Friends, family bring in harvest at vineyard

When harvest day at Maraella Winery’s vineyards arrived, several of Sandra Lee’s friends from high school came to Hokes Bluff to help. From left, Alyce Golowash, Mary Garner and Sandra Lee toil in the Lee family vineyard.When harvest day at Maraella Winery’s vineyards arrived, several of Sandra Lee’s friends from high school came to Hokes Bluff to help. From left, Alyce Golowash, Mary Garner and Sandra Lee toil in the Lee family vineyard.

By Donna Thornton/News Editor

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that “wine is bottled poetry.” If his words are true the volunteered hands of family and friends began crafting verses for future bottles in Hokes Bluff, on harvest day at the vineyard of Maraella Winery.

Maraella Winery produces Cabernet Sauvignon, muscadine and other wines, sparkling grape juice and jellies, offered for sale in their store on Old Highway 278 East in Hokes Bluff. The wines also are offered in a number of area restaurants.

The winery is a realization of Jim Lee’s dream to operate a family vineyard. Despite hearing that he couldn’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Alabama because of the heat and humidity, he planted 1,600 vines in March 2005, and last year harvested eight tons of grapes.

That harvest was a day-long effort by Lee family members and friends, who took pruning shears and buckets and hit the vineyard – some as early as 6:30 a.m.

Jim Lee said they were not able to finish the harvest in one day because an unexpected yield – the four tons of grapes they brought in produced more juice than they had vat space for.

“I don’t know if it’s this amazing rain we’ve had this year or not,” Lee said. He said they would harvest the rest of the grapes next week and cold-store them – something he’s wanted to do for a while – and begin the wine production process with them next month.

For this week’s harvest, Jim’s wife Sandra Lee had the help of several high school friends some of whom came from out of town.

As those friends related, they hadn’t seen each other in some time, keeping only sporadic contact, until a 50-year high school reunion. After that, a group of six friends took a trip to Gulf Shores together and had so much fun, they’ve stayed in touch since. Their sense of fun stayed with them, even as they gathered grapes.

“Mary, look at all you’ve left behind,” Alyce Golowash said, “Didn’t you ever pick cotton?”

“I was leaving them for you to get from the other side!” Mary Garner protested.

Those working had their labors rewarded with a lunch, and later on they will receive a bottle of wine and the satisfaction of knowing they helped to produce it.

As the buckets were filled with grapes, grapes were taken from the vineyard at the Lee’s home to the winery, located on the property of the store.

There Alonzo Lee, Don Pike and Edward Whitefield worked unloading grapes and processing them through a machine that squeezed juice into one container, the remainder of the grapes into another, and stems into another.

The juice was immediately poured into a vat. Alonzo Lee said sugar, yeast and chemicals will be added and the juice will “work” for about 30 days. Then the wine will age further he said; last year’s harvest likely will be bottled at the end of this year and available for purchase early next year.

Scott Lee – son of Jim and Sandra – said having dry weather the last few weeks was  a great benefit.

“They just really popped,” he said of the grapes.

Over the course of the summer, Jim Lee said he would have preferred drier weather.

“We have drip irrigation,” he said, giving them control to ensure the vines get enough water. They cannot control when the rain brings too much.

Scott Lee predicted a harvest of eight to 12 tons, well before the family of vintners discovered the abundance of juice the grapes were going to produce.

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