On a cool night in the middle of September, the farmland and surrounding woods just outside of Hermann, Mo., are dark and still, illuminated only by the starry sky above and the warm glow of a harvest moon. I’m standing at the edge of a vineyard filled with Traminette wine grapes, a Gewürztraminer hybrid first developed 49 years ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The grapes perfume the air with a floral, citrusy scent, almost like walking through a field of wild honeysuckle.
“The winemakers and I know the grapes are ready to be picked when they press the grapes and make a little juice. We smell it, taste it,” says Nick Pehle, vineyard manager at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann – and tonight, my tour guide. “Harvest is usually based on the flavor and the odor of the grapes. And with Traminette you get that real floral smell, and you kind of know they’re getting there. I can smell it walking through the vineyard.”
From the dirt road up ahead, an abrupt shock of shiny bright blue metal and yellow light cuts through the calm, moving slowly toward the rows of grapes.
Stone Hill is halfway through its 2013 harvest season, and the giant mechanical grape harvester that plucks grapes off of vines is beginning its 10pm shift – and tonight, I’m along for the ride.
Before work gets underway, Pehle makes sure his six-person team is ready for the night’s harvest. Mechanical grape harvesting requires fewer workers than handpicking, but it’s still daunting work, even for a small pool of employees. Pehle says it can take years to train harvester operators, and to date, only Pehle and two of his employees – including tonight’s driver, Randy “R.J.” Nolte – are allowed to operate the towering machine. Nolte tells me it’s kind of like driving a 7,000-pound minivan.
This is the last night Traminette will be harvested this season. Over the next eight or nine hours, Pehle and crew will harvest almost 10 acres of grapes, totalling around 50 tons of Traminette in just one night. In comparison, Pehle says that a really fast handpicker could hand-harvest about one ton in eight hours.
According to Stone Hill’s senior winemaker David Johnson, Traminette is a delicate grape that the winery uses to make crisp white wine with hints of lime and Golden Delicious apples, which the yellow-green grapes themselves resemble in color. In order to best express the grape’s delicate flavor, Pehle says it’s crucial to maintain just the right level of sun exposure – too little sun results in the wrong color and almost grassy, herbacious flavors, while too much sunlight can sunscald the grapes and produce undesirable raisin-like notes. To control sun exposure, the vineyard staff performs leaf thinning throughout the growing season up until the week before harvest.
“That’s one of the keys with Traminette and that’s something that a lot of people miss,” Pehle says. “It’s kind of like getting a tan…you want to start early, when the grapes are small; you want to remove a little bit of leaves, kind of get them used to the sun, and then go back several times and remove a few more leaves. Two weeks before harvest, you wouldn’t want to strip a [bunch] of leaves off, because [the grapes] will burn just like your skin. Actually, they can burn badly enough that the skin will crack, and they’ll start to bleed.”
In the Traminette vineyard, the harvester enters the first row of grapes, straddling the row, chugging slowly along, shaking grapes from vines in a swaying motion. Grapes gently ride up into the harvester and are dropped, while a fan removes leaves, knotty pieces of wood and assorted materials other than grapes (what the crew calls MOG). After several internal processes to remove more MOG, grapes pass over a huge conveyor belt extended like a crane across a row of grapes, where a magnet acts as the last gatekeeper against the dreaded MOG (“we wouldn’t want any staples or fence clips to get into a wine press or a pump,” Pehle says). On the other side of the conveyor belt the grapes are emptied onto a sorting tray that sits on top of a large bin pulled by a tractor in the neighboring grassy lane.
From there, a team of four grape sorters further separate good fruit from MOG as well as unripe or bad grape clusters in the sorting tray before emptying good fruit into the bin. Meanwhile, Pehle seems to be overseeing every stage of harvesting all at once – checking in with Nolte to make sure the machine is operating correctly, inspecting all angles of the harvester from the ground to ensure mechanics are running smoothly and keeping an eye on the harvester’s movement in relation to the tractor-pulled hand-sorting crew, all to ensure the quality of the grapes harvested as well as the safety of his team.
I climb the tall ladder attached to the side of the harvester to stand on the machine’s platform as it moves through the rows. From this height I have the same view as Nolte in the driver’s seat, and despite what I’ve been told, it’s substantially more intimidating than being behind the wheel of a minivan. Operating the harvester requires great concentration and skill, especially in the dark of night. If the tractor pulling the handpicking crew unexpectedly stops short, Nolte has to slam the harvester’s brakes immediately, as the two units truly move as one. Still, standing on the harvester as it barrels down the rows, not being able to see more than a few feet in front of me, watching grapes fly up and around and through the machine, the chill of the night air stinging my face and the wind forming small tangles in my hair, I feel an overwhelming rush of excitement, fear and adrenaline; like running through a field of tall grass and brush, crunching leaves and earth underfoot.
