Conducting the harvest Home: Nelson and Susan Stewart earn their livelihoods in the world of music. But in their hearts, their York County vineyard never plays second fiddle.

October 05, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

There is a place in southern Pennsylvania where wine, music and camaraderie seem to flow year-round.

It is called the Stewart Vineyard, and is run by Nelson and Susan Stewart, music professionals-turned-farmers who are neatly juggling the worlds of symphonies and grapes.

With a little help from their friends, that is.

Nelson is a violinist -- a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music who has played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 1987. His older brother, Delmar, is a BSO violist.

Susan, who studied music and business at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is the symphony's operations manager.

In the fall, when the long hours of summer sun have dwindled and the yellow jackets hover ominously over the vines, the Stewarts' fields bustle with an assortment of adults, children, cats and dogs.

What began as a few friends helping out at the vineyard has grown into a laid-back gathering in the country where friends and friends of friends may show up and help in return for a picnic and some fun. Kids and dogs are welcome, too. The cats are permanent residents.

On any given weekend, violists, violinists or bass players may be found in the fields clipping bunches of sweet, ripe fruit from their vines. Or there may be an emergency-room doctor, a minister or a public relations manager.

"I'm an apartment dweller and this is my chance to plant, to cultivate, to harvest," says Brenda Sandberg, an environmental planner who lives in Washington, and who has been coming to the vineyard for several years.

"I love coming out here. I want to play in the dirt."

The vineyard makes a fine place to play. The 20-acre farm lies in York County among rolling hills turned green-gold by wild flowers, corn and soy. A narrow, winding road leads past row upon row of grapes to the Stewarts' home.

Built in 1884, the farmhouse is mustard-yellow and flanked by a line of enormous Norwegian spruces and a tiny, log smokehouse. It sits across the yard from a red-and-white barn, where a 23-year-old cat reigns supreme -- and where the Stewarts make wine.

On a recent Sunday, about a dozen volunteer field hands have gathered. Nelson, in a wide straw hat, looks every bit the vineyard owner. He hands out clippers and gloves. And he gives succinct instructions: "Pick the white grapes. Do not clip your fingers."

"It's exciting," he says, as he watches the first few bunches of grapes being picked. These vines are 3 years old, and are just now maturing. He and Susan planted them. Worried about them during frosts. Pruned, weeded and sprayed them with fungicides each spring.

"You take care of these things all year, and now, finally, it is time to pick them. I feel very paternal."

At first, the pickers jostle and joke: "Hey, this is my row, step aside."

"Can we eat these?"

"I feel like I'm in a Mondavi commercial."

But it is pleasantly warm in the sun. Conversations subside. A hypnotic rhythm sets in. Soon all that can be heard are a few buzzing bees, the steady snip-snip of clippers and the thunk of grapes being tossed into plastic carrying cases.

The Stewarts became interested in growing grapes several years ago when they tasted Maryland wine for the first time. They were driving home from a rehearsal in Hagerstown, where Nelson was concertmaster of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, when they saw a sign for Elk Run Vineyard in Mount Airy. "It said 'tastings,' so we pulled right over," Nelson says.

They became friends with the Elk Run owners, and soon Nelson began working there between symphony rehearsals.

He also read everything he could about grapes. Vacations became visits to vineyards here and in California. And he began dabbling in winemaking.

"Making wine and maybe growing grapes has a bit of art to it. You can look at a vine as a stick or you can look at it as something more expressive," says Fred Wilson, who with his wife has owned Elk Run Vineyard for 17 years.

"Artistic inclinations are necessary in making good wine. Both Susan and Nelson have the art side down, so to me, it seemed natural that they'd gravitate toward wine."

But the Stewarts were living in Baltimore's Charles Village. And, even if you buy the grapes instead of growing them, it is difficult to make good wine in a rowhouse basement. Eventually, the Stewarts knew that they'd have to move.

"We'd begun to feel unhealthy," says Susan. "We were living in a rowhouse and dealing with the city, and it began to dawn on us that we wanted something else."

In 1993, they discovered the something else: a small farm with fields suitable for grapes. Almost as soon as they'd unpacked, the Stewarts planted grapes.

At Stewart Vineyard, grapes are grown for sale, but wine is made only for personal consumption. The Stewarts sell their grapes to commercial wineries, which may grow grapes, as well as buy them in bulk, and then make wine to sell.

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