Good friends and fatbike fans Dan and Laura happen to live there and with their Pugsleys,  and a quick dip of tires on the public beach, we headed out.  It soon became apparent that even in deep powdery sand, the big treads float very well and we could make our way smoothly down the white ribbon of trail.   The forestry department if often awarded ATV maintenance funds from the state gas tax, so in some parts of the forest, the “trails” are very much like gravel hiways.  Here, the terrain is fairly flat, so the natural sand, a few inches below the top soil, is what makes up a majority of the riding surface.  Our itinerary was to ride a 5 or 6 mile loop in the Rock Dam area to see how we felt.  The wheels rolled along well, and soon we passed by our return loop and ventured further-why not, the fatties were performing great in the loose sand.  Dan had ATV’d some of these trail many years earlier and there was some uncertainty as to exactly where we were.  Some east and west power lines and north and south forest roads helped with dead reckoning luckily.  We stumbled on what may be the only “waterfall” in Clark County-a little gem on the South Fork of the Eau Claire River.  A perfect place to just relax for a while and debate where we were. 

Knowing we needed to head south to return, we followed a forest road-fresh with skidder and logging truck tracks into a huge oak timber sale.  The road dead ended with no clear way out, so reluctantly we reversed course until hitting the powerline again, and decided to bushwack down that-luckily, the fatbikes handle about everything and we were able to mow down tall swamp grass and hidden ruts and make our way back to civilization, a few miles from our starting point.  Riding a bit of pavement back set our tires buzzing we rolled into Rock Dam no handed and feeling good after the three hour adventure-our first “beach ride” a success.  Nothing wrong with a little fatbike exploring and getting lost for a spell.  As J. R. R. Tolkien  said: “Not all those who wander are lost.”  I couldn’t agree more.