When we reach the end of the first row, the machine turns around sharply, quickly pivoting into the next row on a mission to voraciously strip trellises of fruit before spitting grapes back out onto the sorting tray, again and again and again, for the next eight hours.
With the exception of some of its Norton vineyards, this same process is how Stone Hill harvests all of its grapes. Pehle says mechanical overnight harvesting reduces the winery’s overall energy usage – when you pick grapes at midnight that have been cooling down since before sunset, they come off of the vine at a lower temperature. After grapes are harvested, they travel to the winery, where the vineyard staff deposits them in huge bins on crush pads. The winemaking team surveys the grapes, then dumps them into a large stainless-steel hopper for processing. The first step in the winemaking process is to lower the temperature of the grapes in an automated chiller based on the winemakers’ specifications. If grapes come in at 50 degree temperatures, winemakers don’t have to use nearly as much energy to cool them down, which leads to huge savings, especially considering the volume of grapes processed at Stone Hill.
“My job ends at the crush pad,” Pehle says. “When I drop grapes off, they’re out of my hands and into the winemakers’ hands, and it’s up to them to continue the quality that we’ve done in the vineyard.”
Machines like the harvester Nolte operates have been in use since the 1960s, entering the market just as Stone Hill was reentering the Missouri wine industry after a 45-year hiatus. Initially established in 1847, Stone Hill says that by the early 1900s it was the second largest winery in the U.S., anchoring the flourishing German wine industry in Hermann. But like all wineries from California to Virginia, Stone Hill was forced to shut down its winemaking operations in 1920 in the wake of Prohibition. To turn a profit in the 13 years of Prohibition, Stone Hill instead used its spacious, vaulted underground cellars – previously used to cool and store wine – to grow mushrooms.
After the repeal of Prohibition it took years for former wine-producing regions across the country to recover – former vintners had new careers or had passed away, grapevines had been torn from the soil and American tastes had changed. In Missouri, the commercial wine industry would remain almost nonexistent for the next 30 years. Stone Hill found new life in 1965, when its current owners, Jim and Betty Held, bought and reopened the winery. Under their stewardship, Stone Hill’s property, vineyards and cellars were restored. Over the years, the Helds opened sister wineries in New Florence, Mo., and Branson, Mo., though grape growing and winemaking operations remain firmly planted at the historic flagship in Hermann.
David Johnson has been with Stone Hill since 1978. His fascination with wine started as a young adult and eventually led him to switch careers, leaving the medical field to study viticulture and winemaking at Michigan State University, where he worked for several years before joining the team at Stone Hill. In the more than 35 years that Johnson has been making wine, he has seen a sea change in the Missouri wine industry, growing from a handful of wineries to the more than 100 operating in the state today.
“Our philosophy is to make the very best Missouri wines we can, because that’s unique,” Johnson says. “Do we really need another Cabernet Sauvignon on the store shelf? Instead, we’ve chosen to make wines like Norton and Vignoles, wines that are unique to Missouri. I think that is at the heart and soul of the philosophy at Stone Hill.”
Johnson says that with a white wine grape like Traminette, the winemaking team at Stone Hill tailors their production process to complement the grape’s particular floral character. Because Traminette is a lighter, apéritif-style wine, it does not benefit from aging – in fact, aging it in oak barrels could jeopardize its fresh fruit character. In total, it takes about seven months to produce the winery’s run of Traminette each year. Grapes harvested during the 2013 season were processed this past fall and winter and were bottled and available for purchase in April.
At Kemperberg Farm just south of Hermann in Gasconade County on a bluff elevated 900 feet above the Missouri River, the wind-blown soil is rich and fertile. This is where Pehle grows about half of Stone Hill’s grapes to produce the winery’s robust, inky-colored, dry red Norton wine. Fifty percent of the Norton grapes grown at Kemperberg are mechanically harvested, with the remainder handpicked. Stone Hill also grows Norton grapes at nearby Cross J and Rauch farms, where all of the grapes are handpicked. Norton is the last grape harvested during the season, usually beginning in early October and consuming two to three weeks. Compared to a less complex grape like Traminette, growing and harvesting Norton puts Pehle and his vineyard staff through their paces.
“Everything about Norton makes it difficult to grow,” Pehle says. “In the spring and all summer long, it’s very labor intensive. It requires a very long growing season, a lot of sunlight and good weather, a lot of canopy management. Norton is always – at least here [at Stone Hill] – hand-pruned and hand-spaced; it’s very particular how it’s pruned…It’s very difficult to get excellent fruit. A lot of people growing it miss the finer points.”
