Wearing gardening gloves and wielding clippers, Carol and Paul Vigna make their way along rolling rows of trellised grapevines. It is harvest time at Basignani Winery in Sparks and the York, Pa., couple have come, as they have for four years, to help.
"I'll never have my own winery. This is as close as I'm going to get," says Vigna, a sports editor with the Philadelphia Daily News, as he clips densely clustered, lustrous Seyval grapes and places them in a yellow lug, a nesting container designed for harvesting grapes.
Soliciting volunteers at harvest time is one of many ways small wineries such as Basignani cultivate loyalty as they cultivate wine. "We have to put wine in front of the consumer," vintner Bert Basignani says.
Wineries around the region and the country have turned to movie nights, concerts, tastings and picnic dinners as a way of luring newcomers. Like those offerings, Basignani Winery's Harvest Saturdays, which continue today and the next two Saturdays, benefit both wine lovers like the Vignas and the winery owners.
"They do a job for us, and we feed them," says Basignani, who has run the winery for 20 years with his wife, Lynne. After four hours of picking, volunteers are treated to an al fresco Italian lunch and a sampling of the winery's red, white and sweet wines. They may be joined by the Basignanis' friendly border collies.
Basignani says he is often amazed when volunteers ask if they need to pay a fee for their services.
In his early grape-growing years, Basignani depended on friends and family to help with the harvest. Now, in addition to the weekend volunteers, paid laborers pick grapes on the winery's 23 acres of vineyards in Baltimore and Carroll counties.
Before they begin, volunteers receive a primer from "crew chief" Wayne Gardner. Grasp each grape bunch and give it a shake to scatter bees, he says. "Reach in with the left hand and clip with the right." Clip close to the vine, he advises. And flick away the mushy grapes before setting the bunch in the lug.
The lugs quickly fill, as volunteers chat across the vines, like neighbors across a fence. Soon, Gardner radios for 100 more lugs. Later, Basignani will collect the brimming containers on a wagon pulled by a John Deere tractor.
Excellent wine weather - "nice and dry" - has resulted so far in a bountiful harvest. "What hurts the farmers, helps the grapes," Gardner says. "We like a dry autumn."
After reading about the Basignani Winery in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about small, regional vineyards, Graciela and Giovanni Fallone and son Alexander came from Manhattan to participate in the harvest.
At first, Alexander, 10, dreaded the weekend adventure, his mother says. "He said, 'This is so boring;' then, he does not want to take a rest or get a drink."
Her husband, a native of Sicily who harvested grapes at his mother's vineyard, saw coming to Sparks as an exercise in nostalgia.
"For my son, it's discovery," Graciela Fallone says.
It is a hot day, and volunteers, numbering about 20, take occasional breaks for ice water. Bees hover everywhere - benignly. Alarms mimicking gun shots and sirens frighten birds away from the harvest. They don't go off, as one wag suggests, when a volunteer samples the goods. Sampling is allowed.
The Seyval grapes picked today (381 lugs' worth) are sweet and tart and seedy. They comprise about 95 percent of Elena, a dry, white Basignani field blend. Before volunteers leave, a good amount of the grapes they have picked will have been machine crushed and separated from their skins and stems.
After it is run through a wine press, juice from the crushed grapes will ferment and age in oak barrels.
This batch of Elena will be bottled next August and ready for sale in the fall, Basignani says. He hopes to produce about 325 cases of this particular vintage.
For volunteers such as Rameez and Tristan Handy and friend Nakiya Vasi, grape picking affords a tactile understanding of wine's origins.
"I always like the idea of seeing where it comes from," says Vasi, who lives in Mays Chapel.
The Handys, who live in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, have devoted a portion of their summer to picking their own food at local farms. On this day, they've added grapes to a roster that includes cherries, strawberries, blueberries and peas.
Tristan Handy says the next time he enjoys a glass of wine, he "will definitely appreciate it more."
"It's very weird to realize that what you eat is grown in the real world," he adds.
Thomas Walton has brought his wife, Kathleen, daughter Arden and son Callum to pick grapes. Once, the College Park architect dreamed of doing this very thing in France. "Instead of Provence, I'm in Sparks," he says.
Over a lunch on the Basignanis' shady patio, geography grows a little hazy. It might not be Provence, but it could very well be Tuscany, Italy. Volunteers help themselves to rigatoni in a rich vodka sauce, Italian cold cuts, provolone cheese, homemade pizza, salty black olives and marinated chick peas. There are Key lime and oatmeal squares for dessert.
Of course, Basignani wine flows generously as the vintners for a day sample the fruits of last year's labor. Dry and exhilarating on the palate, the Elena embodies the weather and terroir (growing conditions) that produced it.
After the meal, sated volunteers gather around Bert Basignani as he explains his straightforward approach to producing fine wines. "You can make good wine. It's not that hard," he says. "The critical part is growing the fruit. That's where quality begins or ends."
Basignani's lesson extends to some of the scourges of viniculture, including bunch rot, a disease that causes grapes to become mushy and then shriveled. He also stresses the need to remove these spoiled grapes from the bunches before they are crushed.
"I don't want a manicure, but [you] want to pick most of [the bad grapes] out."
"I did that!" Graciela Fallone says. At least one volunteer has taken Basignani's instructions - and his love of wine - to heart.
Want to help harvest?
If you're interested in volunteering to harvest grapes, check out these vineyards in Maryland and Pennsylvania:
Basignani Winery in Sparks. Pick grapes from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 13. An Italian lunch follows. Free, but make reservations. Call 410-472-0703 or visit basignani.com.
Elk Run Vineyards in Mount Airy. Volunteers are welcome throughout October, but first call 410-775-2513 or visit elkrun.com. Lunch is usually provided.
Folly Hill Vineyards in Kennett Square, Pa. Volunteers are invited to pick twice during the harvest season. Call 610-388-5895 or visit bvwinetrail.com/follyhill.html.
Chaddsford Winery in Chadds Ford, Pa. The winery features "Be a Winemaker for the Day," including an opportunity to pick grapes, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6. Admission is $50, including lunch and wine. To make a reservation, call 610-388-6221. For more information, visit chaddsford.com.
For a comprehensive list of Maryland growers and wineries, visit marylandwine.com. For information about the Brandywine Wine Trail in Pennsylvania (Folly Hill and Chaddsford are on this trail), visit bvwinetrail.com.