1997: a fine grape year Vineyard: The dry summer was auspicious for Maryland vintners. After two days filled with labor, growers toast the harvest.

October 13, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Jack Johnston spent the weekend lifting 30-pound crates of grapes, driving a tractor through a 5-acre vineyard, and helping direct the work of 50 pickers -- all because, his wife says, he is cheap.

After years of buying grapes for homemade wine, he decided to save money and grow his own.

Over the weekend, Jack and Emily Johnston harvested 12 tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes from their vineyard near Manchester -- enough grapes for their own wine and to help supply the needs of two commercial wineries in Baltimore

County as well.

By noon yesterday, 5 acres of the deep-purple grapes had been picked, placed in yellow plastic crates called lugs, and stacked on a truck. While workers chowed down on sandwiches at the end of their job, the Johnstons gathered with friends around the kitchen table and lifted wine glasses to toast Copernica Vineyard's eighth harvest.

"Here's to a successful harvest," Jack Johnston said.

From all appearances, it is. While Maryland's cornfields shriveled and lawns grew parched in this year's drought, the grapes basked in the rainless days to produce the best harvest in years.

Large California vineyards use mechanical equipment to harvest the grapes, but the Johnstons and other Maryland growers rely on pickers willing to work a few days for extra cash.

The pickers who came to Copernica Vineyards to work for $2 a lug plus lunch included teen-agers saving money for snowboarding equipment, wine aficionados wanting to learn more about grape growing and laborers looking to pick up extra money.

"The car insurance is due," said Mike Viel, an Eldersburg auto mechanic who was hunched under a grape vine snipping bundles of purple grapes with a pair of shears. The work wasn't complicated, but a day spent lifting boxes and grapes, and kneeling beside the vines took its toll.

"You find out when you're not in shape," said Ray George Ohl, who came from Littlestown, Pa., to help with the harvest on Saturday and found his legs hurting yesterday morning. Yesterday's weather was so perfect, with its sunshine and faint fall breeze, that no one seemed to complain about the work.

"It's nice to get outside," said Don Martin of Sykesville, who normally caters parties in houses and reception halls. His workplace yesterday was a hillside above a duck pond. Beyond the vineyard and the Johnstons' lane stretched a spectacular view of the Carroll countryside -- rolling fields of corn stubble, old weathered barns and forests already emersed in yellow and orange hues.

But 8-year-old Greg Wilson had his attention focused on the bunches of grapes in front of him and the money they would bring.

"I always like to have more money than my brother," said the boy, who picked 12 lugs and earned $24 in two days.

Dave Maffett, 14, of Gamber and Taylor Heacock, 14, of Westminster were picking grapes to earn money for snowboarding equipment. Maffett calculated that the money he earned in the vineyard would make up the difference he lacked for $90 snowboarding boots. "If I make $30 today I'm set," he said.

Shelley Snyder was one of the few workers in the field with grape picking experience, having helped the Johnstons with last year's harvest.

"You get to make a little extra money, meet new people. It's not hard," said Snyder, who lives in Hampstead and planned to spend the money she earned on her 3-year-old daughter.

On the other side of the trellis, Charles Young of Sykesville was there not so much for the money as to learn more about viticulture. "I love to work with grapes. I make wine myself," he said.

He took note of how the Johnstons supported their grape vines with wire and post trellises, and put up shiny streamers to scare aware the birds.

Although no one keeps count of how many growers like Young experiment with backyard vineyards, Jim Russell, a spokesman for the Maryland Grape Growers Association, estimates there are more than 80 growers in the state who sell at least periodically to amateur and commercial wineries.

"We can make outstanding wine here," said Russell, a grower from Germantown.

The Johnstons' interest in grape growing began with an interest in wine more than 30 years ago. They experimented with making their own vintage, which was awful at first, Emily Johnston said.

In 1978, they moved from Silver Spring to a 90-acre farm north of Manchester, where they built a home heated with solar energy. The house inspired the name of their vineyard in honor of Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who theorized that the sun is at the center of the universe.

After several years of growing grapes for their own winery, they expanded their vineyard to capitalize on the demand Maryland commercial winemakers have for grapes. In three cold days in April 1988, they planted 5,000 cabernet sauvignon vines on the rolling hills in front of their home.

A drought that year nearly brought disaster, but the Johnstons hauled water to their parched young vines and saved their investment.

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