Sweet and tangy

NORTH EAST – During “the season,” the smell of ripening grapes clings to the Lake Erie wind, traveling into homes and cars with open windows all around North East, a municipality in Erie County. Passers-by can see and smell the abundant grapes from Interstate 90 as they travel west to Erie or east into New York.

The more curious visitors going for a Sunday drive on Routes 20 or 5 can stop at local farmers’ stands to purchase grapes and produce, or to attend the once-yearly weekend celebration in town, the North East Wine Festival, which always is the last full weekend in September.

Visitors to the festival can purchase craft items and food and sample wine made from the area’s grape harvest … but “the season” – as harvesters call it – isn’t all about fun and games.

While the young, or young-at-heart, enjoy the festivities during the North East Wine Festival, farmers and their employees are busy harvesting grapes.

“I have about 365 acres of grapes,” said Fred Luke, owner of a family-run vineyard at 1755 Cemetery Road.

Luke is a third-generation owner and has worked the farm for almost 50 years. He has 18 varieties of grapes, including American varieties such as Concord, French hybrids such as Cayugas and the viniferas from Europe such as Reislings.

“The big crop in this area is Concord,” Luke said. “There’s more Concord grown here than anywhere.”

Harvesting the grapes is a two-man job. Local farmers, such as Luke and his employees, drive grape harvesters, known to the locals as grape pickers, while small tractors drive parallel to the pickers a few rows away.

The grape picker uses metal fingers to shake the grape plants, knocking the grapes onto a conveyor that pushes them up the picker, through a chute and into boxes being pulled by another employee in the small farm tractor.

“We pick most everything with machine,” Luke said. “It’s so costly to do it by hand, if you can find the help willing to pick.”

When the small farm tractor operator has a full load, he pulls away, unloads his containers full of grapes and grape juice directly onto waiting semi-trucks and loads new empty

containers back onto his trailer.

To keep the grape picker running and to harvest the grapes faster, some farms have multiple farm tractors pulling containers.

The work doesn’t end there.

Luke sends his grapes to all the local wineries, as well as others such as Constellation Winery in Canandaigua, N.Y.

Some vineyards send their grapes to processing plants, such as Welch’s.

The processing plants separate the valuable grapes and juice from the useless stems and turn the product into jams, jellies, juice and some types of wine. Some of the plants are open 24 hours a day to process the harvest.

“The most special thing about raising grapes, for me, is watching them come out in the spring, nurturing them in the growing season to produce a crop and watching the crop mature until we are able to harvest it in the fall,” Luke said.

The grape harvest begins around Labor Day for Luke and his workers and sometimes doesn’t end until the first week of November, but work on the vineyard is year-round.

“As soon as we get done with the harvest in the fall, when we get a frost the leaves will drop (off the vine) and then we start pruning (the vines),” Luke said.

Luke and his employees work all winter pruning plants. In the spring, they begin to replant grapevines and put in new trellises and posts. Late spring and early summer is spent using spray programs to prevent disease in the harvest.

The town of North East lies in the Lake Erie Belt, a plain along the lake that stays cooler longer in the spring because of its proximity to Lake Erie, which prevents the plants from budding out too quick and prevents the chances of frost harming the plants, Luke said.

In the winter, the lake keeps the air temperature warmer longer, allowing the plants to grow, mature and keep their leaves longer.

“This area is well suited for grapes,” he said.