Standing in the middle of a vineyard during harvest season is a sensory experience. The grapes perfume the air with a floral aroma; the ripe fruit gleams in the late-summer sun. If you pluck a purple Chambourcin grape from the vine and pop it into your mouth, you’ll taste a jammy, earthy flavor; if you’re in a row of greenish-white Vignoles, you’ll pick up notes of citrus.
Depending on the year and grape varietal, harvesting can start as early as August in Missouri and usually runs through mid-October, so most days in the vineyard are hot and humid. During harvest at Edg-Clif Farms & Vineyard near Potosi, Missouri, you’ll hear the quick cut of harvester forks removing grape clusters from the vine before gently falling into large bins (or lugs, as they’re known to the initiated), as all of the grapes here are harvested by hand. You’ll also hear chatter and laughter as workers make their way through the rows, and the gentle hum of insects.
This is just a normal September morning at Edg-Clif, but for some first-time harvesters, it’s a rare opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how a local vineyard and winery operates.
Edg-Clif's winery opened just seven years ago – and the vineyard was planted only two years before that – yet the land has been farmed by the same family for more than 90 years. The winery was founded by sisters Steffie Littlefield and Cyndy Keesee, alongside their husbands, Stephen and Girard, respectively. Today, Keesee is the winemaker, while Littlefield oversees everything from marketing to grape growing and coordinating classes on-site.
For the past five years, in addition to Edg-Clif's own workshops and tours, the winery has also hosted classes with the YMCA Trout Lodge & Camp Lakewood in Potosi – the second-largest YMCA campus in the country. Littlefield says the YMCA classes draw participants from across the country throughout the year; some workshops run a full week, with guests staying at Trout Lodge overnight, while others are day programs. Whether you're attending a harvesting class at Edg-Clif in partnership with the YMCA or one hosted solely by the winery, guests are in for a unique experience.
“We’ve had people [join us for harvest] from Florida, Minnesota, California, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana,” Littlefield says. “They just love being in the vineyard, working side by side with us, asking questions. Once they’ve seen the grapes, harvested them, seen them crushed and the tanks they go into, and then they taste the wine, they have a whole new understanding and appreciation for what’s in their glass.”
Grapes are usually harvested at Edg-Clif early in the morning, before the summer sun warms them. In general, when grapes are harvested, they immediately stop ripening, so when you pick the fruit at a colder temperature, the sugar levels are much more stable. “It affects the sugars and how much color is going to come out of the skins,” Keesee says.
Edg-Clif currently grows Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles, although the vineyard’s biggest crop is Chambourcin, which is grown on four acres. Littlefield says that people spend about three hours harvesting out in the vineyard and get to see first-hand how staff “baby the vines.”
“It’s something almost everybody can participate in and get that feeling of, ‘I’m harvesting the grapes that will make wine,’” Littlefield says. “I have so many people after an experience like this who say, ‘I want to buy that wine when it’s available.’”
Don and Audrey Schindler of St. Louis attended the first harvest event at Edg-Clif five years ago with friends. Don says it was their first time signing up for such a class, and the experience made them lifelong fans of the family-owned winery. Even though the Schindlers attended the harvest class several years ago, Don still vividly recalls the experience as fun and easy; the weather was unseasonably cool, which he remembers made the outdoor work even more enjoyable.
“We came away having a better feel as to the grapes, what we harvested and how they were processed,” Don says. “Before the vineyard experience, we didn’t even realize how [wine] grapes were grown. The harvest, it was an interesting and relatively easy process.”
While Littlefield heads up the tours and works with participants in the vineyard, Keesee educates them on how the grapes are used to make wine.
“We bring all the fruit in, explain to them how we weigh it, why it gets weighed – so we know how much fruit, how much juice we’re going to get from it,” Keesee says. “So they’re going to be watching us take the fruit from the lugs, go through the crusher/destemmer, and through a must pump into a tank.”
Keesee adds that although many class participants have attended tours of other wineries and vineyards in the past, she finds that discussing the winemaking process itself is often new information.
“I had a tour last Thursday, and over half of them raised their hands that yes, they’ve been on many winery tours,” Keesee says. “So I asked them, ‘How do you make wine?’ And they had no idea. We really try to give everyone a basic understanding of how wine is made, what the actual process is and how simple it really is so that they can go away with something tangible.”
Edg-Clif makes a range of wines with its three grape varietals, although Chambourcin is used most prominently. “We make Chambourcin in a lot of different styles and ways, from rosés to barrel-aged reds to working on Ports,” Keesee says. “We do everything with that grape because it’s just so versatile and makes such nice wine.”
To make its dry rosé, for example, Chambourcin grapes are pressed off the skins immediately, fermented with a French yeast strain and aged in stainless steel to achieve flavors similar to Provence-style rosés. As a result of the grapes and specific yeast strain used, the rosé has a juicy, crisp, fruit-forward flavor.
Keesee shares with the classes her reasoning for using various yeasts to bring out different flavor profiles in wine, the difference between oaked and unoaked wines and how French-American hybrid grapes can be vinified to make both sweet and dry styles of wine.
