Gleanings from Treleaven
(Or, How I Learned to Love Picking Grapes at King Ferry)
by Tracey Linton Craig

Knee pads...Water bottle...Sunhat...

Reviewing a mental list of all the things I'd thought of to improve Day Two of my tour of duty as grape picker, I dragged my aching body out of bed this past Columbus Day.

I'd signed on for the harvest at Treleaven, a small, family-run winery located  20 minutes north of Ithaca in King Ferry, New York. "Grape Pickers Needed," the ad read.  Being between feature films (or similarly gainful employment)--and wanting an excuse to spend these gorgeous mid-October days out in the Finger Lakes sunshine--I showed up early on the first day of Chardonnay picking.

Treleaven is one of the few wineries that still picks by hand. Owners Peter and Tacie Saltonstall, both in their early forties, believe that by avoiding  mass production and mechanized cultivation and harvest, the finest grapes are produced--the basis of a superior wine.  They hire 25-30 pickers each year to help bring in the harvest, which totaled close to 60 tons this year.

It's all done by hand: Treleaven Winery at King Ferry hires 25-30 pickers to harvest its 17 vineyard acres.

Day One: Getting the Rhythm
My first lesson was in picking carefully. The Chardonnay grapes had been hit pretty seriously by botrytis--a fungus that can actually be useful  for producing sweet dessert wines, but an unacceptable addition to a traditional Chardonnay.  ("It tends to add a raisiny, peachy flavor," explains Peter.)  Workers had gone through the vineyard several weeks ago, chopping away as much as a ton an acre of botrytis-damaged grapes.. But we still needed to pick many of the clusters clean. 

It looked pretty easy.  I was eager to pull on my surgical gloves, grab a set of clippers, and pick a little, talk a little...pick, pick, pick, pick!

A fast picker, Tacie said, could do 40-50 lugs a day--at $2 apiece,  not bad money.  But if I needed to go slower, in order to pick out the botrytis, I should. She'd make sure everyone got at least $5 an hour, even if we got assigned to clean-up.

I soon settled into a rhythm. It didn't hurt that they placed me across from Mr. Sax Man (a.k.a. Mark Wienand), a 24-year-old Ithaca School of Music grad who helped me get my time and rhythm running smooth. He also cued me when my lugs were too full--or not enough. These aptly named bright-yellow grape carriers  need to hold just about 30 pounds of grapes. But in his zeal, his ardor for the arbor, Mark had a way of snipping into his own fingers almost as often as he did the vine. I think it was a three Band-Aid morning.

I kept my fingers as far away from his clippers as possible.

With nobody looking, I popped a few especially luscious-looking clusters into my mouth. Ah! Like a little sip of young wine, the juice was sweet--but not too sweet--better than any I'd ever bought in a market. Absolutely delicious! I sampled quite a bit that first day.

"The Chards this year are dynamite," Peter later admitted to me up at the winery. "Yeah, we're getting great sugars off the Chardonnays we just picked," Tacie exulted, as she rinsed oak barrels in readiness for the fermented juice to come.

A Little History
The vineyards at Treleaven, the first winery in Cayuga County, go back to 1984, when Peter and Tacie planted their initial six acres on land that once belonged to Pete's dad. Over the past decade, the Saltonstalls have expanded the vineyard to 17 acres. To produce their wines, they occasionally choose to purchase grapes--including Cabernet and Merlot--from other growers to augment their own Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Pinot Noir plantings.

It's the Chardonnays and Rieslings, though, that have earned Treleaven its highest plaudits: the most recent honors just rolled in from the New York Wine and Food Classic,

Picker Carl Strickland, 17, likes making up new lyrics to old tunes: "There is a place in King Ferry/They call the winery..." he sings. "It's been the ruin of many a poor boy/And Lord, I know, one's me!."
which awarded its gold medal to Treleaven's '95 semi-dry Riesling and bronze medals for the '94 Chardonnay (both the main and the reserve) as well as the '95 Spatgold, a rich, sweeter-style wine with a taste reminiscent of apricots and ripe pears.. Among the nine current offerings, my personal favorite is the reserve Chardonnay, at $15.99 a bottle. Its subtle, complex style hints of flowers, lemons, dates, and butter. The main Chardonnay, at $11.99, is also lovely, its crisp acidity balanced by creamy oak.  Among the unusual blends Treleaven offers is a Saumon ($8.99 a bottle), a wonderful, semi-dry blend of Pinot Noir and Riesling. ("Your mother would love this wine," Peter says.) 

