Ray's Garden Rows: Volunteering in the vineyard

Ray Mueller

For the past several years, I have spent part of a Saturday in September helping with the grape harvest at Trout Springs Winery in southeast Brown County, not too far from Wayside.

This year's turnout of volunteers numbered just over 20 — some of whom picked from morning until into the evening. Ironically, that was about the same as the number of relatives and friends of the owners (Steve and Andrea DeBaker) who helped at the first harvest of 1.5 tons of grapes to make red wine and 600 pounds for white wine on Sept. 8, 2001. Remember what happened three days later?

The vineyard was established in 1995 on about 5 acres of a former horse pasture. The original planting had six grape varieties: Marechal Foch, St. Croix, Leon Millot, St. Pepin, La Crosse and Swenson's Red. A few others were added later.

An abundant grape crop greeted pickers of the 2016 crop at Trout Springs Winery.

Abundant harvest

Following a small harvest in 2015 which the volunteer pickers finished by mid-afternoon, this year's crop was abundant and the harvest wasn't completed on September 24. Steve DeBaker estimated that about two-thirds of the grapes were taken in that day — a total of about four tons.

A great majority of the grapes, encompassing four varieties, were going into the making of red wine. The winery's specialty in that category is its Autumn Rouge. Other varieties (green colored grapes at maturity) are used to make white wine. Both qualify as estate wines – those made with grapes grown on the site.

At some spots along the rows of vine, the crop of grapes was so dense that a picker could fill a five gallon pail — about 20 pounds — without having to move. During the day, I picked about 15 pails of grapes in six hours.

Harvest crew makeup

Some people in this year's harvest group came from a great distance. Couples came from as far as Wisconsin Rapids and Sussex. The latter couple was recruited by their daughter and son-in-law – Kaukauna residents who also help during the summer to prune the dead vines from the plants.

There were also two couples from nearby Brillion. One of the couples had a combined total of 85 years of working at the Brillion Iron Works — a production plant that is being shuttered.

Another group of harvesters came from Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. Three students from Pakistan and Indonesia were accompanied by their teacher/adviser who promised to submit an application for having the harvest hours count for their required volunteer service.

A few of the harvesters had been helping for each of the 16 years of the harvest day. For others, it was their first experience. For some, including me, it was the 5th or 6th year.

Harvesters have a choice of removing the grape bunches with their fingers or using a nipper placed on one's middle finger to cut the bunch from the vine. At various spots and on particular vines, there is a difference on which method works best.

About the only existing hazard was the presence of yellow jacket hornets, which are attracted to the sugars in the grapes, despite the number of traps which had already caught thousands of them. I was stung on a finger but it didn't prove to be a problem.

Volunteer pickers come from a great distance to help at the annual grape harvest day at Trout Springs Winery in southeast Brown County.

Saved by geography

Unlike some other major vineyards in south central and western Wisconsin this year, Trout Springs Winery was spared the major crop losses that those vineyards suffered during a two-night freeze in mid-May.

A combination of strong winds and a somewhat delayed timetable on plant growth was a lucky break for Trout Springs on that occasion this year. That wasn't the case in 2015, when radiational cooling on a night in mid-June led to major frost damage there.

As a result, the 2015 harvest yielded only enough grapes to make 60 gallons of wine from the vines at Trout Springs. In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, the DeBakers decided to make ice wine instead. They're giving it a special name: Below Zero.

Wisconsin ledge

This wasn't the first time that DeBaker devised a title. In what was virtually a solo effort from 2005 to 2012, he persisted and succeeded on a quest to obtain a federal designation for wines made grapes grown within 3,800 square miles (nearly 250,000 acres) in Wisconsin along the Niagara Escarpment geological feature. The area is especially suitable for growing Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Niagara variety grapes.

The designation is Wisconsin Ledge, which is what DeBaker had to accept because New York's vineyards were already using the Niagara name for their wines. He considers the Wisconsin Ledge designation to be comparable to California's Napa Valley as a promotion vehicle.

To obtain the designation, DeBaker had to submit a massive amount of documentation to show that the region had special natural traits. Those included the landscape, soils, and climate which combine to make the area suitable for growing grapes.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, DeBaker will be a presenter at a workshop on wine making and tasting during a Niagara Escarpment theme program at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in Menasha. His Trout Springs Winery will then host a tour on Sunday, Oct. 9. Information on both events is available at

Ideal growing sites

Unlike with some other plant species, low fertility but well drained soils are ideal for growing grapes, DeBaker said. The escarpment region is also served with a groundwater aquifer containing minerals which grape plants obtain by sending roots deep enough to reach it.

That's why grapes don't need a great amount of rainfall. For example, the several heavy rains in the area during the weeks before this year's harvest were not beneficial for the grapes, DeBaker explained.

The final weeks before harvest are when the grapes should be ripening and producing sugar. Nonetheless, the grapes at Trout Springs Winery rated very well on sugar content, as indicated by the brix scores of up to a very high 24 on some of the early batches that were harvested in September while the average was about 20.

At Trout Springs, which has an accompanying fish hatchery, there is a shallow groundwater table which the grape plant roots can reach easily. That's why the grape crop there was excellent in 2012 — a year with a hot and dry summer.

Harvest day treats

On the harvest day, the DeBakers treat their volunteers with a generous selection of muffins in the morning. A spaghetti lunch is served in the afternoon.

That lunch is augmented with a serving of the estate red and white wines. Throughout the years, Trout Springs Winery has won numerous top awards for its wines in national and international contests. Another award was being named Wisconsin's Winery of the Year by the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association in 2014.

During the harvest day, the grapes are quickly run through a machine which separates the pulp and juice from the stems. DeBaker then collects a container of juice from the steel tank in which the pulp and juice are stored and invites the volunteers to sample the liquid.