On Sunday, Don and Maxine Bryant and 18 of their friends picked grapes, drank wine and ate well. A throwback to the days when neighbors pitched in to bring in the crops, the volunteer harvest crew at the Bryants' vineyard near McLouth had filled 50 five-gallon buckets and 10 bushel baskets with grapes by lunchtime.
But hungry farm hands of the past didn't eat as well as the Bryants' crew. When the grape pickers took their midday break, Todd Meyer, the executive chef at Teller's in Lawrence, was waiting with a catered feast. On the menu were broccoli rapini orrechiette; a creamy shrimp pesto with penne; fingerling potatoes cooked with olive oil, rosemary and garlic; carrots and almonds in saba dressing; gorgonzola-stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto; tomato slices with basil and mozzarella; fresh-baked bread; peperoncini and olives; and Teller's flourless chocolate torte. The wine, of course, was from the Bryants.
Todd Siler, one of the pickers, drew good-natured laughter with a toast. "To our hosts," he said. "Thank you for the experience."
Karen Mikijanis, a neighbor interested in elderberries, helped with the harvest to learn about the vineyard. "I never knew how they went about it. They've kind of got us interested in making wine," she said.
The Bryants began planting the vineyard after they moved to Jefferson Hill Farm seven years ago. On Sunday the crew was picking American Catawba grapes from 5-year-old vines. As the Bryants add successive plantings, including Fredonia, another American lambrusca grape, and French hybrids, they are moving toward their goal of having 15 acres in grapes.
They're also working on getting their farm winery license and plan to build a winery building on their property within the next year.
The vineyard, which will provide a working retirement for the Bryants, clearly has become their passion. Just ask whether Kansas is an unlikely place to grow grapes, and you'll get a lesson in history and geology.
"Kansas a hundred years ago was the second leading state in grape production," Maxine said. "It was second to California."
The soil on their Jefferson County hilltop is full of minerals, she said. "We're sitting on glacial moraine, which is great for grapes. We never irrigate. Grapes love this soil."
"The only thing you're not going to grow very well in Kansas are the vinifera grapes that grow in California," Don said.
Those grapes are used in such wines as cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, while the Bryants' vineyard will produce a wide variety of white and red wines.
Don also noted that Jefferson County is an appropriate place to grow grapes because Thomas Jefferson was "the original American wine maker and promoter."
Although the Bryants are experimenting with wine making on a small scale, most of their crop is now going into grape juice, which they sell at the Lawrence Farmers Market. Unpasteurized juice from locally grown grapes is hard to find.
"We have a large customer base who come to us for grape juice," Maxine said. "Nobody else is doing it. It's harder to do than wine. You have to keep it refrigerated between 38 and 42 degrees. But if you process it and pasteurize it, you kill a lot of the nutrients and flavor."
Each year, as the vineyard grows and more recently planted vines come into production, the amount of picking will increase.
"There's a good chance this vineyard will produce 800 gallons of juice next year," Don said, noting that once the winery is built, most of the crop will be transformed into wine.
And that probably means that next year's harvest luncheon will feed a small army.
-- Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University.