“They have no idea that there could be so many different yeast strains out there and how that all takes place; to them, yeast is yeast,” Keesee says. “That part is very fun. Most people, even though they know that yeast is ubiquitous in our environment, they don’t realize that you can just take a lug full of grapes and sit them out in the sun and they’ll start fermenting right there and then. Those are the kinds of things that are fun to talk [about]. Making it taste good is a whole other issue; it’s a whole other science.”
Some classes cover more of the science of winemaking than others; Keesee says it’s subject to the group.
“It depends on what their experiences have been in the past or who they are: Sometimes we get people who are avid cooks, and so they have questions about how we come up with [wine] ‘recipes,’ as they put it,” Keesee says. “You might have someone who’s an avid home winemaker or brewer, and so they have more technical questions and they want a little more information. Or I might get the occasional engineer or chemist in, and then they really have good questions. I learn as much from them as they learn from me.”
The day the Schindlers helped with harvest, they watched as Keesee explained how Edg-Clif’s white and rosé wines are made by pressing the juice off the skins right away. “It’s an amazing process to me," Don says. "Because once they get the grapes up to the winery, it’s fascinating how they separate the juice from the skins. It’s all a hands-on operation. It’s a great experience.”
Littlefield and Keesee agree that the greatest joy of the tours is sharing a piece of their work with people.
“When they see the labor and love that go into producing [our wine]... I always tell them that part of what they’re going to taste is a handcrafted product, just like if you were to buy homemade bread,” Littlefield says. “Yes, the bread off the shelf at the grocery store might be less expensive, but there’s going to be a difference in flavor and quality. Our wine is handcrafted, not manufactured; that’s the big difference.”
By afternoon, class participants at Edg-Clif have helped move harvest season along in the vineyard and viewed the next step at the winery – but the wine education doesn’t stop there.
After seeing how grapes are processed with Keesee, guests retire to the tasting room, where Littlefield and Keesee host a series of workshops. Topics range from the long history of Missouri’s wine industry to an overview of the top grape varietals grown in the state to a sensory exercise that teaches you how to enjoy wine with all five senses.
In the sensory workshop, Littlefield walks people through how to verbalize the aromas and flavors they’re experiencing in a particular wine. For example, being able to identity a tart apple or tannic flavor is more specific and accurate than saying it’s fruity or sour. At the end of the exercise, guests sip white and red wines and are asked to share their impressions of the flavor, aroma and other sensory details. When it’s time for pencils down, guests are invited to partake in a tasting of Edg-Clif’s wines.
“They have a tasting, explain the wines and what to serve it with and they talk about their product,” Don says. “It’s a unique experience, to say the least.”
After spending only half a day at the winery, Don and Audrey joined Edg-Clif’s wine club. He says they’ve returned for wine-club member events about four times a year since, including coursed dinners, chili cook-offs and more.
During the inaugural year of Edg-Clif’s collaboration with the YMCA, a group of about 10 participants, including Don and Audrey, helped with Edg-Clif’s first Vidal Blanc harvest. Littlefield says that after the second day of harvesting, all 10 people signed up for the wine club, and today, six of them still attend almost all of the winery’s events. “One of the couples moved to Florida, and they call me and email me with orders,” Littlefield says with a laugh.
Nicolle Wright, business and marketing director for the YMCA Trout Lodge, was also in attendance at that first weekend event, which introduced guests to other outdoor activities including a farm tour; she recalls making grape jelly with the class the day after the harvest at Edg-Clif using leftover wine grapes.
“Sometimes they’re wine connoisseurs, sometimes they’re not,” Wright says. “They’re interested in how it all happens – the magic of how you get the grape to be the wine you drink in the bottle. And Steffie and Cyndy are phenomenal at that; the reason they’ve gotten to where they are is because of how great they are at being very personal about their experiences, and being very personable to the people they work with.”
The classes co-hosted with the YMCA not only introduce people far and wide to the winery and its offerings, but a portion of the proceeds are funneled back into supporting future YMCA programming. This, Littlefield says, is at the heart of the partnership for she and Keesee: Although the sisters host plenty of classes and events at Edg-Clif throughout the year on their own, they feel a special affection for supporting the work of their local YMCA.
“I think what they offer our whole community and the whole country is invaluable,” Littlefield says. “We like to support that; we think that all people should have the opportunity to come to someplace beautiful, like the Ozarks, and experience it, be outdoors and have some fun.”
In another of the early classes, Littlefield recalls a woman from California who was visiting family in Missouri and signed up for the winery workshop. Although the woman lived near one of the most revered viticulture regions in the world, she found a new appreciation and passion for wine at Edg-Clif.
“She said that not only did she feel like our winery tour and all the information she got was better than anything she’d ever got in California, where everybody pushes you through in big groups, she joined our wine club and has been buying our wine ever since,” Littlefield says. “She emails me all the time [asking,] ‘Do you have this wine? I miss that wine!’ She loved that experience, and she feels like the wine brings back those memories of making friends and being in the vineyard.”
Edg-Clif Farms & Vineyard, 10035 Edg-Clif Drive, Potosi, Missouri, edg-clif.com