Back to Work
By late afternoon, I was hot. And thirsty. My knees felt black and blue from kneeling on the rocky soil. I tried squatting, back absolutely straight, as I saw Vietnamese-born Hong Tran doing.  Finally, I decided it was time to take a break and go see who else was out here, toiling with me in the vineyard.

Gail Fish and her fiance Todd Thompson, both from Van Etten, were between jobs, too. (He's used to working as a printing press operator, and she's done all kinds of work.) "We came because we like being outside." Todd explained.  "The worst thing about it?" Gail laughed,  "My back!"

The Sax Man (a.k.a. Mark Wienand) admits his practicing has suffered due to multiple self-inflected slashes on his hands. He'd like to come back this fall and make some music for visitors to the King Ferry winery.
That characteristic half-stooped, sway-back, halting walk that goes along with the "my-knees-hurt" look is well known to anyone who's ever picked grapes for more than four hours at a stretch. "We call it the Chardonnay Shuffle," another experienced picker told me later. 

Harriet Zbikowski, who holds a masters'  in landscape architecture from Cornell but says, "I haven't figured out yet what I want to do when I grow up," wasn't sure if she wanted to come back for Day Two.

Steve McKay impressed me with his technique. I came upon him at the end of a row,  picking across from his 12-year-old son David, off from school for the Columbus Day recess.  Steve was carefully perched on top of two lugs, sliding along like greased lightning even as we talked. I'd never seen anyone pick so fast.  "It's a chance to do something, rather than THINK about doing something," says McKay, a Cornell University employee who's taken time out from his job as a fruit and vegetable farm manager to pick grapes at Treleaven for the past three harvests.

And then I met the Javors, a lovely young family who emigrated from Bosnia just three years ago. The 22-month-old Alma peeked shyly through a grapevine, smiling broadly as I made silly faces. I spoke with her 12-year sister Edina  for several minutes before I realized English was not her native language. (My first clue was when I asked her if she'd ever picked grapes before and she said, yes, actually, she had--in Croatia.)  I was even more amazed by this young woman's aplomb when she began translating our conversation for her parents, Zmina and Sead, both of whom are deaf.  Bosnian Sign Language, Edina informs me, is quite different from its American cousin. 

It was time for me to go back to my half-filled lug.

Chardonnay Dreams
The third night in, I dreamed of grapes. As soon as I closed my eyes, there they were, perfectly ripe, reddish-tinged globular green clusters. They refused to go away.

"It's a chance to do something, rather than THINK about doing something," says Steve McKay, a Cornell University employee who's taken time off to pick grapes at Treleaven for the past three harvests.
"The first time I picked grapes," confesses Cathy Zimdahl, "I dreamed the dance floor of the King Ferry hotel was full of trellises...and we had to pick all those grapes before we could dance."  Zimdahl, who's helped out with a wide variety of winery work at Treleaven, recently took on the winter-time responsibility of caring for Oliver, a loud and obnoxious silver-crested cockatoo who's partial to Pinot Noir and lasagna (but can't stand chocolate or country music).  If you stop in next spring, the noisy old bird will doubtless be back at his perch at the winery, having learned a new trick or two.

It's thanks to Tacie's brother, the handsomely mustachioed John Balliett, that I learn about Oliver's preferences. Balliett, who spent a year's apprenticeship at Treleaven before he took on the job of vineyard manager this past spring, tells me he gave up a life of traveling amidst the jet-set crowd to settle down in King Ferry.  (He specialized in architectural landscaping for the well-heeled, it seems. Somehow the perks included access to estates in the French Riviera and driving the occasional Rolls.)

"It gets easier," John promises me, as he walks along the rows, smiling his encouragement, making sure we're not missing any clusters.

