Working on a Vineyard in Iowa

In our last two posts, we talked about our HipCamp stay at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard in Hayfield, Iowa. In the description, the host offered campers an opportunity to work in exchange for a free night. We’ve visited plenty of wineries, but never worked on one before. It seemed like a great way to save a little cash and try something new, so I paid for one night and requested to work in exchange for an additional night. Our hosts seemed happy to have a couple extra hands around and asked us to swing by the house some time after 9AM to get started on our first task.

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Picking Grapes

The first item of business was to collect our supplies. We would be needing scissors (I found the kid size gave me more maneuverability, while Josh liked the cutting power of the adult scissors) and a bucket. Next, we needed grapes. Due to a picking party that was hosted at the vineyard the weekend before, there weren’t many grapes left, but there were a few patches of unpicked areas among the various grape varieties.

Jen from The Places We Live is working on a vineyard. She clips purple grapes off a vine

The aim of the game was to collect as many grapes as possible. The hard part was the sorting. We had to check each cluster before throwing them in our buckets, checking for ripeness and bugs. Grapes that are too young are sour and will throw off the flavor of the final product, so we needed only the plumpest, juiciest grapes. The bugs (mostly ladybugs, but some ants and larger beetles too) loved those juicy grapes, and apparently burrow inside to lay their eggs, which are obviously not what you want in a delicious glass of wine. So we did our best to get rid of as many as possible, checking the grapes to make sure they hadn’t been nibbled on or infested. It was challenging at first, but I started to get the hang of it and ended up really enjoying the challenge of collecting the perfect cluster of grapes.

Sorting

After about an hour, we had collected several buckets of grapes, and our host announced the official end of that year’s grape harvest, prompting an audible sigh of relief. Next up was the sorting. This was a fairly easy process thanks to a nifty sorting machine and the small collection that we had collected. There were several different types of grapes, but if it was to produce any wine, they had to be put together as a single batch.

Josh from The Places We Live is working on a vineyard. He is dumping buckets of grapes into a machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

Josh helped the host hoist the buckets of grape clusters into the sorting machine. The small and simple looking machine separated the grapes from the vines. One side of the machine spit out leaves and twigs while the other side neatly collected individual grapes.

Our host said he liked to feed the leftover leaves and bits to the steers, who seemed to really enjoy the flavor, being covered in tasty grape juice. In addition, their behavior after eating the fermented snack gave our hosts and their neighbors a good laugh.

The Squish

I assisted in the squishing process (technically called “pressing”, but squishing sounds more fun). During the picking parties that the vineyard hosts each fall, the guests are invited to stomp the grapes with their feet. This year, there was even a contest that apparently got very competitive. We, however, squished the grapes in a more modern fashion.

A mesh cylinder sits on top of a red basin. Inside there is a black bladder and clumps of grapes. At the bottom of the basin, there is a lip that is pouring out green liquid.

We took Josh’s sorted buckets of grapes and dumped them into the open top of a mesh cylinder. At the center of the cylinder was a large bladder attached to a hose. The bottom was balanced on a grooved, round dish. Once the grapes were all in the cylinder, we gently pumped up the bladder. As the bladder got larger, it squished the grapes up against the sides of the mesh wall. The fresh and fragrant juice escaped out the holes in the mesh, where it was collected in the grooved dish and funneled into a new bucket. By the end of the squish, we had several gallons of grape juice.

From Juice to Almost Wine

Our barrel of grape juice was moved into the wine making room with the others. Our host had yet to decide what he was going to do with it, so it was covered and set aside for a while. However, we then got to help out with some of the other wines in progress. We checked a few of the fermenting barrels, and Josh helped add a little extra yeast to a few that needed a little extra encouragement. We also checked the settling tanks (the big steel ones in the picture), which are used for removing sediments from the wine once the fermentation is complete. The wine in these tanks undergoes several rounds of removing particulate matter and sterilization before bottling, which is one thing we didn’t get to do.

A room full of large white trash cans sit in the middle of a floor. The walls of the room are lined with plastic tubs and large steel tubs. Each trash can is covered with a white cloth. Inside one of the trash cans smashed, purple grapes are visible

Wine in Our Bellies

Once the wine was ready to rest, it was time for some tasting. 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard has an adorable tasting room complete with a bar, both an indoor and outdoor seating area, and bathrooms. Each wine is made in small batches and is sold locally, either at the winery or at some of the nearby markets.

A flight of wine from 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard. The Youngest Child is a white, The Middle Child is a red, and The Oldest Child is a white. The Oldest Child also shows the label: Semi-sweet white table wine. It's delicious! Get the keys from your little sister. Somebody has to be the responsible one.

The various flavors of wine are family-themed, with names like The Black Sheep, The Only Child, and Bird Dog Red, which was named after one of their retired family pets. One of the owner’s children designs all of the labeling and does an excellent job at it. Each description not only accurately describes the wine, but the member of the family it represents. A silver medal winner at the Iowa State Fair, The Youngest Child is a semi-sweet wine. With a  description like “adorable and sweet, and maybe a little whiny”, the wine is aptly named.

We had such a great time working on a vineyard! Picking grapes was the perfect way to spend a sunny morning, and what’s more, drinking the literal fruits of our labor was the perfect way to spend a quiet afternoon. I could not have asked for more from this excellent example of experience-based travel.


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