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  • Ripening brings out grape-picking volunteers

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  • Mail Tribune / Jim Craven
    ASHLAND - When the grapes ripen at the Weisinger family vineyards, owner John Weisinger doesn't call around looking for migrant workers to pluck the vines free of juicy Gewurztraminer and piquant pinot noir.
    He puts out the word to the community, and people from all walks of life - from dance choreographers to engineers to full-time moms - pick up the pruning shears and bring in the harvest.
    "It's great to help other people and have fun doing it," said Heidi Martens, 52, of Medford as she grabbed a bunch of grapes with her left hand and cut them from the vine with shears in her right.
    On Saturday, Martens, a legal secretary whose eyes were shaded behind gold sunglasses bejeweled with rhinestones, was picking grapes at the Weisinger vineyard just south of Ashland for the second year in a row.
    In the 22 years Weisinger has been growing grapes, he's always relied on friends, family and strangers to come through at crush. This year, more than 30 people picked ripened grapes from four acres of vines in just one day. One man, who learned about the community grape picking at a wine tasting in July, drove all the way from Phoenix, Ariz., for the event.
    "Historically, this is the way that grapes have been harvested - calling friends and the community together," Weisinger said, as he sent volunteers into the field with shears and instructions such as "eat as many grapes as you want while you pick."
    After sipping on cups of strong coffee from stainless steel urns and munching on breads and pastries, the volunteers started at 8 a.m., enjoying the crisp morning air. Soon they were tying their sweatshirts and jackets around their waists as they moved quickly through the rows. Lunch was also provided, as well as a big celebratory lasagna dinner that concluded with ginger cake with caramel sauce. Then it was time for an old-fashioned grape stomp.
    Weisinger admitted the volunteers aren't quite as productive as professional pickers, but it is less expensive and a heck of a lot more fun.
    The winery does its own winemaking and bottling right at the vineyard, a rarity among small vineyards.
    "Doing everything here allows us to produce extremely high quality wine because we can supervise every step of the process," said winemaker Eric Weisinger, John's 32-year-old son.
    Dave and Billee Mildbrandt took their sons, Brady, 12, and Daniel, 10, to pick with them. Dave Mildbrandt, an Ashland cabinet maker, said it was an opportunity to let the boys develop a good work ethic.
    Billee Mildbrandt, 46, noted that it also teaches them about supporting the community.
    "When we had flooding (in 1997), John opened his well to anyone who needed water," Billee said. "You could come here with your 5-gallon bucket and get the water you needed.
    "That's how it is in Ashland - you just help people out."
    Brady joked he didn't mind picking, as long as he got some of the wine. His dad quickly squashed his plan.
    "Maybe grape juice," said the 44-year-old in that special dad tone.
    Nearby, Jane Podolski was enjoying her fourth wine crush at Weisinger.
    "It's in my blood," said the 42-year-old Medford Parks and Recreation employee. "And I guess it's the completion of a circle - I enjoy the product and it's nice to have a hand in producing it."
    Eric Weisinger said having the community come into the winery has more benefits than just getting the grapes picked in a timely manner.
    "As the wine industry grows in the Rogue Valley, it will become part of people's everyday lives," he said. "This allows people to have hands-on experience with the process.
    "And there's a romance to it," he added, looking out at the neat rows of vines crowded with chatter, laughter and ripened fruit.

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