Treleaven expects the Chardonnay harvest to come in at about 35 tons this year, having lost as much as a ton an acre to the botrytis fungus
The Weather Saved Us
"This year is the latest pick ever," Peter says, as he dumps lug and after lug of just-picked Riesling into the new press that takes about three hours to process four tons of grapes. (I get a little thrill as I watch him unload the lugs with the white sticker that says "27" on it--I picked every one of those grapes!)

"When you plant vinifera, you have to be close to the lake," Tacie explains, in order to protect the vines from a too-early frost. This year, she says, "If the vineyard had been another quarter-mile east, we'd have had to pick it all right away."
 Despite a late bud-break and wet spring, there was a great, dry August. "And we had a good-sized crop," Peter tells me. Once they'd picked away the botrytis, he continues, they got lucky on the weather: two sunny weeks of picture-perfect October days. That--together with the ability to be able to hand-pick and control the quality--"is what really saved us this year," he believes.

Out in the Vineyard--Again?

At a certain point, I begin to wonder why I felt so compelled to crawl out of a perfectly comfortable bed and go stretch my muscles into difficult positions, get my hair snarly with grape sugar and burdocks and my jeans covered in mud, while earning less than what I'd hoped in the vineyards. (The fastest I ever picked was a little over  five lugs an hour. But I couldn't keep that pace up, even when the picking was good on the fruit-laden row ends.)

Just being in the vineyards,  overlooking the beautiful blue Cayuga Lake below,  is really very pleasant.. The tranquil quiet is broken at regular intervals by a loud recording of a bird in distress, designed to keep marauders at a distance. (Judging by the many carefully constructed tiny nests  I discover in the vines,  the device works with limited success.)

Despite a masters' in landscape architecture, first-time grape-picker Harriet Zbikowski says, "I haven't figured out what I want to do when I grow up yet."
I do take a few shortcuts, though. Like coming late (the picking starts at 8 a.m. every day, even when there's drizzling rain.) And one morning, when vineyard worker Kim Chevalier offers me a lift to the row-end where I'll be picking, I accept gladly.

Like all the workers at Treleaven, Kim doesn't have any particular title. She just does everything that needs to be done, and then some. "Hang on!" Kim yells, with a good-natured laugh. "We call this the 'Hardly,'" she explains, gunning the two-seater Harley-Davidson golf-cart skillfully down the water-logged, rutted row, "Because it's hardly a Harley!"

That day I talk with a retired farmer, who rails against the increasing mechanization of farm life, and eavesdrop on two teenage boys discussing an upcoming chemistry exam. I ask 17-year-old Carl Strickland why he's chosen to come pick grapes at King Ferry. Paying off a $1,200 insurance bill for his aging Ford truck is his first answer, but as I watch him flirting through the vines with the lovely Kezia Parseghian, 16,  I decide he must like being out here for other reasons, too. There's something that draws us all back, day after day.  (In Carl's case, I suspect Kezia--who he's nicknamed Fred--has a good deal to do with it.) 

"I like it here," says Kezia/Fred, who figures picking grapes is part of her home-schooling education. (She's already written eight-and-a-half manuscript pages about her experiences at Treleaven.)  She and Carl entertain each other, making up new lyrics to old tunes as they pick: "There is a place in King Ferry/They call the winery..." he sings. "It's been the ruin of many a poor boy/And Lord, I know, one's me!"

Cheaper Than Therapy
A couple of rows over, Alice, a middle-aged homemaker whose last name I never did get, works slowly but steadily, coming ever closer to earning the $139 she needs to get a satellite cable dish installed so her two boys can watch their favorite sports. Another day,  I meet a Waldorf-certified art teacher and a health-care professional who wants to do something different.  When I work alongside Alison Cowen , whose 10-year-old Cornell degree in animal science hasn't proved as useful as she once thought (she's updating her resume, too, and juggling several part-time jobs to get by), we commiserated over the men in our lives.  (We'd been dumped by our respective boyfriends.) 

