I hadn’t expected to begin my harvest weekend experience on Friday night. I had arrived at the Inn B’Tween B&B
just outside of Trumansburg in the late afternoon, my ears still ringing from my tradition (bad habit) of playing loud music on my solo road trips. I had checked in with Glenn, the business manager of Damiani Wine Cellars
, on my way up and he told me that I would be working harvest alongside of Phil Davis, one of the co-owners of the winery and the manager of vineyard operations, for the weekend. It was Glenn that I had contacted about coming up to work harvest, after a terrific visit back in August. Glenn had been enthusiastic from the start. There was much to be done in the vineyards and the extra hands would be a great help.
Glenn suggested that I give Phil a call when I arrived in town. I got in, dropped my gear, got settled and made the call. Phil said I could show up any time I liked the next morning and gave the address for the winery barn. He me asked me what I had planned for the evening. I mentioned that I might head to Trumansburg for a bite then maybe catch some music in Ithaca. Five hours on the road whetted my appetite and I was keen for some fresh air and a little exploration. I figured that my harvest adventure with the Damiani team would start in the morning.
Phil Davis, at Right
It was a gorgeous fall afternoon, so I jumped back in my car. I decided my first stop would be Taughannock Falls
. I had visited the falls (the tallest fall east of the Rockies. Yes, taller than Niagara Falls!) in the summer and winter, but I wanted to catch the autumn view before the sunset. I made it to the lookout just as the sun was waning and marveled in the rocks and the falls framed by the gold leaves with the dark moody shadows of evergreens in the distance. The falls seem to have a personality that shifts with the seasons. There is something so majestic and melancholy about Taughannock in autumn. Buoyed by the crisp air and the sheer happiness of being up in one of my favorite places, I shot a quick picture of the falls with my phone and sent it to Phil. “Hey, I made a quick run to the falls – well worth it! I am looking forward to tomorrow.”
I carried on to Trumansburg to stock up on my favorite coffee beans from Gimme Coffee
and grabbed a cup at the shop, picking up one of the local newspapers. I figured I might see what music was happening in Ithaca and head there to explore, when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Phil. “Hey, I loved your photo of the falls. I was thinking… any interest in coming over this way? I’m finishing dinner at the Stonecat
. We can share dessert and there’s music at the Cellar at Damiani
and Two Goats
Dessert? Music? My arm can be easily twisted when music and food are on offer! I said I could head over to meet him at the Stonecat. I told him that I would be the forty-something woman with really short brown hair. He told me he would be the sixty-something guy with the ponytail, eating on his own at the bench behind the entrance.
Phil Davis had the casual and easy presence of a man exactly in the place he is supposed to be. When I met him at the Stonecat Café in Hector on Friday evening he was sitting at his preferred table reading the local paper with a glass of wine and piece of hazelnut torte. He invited me to join him, offering me the second fork. “You have to have some, it’s delicious. Yeah, I’m a regular. Here most days and this is my table, particularly in winter – the bench is up against the heater.” MADS Jacobzen
Conversation came easily. We talked a little shop – he told me about the grapes they were planning to bring in tomorrow and asked me a bit about my blog and wine background. The conversation meandered to high level life stories -- mine in NJ and his having grown up in Hector. He had left for a while and wandered (most locals do) but he had also come back (most locals do). We talked about his views of NYC. “Fun to visit – but could never live there. The noise. The smells. The sensory overload.” Frankly, this is the best place on earth. Last time a reporter from downstate came through I showed him these amazing secret falls with a swimming hole where we all still swim in the summer on my family’s property. The reporter was completely charmed by the spot. I told him that he could describe the falls but that if he gave the exact location of the waterfalls, I would find him and burn his house down! Needless to say, the exact location is still only a locals’ privilege.”
At least a few times in our initial conversation someone would stop by the table to say hello, shake hands, or give Phil a hug and ask him how harvest was going, to invite him to stop by the… you name it (bar, house, concert, restaurant, shop). I quickly came to understand that Phil was one of the proverbial ‘mayors’ of Hector - a local celebrity, one of the fathers and pioneers of the artisanal wine movement on the east side of Seneca lake, and a good friend to many. In this initial conversation I also realized that, at least tonight, I was not the one doing the interviewing. He was interviewing me, in a congenial way, deciding how much time and effort to invest. After we finished the torte, he told me our next stop would be Damiani. “This young guy, MADS is playing in the Cellar, let’s go.” Happily, it seemed my interview was going reasonably well.
