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CVTC Students Lend a Hand in Vineyard Harvest

An interest in viticulture–the science of grape growing–may have some people California dreamin’, but opportunities to learn and take part in the activities at a vineyard are available right here in the Chippewa Valley.

Riverbend Winery, just west of Chippewa Falls, is wrapping up an early harvest season, and on Wednesday owners Al and Donna Sachs welcomed 30 students from Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Landscape, Plant & Turf Management-Horticulture program. At harvest time, they welcome other volunteers as well, because they can use the help.

“They’re all picked by hand,” said Donna Sachs about the five varieties of grapes grown on the eight acres of vines.

Wednesday’s job was to pick Frontenac, the fourth variety out of the vineyard, one that will go into production of rosé. The vines are producing about two or three tons per acre–they’ll produce four or five tons an acre when they’re older–which makes the harvest quite labor-intensive.

“This is hands-on for the students, and it’s great experience for them, to get out and see what it’s like in a vineyard,” said Susan Frame, instructor and chairperson of the Horticulture program at CVTC.

Student Shane Manahan, a Horticulture student from Rochester, Minn., especially appreciated the experience. He was looking at a grape-related career path in his studies.

“So this is right up my alley,” he said. He even volunteered to come back on the weekend to help inside the winemaking facility with the next step in the process.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about grape harvest time, except that sometimes it has to be done in a hurry.

“Normally we would have just been getting started now, or the middle of September. But with all the heat this year, we started the third week of August, which is crazy for around here,” said Sachs. “Usually we’re worried about frost.”

That was the case last year, when the entire crop had to be picked in five days to avoid disaster.

The harvest involves first pulling back the nets, essential once the grapes start to ripen to prevent birds from stripping the vines bare.

Sachs said they rely on volunteers like the ones from CVTC.

“We have some customers who like to pick. People think it’s cool – for a couple of hours,” she said.

Manahan didn’t mind it. “It’s more fun than I thought it was going to be,” he said.

The workers were given small cutting tools, which they used to gently cut the bunches of grapes from the vines. They placed the bunches in five-gallon pails. Sachs said from there they are placed in a refrigerated truck until all grapes of the variety are gathered.

“This Sunday they will go to vats for crushing and de-stemming,” said Sachs. Then the fermentation process will start. 

The finished wine will be released in spring 2013. Riverbend currently produces about 4,000 cases of wine a year.

Working hard at the harvest was Jenny Nesseth of Barron, a CVTC student completing an internship at Riverbend.

“I had a great time out here this summer,” she said. “Instead of going to the beach or going to Florida, I pruned out here. These folks just walked me through every aspect.”

Nesseth started out on a track for working in orchards, and still has her eyes on the apples in the Bayfield area, but she found the vineyard experience expanded her horizons. She noted vineyards are popping up all over Wisconsin now, including Bayfield.

“I’m surprised by how broad-spectrumed the CVTC program is willing to go,” Nesseth said.

Even those students heading down different horticulture career paths found the harvest experience worthwhile.

Recent CVTC graduate Cheryl O’Brien, whose interest is in traditional Wisconsin fruits and vegetables, came out to join the class with the harvest work as a volunteer just for the experience.

“It’s pretty easy,” she said. “It’s a good height to work at – you’re not up on a ladder or anything and you’re not stooping.”

That was easy for the diminutive O’Brien to say. Mitch Miller of Cumberland said the work wasn’t bad, but noted, “I’m a little too tall for it.”

Miller is looking for a career in landscaping, but he doesn’t mind being exposed to harvest-type work. It’s the kind of lesson that makes a CVTC education special.

“We’re not in the classroom all day, every day,” he said.
That’s an aspect of education that Cody Woodruff of Glenwood City likes, too. He’s aiming for work in sports field and turf management and secured an internship with a lawn care company. The vineyard work is just another side of hands-on experience for him.

There are many more experiences coming for the students. Frame said in exchange for the labor, Riverbend will make a donation to the Horticulture Club. Funds will be used for field trips to a variety of conventions and shows related to horticulture, landscaping, fruits and vegetables and other topics that will expand students’ horizons.