It's a brilliant mid-September day, the type with a cool morning that foreshadows fall.
By noon, though, the sun, surrounded by a clear blue sky, has warmed up the 200 or so acres of the Jonathan Edwards Winery, and the volunteers and paid employees are beginning to sweat.
For the more than 30 people working atop this North Stonington hill, it's harvest day.
One of seven or so they'll have this fall, harvests at the vineyard cycle through Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, three of the four varietals grown on the property. On this particular day at 74 Chester Main Road, the 21 volunteers, under the watchful eye of vineyard manager Chris Moore, are collecting grapes that will become ready-to-buy Gewurztraminer wine by May or early June. For these volunteers, who are "paid" for their work with lunch and a few bottles of wine to take home, it's the chance to have a hand in producing wine they admittedly love.
"I'll be looking forward to tasting the 2012 Gewurztraminer because I know I had a hand in picking the grapes," said Stephanie Watson, who sat in a camp chair as she moved her hands deftly through the leaves and vines, clipping small clumps of grapes. "I have been out to California many times, I've been to Rhode Island to the wineries, and, I'll tell you, this place is a gem, close to home."
As for the quality of the wines, Watson says, "I think it's better, I do, I really do," she said. "I very rarely get my wines from anywhere, anymore, other than Jonathan Edwards."
The North Stonington winery is in its 10th year. Owner Jonathan Edwards said this year's harvest will produce 5,000 cases, or about 11,000 bottles, of wine. But to get there - to an amount of bottles that Edwards said makes them a "good size-small winery" - the 20 paid employees and 20 to 40 volunteers will have to pick approximately 50 tons of grapes this fall. Additional crops, Edwards said, are grown in Napa Valley, Calif., where his father tends to a growing operation there. But the North Stonington-grown grapes have a flavor that sets them apart from those found in California or even the North Fork of Long Island.
"We have similar growing conditions to the North Fork but very different soil, so we really end up with different wines," Edwards said, "and that's what I think makes coastal New England wines really cool."
Edwards said he has used volunteers from day one. The small size of his crew make them an important cog in the business, he said, and the added allure of the winery's picturesque, rural setting makes it easy to find volunteers.
"A lot of people dream of making wine or something like that and it's not in the cards for most folks," Edwards said, "so to be able to come in, handle the grapes, harvest them, taste them, talk with the wine maker or grape grower and then sip a cool beer perhaps afterward when you're sweating profusely with everybody. I don't know, it makes for a good day. It's just fun."
Last week, Moore, donning a large straw hat, rubber boots and a pair of pruners, made his way through some of the 51 rows of Gewurztraminer grapes, lifting mesh shrouds that protect the fruit from pests so he could examine the product and trim the vines. Volunteers in nearby rows used camp chairs or kneepads as they plucked fruit with shears provided by the winery. Moore encourages volunteers to pay attention as they harvest, as the shears are sharp and Moore has a weak stomach.
"I do provide Band-Aids," he said with a smile.
As the volunteers gingerly filled plastic crates with fruit, a tractor drove through the rows, picking up full baskets to bring back to the main building where the fruit is weighed. On this particular day, the group harvests almost 3 tons in about a four-hour span. From there, the clumps are dropped into a machine that removes the stems and shuffles the grapes to the press, where the juice flows out in greyish-green streams.
Then it's a matter of adding yeast, said winemaker Matt Harney, and letting nature runs its course - in a very controlled environment.
After the morning's work, the volunteers head to the main winery building, which houses barrels, machinery and a tasting room. Edwards has set up a sandwich lunch and the hungry workers are ready to take a break.
As she ate a sandwich and sipped a beer, Kathy Lyons said it was an easy decision to take the day off from work and drive from Cranston, R.I., to participate in some manual labor.
"I did it last year, had a good time and here we are again," she said. "It's a fun day."