A fast picker can fill as many as 40-50 lugs in a day--not bad money, at $2 a lug. But when fungus must be cleaned, the Saltonstalls pay an hourly rate to ensure careful attention to the grape clusters.
Snip-snip, went our clippers. Plop, plop, went the grapes. "You know," Alison reflected, "Working out here in the vineyard  is sort of like therapy--only cheaper." 

On the next-to-last long day, when we're all really pumping to get the last few rows done, there are two very young girls snipping away with great speed.  I ask how they came to be picking.  Hattie, 12, explains she didn't have much of a choice: she and her sister Courtney, 15, are the owners' daughters. "I'd rather be riding my roan, Spider," Hattie grumbles. But, she explains, their parents need them to help out today. And they'll get paid, too. Though Courtney plans to become a scientist specializing in research on animal diseases, Hattie (who claims she started picking at age 6 and pronounces Treleaven's Chardonnays "the best") dreams of being a prize-winning equestrienne [delete star}. Oh, and maybe she'll have her own vineyard someday, too.

Long Days and  Longer Nights
The Saltonstalls put in some very long days at harvest--beginning as early as 5:30 a.m.. and sometimes ending long after midnight. Peter ran five tons of grapes through the press yesterday, in between washing tanks, arranging for some Cabernets to be bought and hauled back from Long Island, and keeping a close watch on the already-fermenting batches in the 20-foot-tall stainless steel holding tanks. 

Though Tacie says she leaves the winemaking up to Peter, she works right alongside him, hauling, cleaning, loading, and helping supervise Treleaven's staff of four full-time and 12 to 15 part-time employees. One morning, we talk--shout, actually--over a row of barrels lined up inside the winery, as she's pumping in some of the  '96 Chardonnay.  The barrels, which hold 58.5 gallons apiece, she informs me, are clearly marked with "C2," indicating they hold the results of the second day of picking Chardonnay.  She's filling them three-quarters full, to allow for fermentation.

The Javors picked grapes in their native Bosnia before emigrating three years ago. (From left) Seac; Edina, 12; Alma, 22 months; and Zmina.

She explains that although they prefer the French oak barrels,  with their current price tag at as much as $650 apiece,  Peter's begun to experiment with American barrels, which can be had for between $100-$250. "But American barrels can be astringent," he says, explaining he's recently found a source for nicely made Hungarian ones that go for less than $400, a compromise for which he and other area growers have "high hopes." 

When I ask Tacie whether Treleaven's turning a profit yet, she says simply, "We pay our bills."

While the winery does 60 percent of its sales in the adjacent tasting room, maintaining a regular presence with free samplings at the farmers' markets in Ithaca and Syracuse has helped increase its visibility. And Treleaven wines are now available in restaurants throughout the state. "If you don't see New York State wine on the menu," Tacie tells me, "Ask for it!"

The Harvest's In
Our motley crew picked fast that last morning in order to harvest the last rows of Riesling before the rain and cold set in. Tacie brought pizza down to the barn, thanking us all for our hard work, as we celebrated and made plans to meet again for music (the Sax Man has a Collegetown gig coming up) or a drink long before the next harvest.  We teased John about the big M on his cap: did it stand for "Maestro" or chief vineyard "Monkey," we wondered? (He threatened to bring us back to help tie vines in January, if we hadn't found "real work" yet.)  And we compared notes on who was the fastest, shaking our heads in awe over Steve McKay's one-day record of 60 lugs.

On her hands and knees sorting grapes, owner Tacie Saltonstall puts in long, hard--and back-breaking--hours during the harvest season.
It'll be awhile before the '96 vintage is readily available. But I can't wait. Maybe I'll be enjoying an evening at a posh New York city restaurant, and casually mention to the tall, dark (and handsome) fellow selecting a wine to accompany our extravagant meal that yes, I'd heard the Treleaven Chardonnay was excellent. And  '96 was an especially good year. 

"In fact, back when I was a poor, struggling young writer, " I'll say with a laugh, as I start to tell my tale, "You'll never believe this, but...."


Caption for cover photo (top of page): "I like it here," says Kezia Parseghian, 16, who figures picking grapes is part of her home-schooling education. (She's already written eight-and-a-half manuscript pages about her experiences at Treleaven.)


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