Unlike mechanical harvesting, handpicking begins just after sunrise and requires a team more than double the size of the mechanical harvest. Each picker begins with two essential tools: snips for cutting grape clusters off of vines and bright yellow lugs to store grapes in as they pick. Before harvest season begins, Pehle trains pickers to eyeball bad or unripe fruit, mostly based on color – good Norton fruit is deep purple – and like the mechanical harvester, hand-pickers must remove MOG before tossing grapes into lugs. As they work, pickers push their lugs down the row until the lug is full. Eventually lugs are consolidated into large bins, which are then delivered to the winery.
Johnson describes the “pathway” to producing Norton as entirely different from Traminette. One of the biggest distinctions with red wines like Norton is that they’re aged in Missouri oak barrels for a year, sometimes longer, before being bottled and sold. Another distinction is that with Norton, Johnson wants to develop flavors and aromas that are not necessarily only of the grape, like spices and wood, which seep into the wine during barrel aging.
“Barrels do a couple of things,” Johnson says. “They contribute some oaky nuances to the wine, but they also do something that’s magical; something that was discovered by accident: People used barrels like this originally just to ship wine, but something special happened inside those barrels [through aging], and that’s what takes a rather young, straightforward wine and turns it into something complex and fabulous.”
When Johnson talks about wine he is thoroughly and genuinely impassioned, but perhaps never more than when describing Stone Hill’s Norton. From any Missouri winemaker’s perspective this would make sense – many consider Norton the bedrock of the state’s industry, and it’s Missouri’s state grape – but it’s more than that for Johnson. When the Helds bought Stone Hill almost 50 years ago, they also came into possession of a small Norton vineyard that survived Prohibition through a local church, which used it to produce communion wine. Johnson says the Norton grapevines in that vineyard are thought to date back to the Civil War, making them about 150 years old. If this is true, they are some of the oldest grapevines still producing fruit at a commercial winery in America today.
“I do feel I’m partly responsible, along with Jim and Betty Held, for bringing Norton back, almost from the grave,” Johnson says. “That was a variety that was nearly lost, that wasn’t being used to make fine red wines, and now it is. It’s satisfying to have played a part in the revival of Norton, and the Missouri wine industry in general.”
Back in the Traminette vineyard, after eight long hours of mechanical harvesting, the crew is inching toward the final rows. I’m standing on the harvester beside R.J. Nolte, my hands wrapped tightly around one of the platform’s railings, which are much stickier now, covered in a night’s worth of grape juice. This method of harvesting might require fewer workers, but for the crew working tonight, it’s still very physically demanding. When that old field of Norton was first hand-harvested more than a century ago, the process was not much different than it is today. There’s no question that mechanical harvesting is more efficient, but from the driver’s seat, it takes just as much hard work.
“I feel really privileged to be taking care of these grapes,” Pehle says. “Thinking back to 100 years ago or more when the first vineyard manager planted [those old Norton vines], and over the years, all the people who took care of them…It’s an honor for me to take care of them now and to pass them on to future generations. They could be here forever. Well past me, I’m sure.”
By 6:20am dawn has broken, painting the horizon a deeply hued, soft pink-purple. Twenty-five minutes later the harvest is over, and the crew heads back toward the dirt road, our exit back to the winery. As they begin to break down the equipment and haul bins brimming with grapes onto the delivery truck, one of the grape sorters asks his coworkers if they have any cold beer.
Just before the last of the season’s Traminette grapes are driven back to the winery, Pehle comments that 2013 was an all-around great year for grape growing – it rained early in the season, fruit thrived, the weather dried up right before the beginning of harvest season and all of Stone Hill’s grape varieties had healthy-sized, well-balanced crops. By comparison, the Missouri wine industry suffered tremendously in 2007, when the Easter freeze destroyed wine grapes across the state. Some years, crops simply fair better than others, but taking the good with the bad is part of what Pehle enjoys about his job.
“That’s what’s interesting to me, the constant, ever-changing battle with nature,” Pehle says. “There are countless things to balance in the vineyard, and every year is different in the vineyard. Every year we have different weather, different challenges, and that’s what keeps it interesting to me: how it changes.”
Pehle and Johnson are responsible for the quality of Stone Hill’s wines from grapes to glass, but outside of their day-to-day work, both men share the same vision for the future: The hope that the next season, the next year’s harvest, might just be the best yet.
“Winemaking is something where there’s always another vintage,” Johnson says. “There’s something that you think you can do a little differently, a little better – maybe the season will be a little better – and there’s always that opportunity to make an even better wine.
“When somebody drinks a glass of Stone Hill wine, I hope that they taste a little bit of history, a little bit of what makes Missouri special; not just something they bought at the store and have no connection with. That’s why, I think, when people come here and see the old cellars and the history, it helps them become fans of Missouri wine. And it’s our job to make those wines of outstanding quality.”