I got a call the other day from an elderly farmer who lives around the corner from us. Ed is a widower, well into his 80s, whose health has not been good in recent years. He can hardly walk, and usually leans on a walker when he does so. But he can still drive his pickup truck, and uses a riding lawn mower to get around his property. Come harvest time, he will be out in the fields driving a combine. Yes, he’ll need help climbing up into the cockpit. But once he’s there, look out. The corn is coming in.
The wonderful thing about neighbors like Ed is that they can tell stories about what the area used to be like. As a boy (before the area was electrified), he used to milk several cows each morning by hand, before school. He helped build one of the outbuildings on our farm.
Ed’s farm has all kinds of fruit trees, planted decades ago, which produce much more fruit than he can use. In fact, we first met him a few years back, when he pulled into our driveway in his pickup truck and growled at my wife, “You want any cherries?”
Surprised, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer asked, “Did you bring them? Or do we need to pick them?”
Ed replied with something along the lines of, “H—, no I didn’t bring them! Come on over and pick them off the trees!” After several afternoons spent picking cherries and other fruits at Ed’s farm, we discovered that under the gruff exterior the guy has a heart of pure gold. He loves kicking back in his riding mower and watching as Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and our kids climb ladders and fill buckets with fruit. He also enjoys our eggs, and bringing over loads of windfall apples to throw down to our chickens.
Anyway, back to the most recent call. He told me that the wine grapes were ripe, and that some of them were even drying up into raisins, so I’d better get over there and get them if I want them. So, I found my clippers, a couple of five gallon buckets, and dusted off my refractometer. The refractometer is a wonderful instrument which measures the Brix (sugar content) of any liquid. Just smear some juice on it, look through the eyepiece while sun shines on the juice, and you’ll be able to read the Brix.
It took Ed some time to climb down the steps to his riding mower, but he refused to let me help in any way other than holding the front door open. Then he put the mower in gear, and led the way to the grape arbor. I didn’t want to come across too much like I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I did need to know the Brix of the grapes before I could make wine. As Ed began picking grape clusters (still sitting on his riding mower), I tested individual grapes from several different vines. Unfortunately, the Brix was only about half (12) of the ideal (22) sugar content for making wine. Glancing around, I immediately understood why: the vines had been planted so long ago, a stand of pine trees had grown all around it and was now blocking the sunlight. There simply wasn’t enough sun getting through to get the grapes as ripe as they should be. Again, not wanting to trash the gift horse, I simply said, “The sugar’s a little low, but I can fix that by adding some at the start of the ferment. These sure are delicious, aren’t they?” (Indeed, the sugar content wasn’t bad for an eating/table grape.)
I put the refractometer away, and we went to work. It only took about a half hour, and I only got about five gallons of grapes, but what I enjoyed the most was talking with Ed. As usual, he opined on just about everything — and, as usual, we agreed about nearly everything. This is the most Republican county in the state, and Ed is about as conservative as they come.
Once home , I took the refractometer out to my own vineyard and tested a few of my own grapes. The Brix was very close to ideal, but it doesn’t look like I’ll bet getting much of a harvest this year. Because I’m not sure how well those grapes from Ed’s arbor will turn out for winemaking, I hesitate to combine his grapes with mine. What I’ll probably do is pick and crush mine into a separate bucket, crush his, and see how much must we’re looking at (and just how my total sugar content compares to his). At that point, I’ll make a decision about combining them. But given the small amounts, it doesn’t make much sense to do separate ferments.
Neighbors like these are a big part of what makes country life so rich and enjoyable. I think I’m going to put Artistic Girl on the back of our tandem bike, ride over there, and give Ed a dozen eggs. He’ll probably try to pay me for them, but I’m not going to let him.