Black Mountain Symphony at Two Goats
At The Cellar, MADS Jacobzen
, a young Dylanesque musician with guitar and harmonica and accompanied by a bongo player was serenading a smallish crowd of twenty-somethings, many of whom also came up to say hello to Phil. MADS, himself, stopped over during a music break. Phil asked the young vocalist what he was harvesting. “Today it was amaranth,” he said. We stood in the back and sipped a lovely Damiani sparkler in champagne flutes, which seemed, to me, an interesting contrast to the scene. “Most of these people here tonight are working the harvest or the farms around Hector – such great young people,” Phil explained. I asked if they were from the area. “Some are, many are not. They come in for the harvest season and then they’re gone. They’re wanderers, you know? A group of them are heading down to South America after this. Peru, I think.” We both commented that it would be fun to be twenty-something and be heading to Peru.
Sunset over Hector, NY
Next stop was the Two Goats Brewing
, a terrific brewpub, where most of the wine people and locals gather to let loose after long days of harvesting and production. Everyone knew each other and everyone was talking tonnage and grapes “Yeah, we brought in about 3 tons of Merlot today… You cold soaking your Gerwurtz?” Phil made warm introductions. More live music, but this time, louder and more dancing. An Americana Folk-pop band named Black Mountain Symphony
was playing, fronted by a talented vocalist with an amazing electric fiddle. We joined the crowd to dance, cans of Magic Hat in hand.
It was closing in on 11:00 as we finished our beers. He told me we had one last stop. “I want to show you something. Consider it your first harvest work of the weekend.” I was intrigued.
We hopped in his car and headed north a few miles to Peach Orchard Road, a small lane that drops of steeply west toward Seneca Lake from 414. Lining the road are several of the Davis family vineyards as well as the production barn behind Phil’s family home. We parked the car on the side of the road next to one of the merlot vineyards. I followed him down into a line of grape vines. It was a clear night. Stars lit the sky and the rising moon cast a gentle glow on the tops of leaves and grape clusters. He picked grapes from the west side of the vine facing us and put those grapes in my left hand. He reached behind to pick grapes from the other side of the vine facing away from us on the east side, towards 414, and put those grapes in my right hand. “Now, don’t look. Just taste each.” I tried each grape, tasting the skins, the seeds, flesh and juice. I could make out slight differences. The grapes closest to the lake were sweeter, seemed riper. The ones facing the road had more water and the flavor was more muted, a little greener on the palate. Phil’s voice became more animated. “Tasting in the dark like this, when you have little to no visual clues to help you, THIS is the best way to taste for ripeness, for subtle differences and changes in the grapes, this is how to understand the grapes.”
We drove further down the road past the winery barn and stood in an open clearing just above the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We tasted again. “These aren’t ready yet. I’d say at least another week. But the flavors are developing. They are going to be good, right?" He paused as he tasted another grape. "Anyway, get ready for some good work tomorrow. Glad to have you.” The rising moon illuminated Phil’s wide smile, there in the dark. He radiated with a enthusiasm about this place: the land, the people, the grapes, the work, and the art of making wine. I smiled back, broadly. We both turned and faced the lake, which shimmered in the distance just above the top of the line of the vineyard. We ate handfuls of grapes in the dark.
As I stared out at the lake, I thought to myself, “Well, Amie, you will certainly remember this evening." I have no doubt that years from now, it will stand out as a one of those perfectly memorable moments - one that reinforced my love for wine, and my interest in the people who make it. I thanked Phil for an amazing evening. I was fairly certain that I had passed his ‘interview.’ It would be my turn to ask questions tomorrow. I headed back to the B&B on a high, eager for morning. Eager to roll up my sleeves and get to work. This time I drove with no radio, no music at all. I drove back in silence with the moon, fully risen, keeping me company. I smiled the whole way.
(Stay tuned for more in the next blog installment!)