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Shelby County’s return to its wine-making roots was in full vintage on Saturday, when Vegh-Davis Vineyard called in a few friends to help gather about 4.5 acres of traminette grapes at a converted farm on Hempridge Road.
The harvest being plucked by family and volunteers on this overcast and muggy day was sufficient, owner Ferenc Vegh said, to make about 15,000 liters of wine, and these sweet, golden little grapes were stored carefully and safely in a refrigerated truck before being sold by the ton to four wineries in Kentucky and Indiana, representing the third batch of the first grapes grown commercially in Shelby County for decades.
They are precious cargo, to be sure. These traminettes were about 23 percent sugar, which is much higher than the usual level for grapes. “For grapes to ferment, they have to be eighteen percent sugar,” said Vegh, who along with his partner, Lisa Davis, developed the vineyard. “Most people pick at fifteen to sixteen percent and then add some sugar. These got a lot of sun. This will make some strong stuff.”
Talon Winery of Lexington broke the maiden in Shelby County’s return to the wine industry by announcing in late 2007 that it would build a tasting room and plant grapes on land it had purchased on Gordon Lane, just south of Shelbyville. Talon opened an elegant tasting room in 2009, but for a variety of reasons, it has yet to plant grapes.
Vegh and Davis took that step first in March 2008, installing about 3,500 vines on their rolling farmland near where Rockbridge Road curves into Hempridge, and in 2009 they sought the local referendum election that would allow them to open a winery and tasting room – “In case we want to go down that road,” Vegh said at the time.
But for now they have been content to harvest their “a hair under 6 acres” of traminettes and the sweeter vignoles, both French-American hybrid grapes, and sell them to wineries around the region. “We hope to have fifteen acres some day,” Vegh said. “We use a little bit of it.”
Before Prohibition, Kentucky was the nation’s third-largest wine-producing state, and Vegh said he has heard stories about wineries that dotted the hills around Mount Eden. Early in this century, the industry started to show growth again, and as of January the Kentucky Department of Agriculture listed 113 grape producers in the state who have 583 acres, with 280 acres of them ready for production.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reported that in 2009 Kentucky generated nearly 2 million gallons of wine, which was about the sixth most of any state and about .3 percent of all wine produced in the United States.
A history in the business
You may know Vegh as an agent for Shelby County Farm Bureau and the booster of the annual Farm City Banquet, but he sprouted from countless generations of winemakers out of his family’s roots in Hungary. He once said that his family still makes wine and has done so since the year 970 – yes that’s without a “1” in front of it. His first name is pronounced “FEHR-ens,” but his last name might as well mean “grapes.”
His father, Ferenc “Frank” Vegh gave his first name an American pronunciation after coming to the U.S. in 1956, leaving behind his home but not the family business. “Where I come from in Northwest Hungary, almost every farm grows some of these,” Frank Vegh said, while sitting on a bucket during a break from helping his son harvest. “My brother still has the family vineyard.”
Frank Vegh has a small vineyard in Henry County where he said he has planted about 100 vines each from three or four different grapes. He said he harvests the grapes and blends the juices. “Makes it sweet,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what the women like.”
The business isn’t cheap
Working ahead of the pickers, farm workers – and some learn-as-you-go volunteers – carefully unsnapped sturdy netting that protects the vines from birds and other animals that would steal the grapes. The netting, which Ferenc Vegh said is produced in Pennsylvania, is one those necessary but expensive elements of being in the grape business.
For instance, there are also plastic clips, which hold the nets secure, that are fairly precious as well, and at least one neophyte had to be taught Saturday that the clips should be removed and not severed with the snippers. “Oh my gosh,” Vegh said when he heard about the cutting. “They cost thirty dollars a bag.”
And then there are a network of wooden posts that are drilled into the ground in sort of a T formations to stretch and secure the wires to which the vines are mounted.
“I did a cost analysis when we started,” Vegh said. “When I did the analysis, the cost of those posts was ten dollars for the big ones and five dollars for the small ones. There was a petroleum spike on year, and when I got them [the posts], they were twenty dollars and ten dollars.”
Vegh’s father had a solution for that. “I cut down a grove of locust trees on my farm to make posts,” he said. “I used a tractor and an auger and drilled 600 holes.”
Those sturdy polls secured about 120 rows of grapes. By noon on Saturday, the volunteer army diligently had plucked clean 60 of them of nearly 100 yards in length, clipping the bunches of grapes off carefully and dropping them into 5-gallon buckets that were then loaded on to 2-wheel carts and pulled to a wagon holding 21 55-gallon plastic drums.
When the drums were filled, Vegh would fire up his 1948 Farmall tractor – “Just rebuilt the engine,” he said – and pulled the wagon across a field to where that refrigerated truck from River City Winery was parked next to an equipment shed, its generator running. That’s where the grapes were stored in cool comfort before being transported away and processed into wine.
The collection process is not without pain. Some volunteers sought first-aid kits after nicking their fingers with the clippers, and a family member required a trip to the walk-in clinic to get stitches in a punctured forearm. Others had to pause to drink some water, eat a snack, wipe away sweat and trade out chores for the back-breaking lifting and pouring.
Davis says that this process is a way to help the community with a $5-per-hour donation for charities while also harvesting the crop. This is the second year they have used this system, and last year about 20 people came.
“It took all day,” Vegh said. “We finished about nine o’clock. It’s going much faster this year. I can’t keep up with the flow.”
He was standing by the wagon dumping bucket after bucket of grapes into the drums. He had plenty of help from Finchville resident Dennis Erhard and others who tirelessly pulled the wagons back and forth up the long arbors of green leaves and little golden bunches of fruit.
Vegh and Davis said their harvest last year also was a bit larger than this one, mostly, Vegh said, because of the late-spring frost that stunted the growth of the grapes.
“That frost in May wasn’t good,” Vegh said. “This crop is a little less because of the frost we had.”
Lots of help
Perhaps the crop didn’t seem smaller to the volunteers. Although Davis and Vegh didn’t publicize their plan widely, dozens from the Shelby County Humane Society and the Kentucky Real Estate Investors Association, to name two, came out to help.
By 11 a.m. about 50 had signed waiver forms collected by Lindsey Pitts, but still more pickers arrived and signed in. Among them also were at least one artist, one environmentalist, a couple of kids who perform in community theater and numerous families and friends. To some, the rows – 80 in one arbor, 20 in another – and grapes must have seemed endless.
“How many rows do we have left?” asked a woman as noon approached.
“We have a hundred and twenty rows, and we’ve picked about sixty,” Vegh said. “We’re about two-thirds done because we’ve already picked twenty.”
“No, I’vepicked those twenty,” said the woman, who was Vegh’s mother, Katherine.
She was used to the effort, but not everyone who arrived on Saturday knew there was hard, meticulous work involved. Davis said some of those had heard through the grapevine, if you will, that there would be free wine for volunteers and didn’t understand the full impact of the arrangement.
One who apparently didn’t know the scope of the assignment was Lou Duncan of Louisville, whose colorful casual attire spoke more to the bridge game she had skipped than the grape-picking she was doing, but she dived into the labor with full gusto.
“I thought I was taking a tour,” she said. “I really am enjoying this. I think it’s a clever way to get wine harvested and a nice way to spend a morning.”