Published February 29, 2024

The late summer sun, casting low over the golden leaves of the vineyard and its bright gleaming fruit, creates a beautiful picture. It is magical, what these folks can do with some plants, sun, soil, and the labor of their hands.

I’ve been fascinated by the growth of wineries in Virginia for years now. I remember visiting Chrysalis Vineyards way back in the 1990s as a newly-legal drinker, and falling in love with the rustic barn-turned-tasting room, set amongst the vines and the rolling hills outside Middleburg. I remember thinking to myself, “These people have it all figured out. What a life!”

Who knew I would have a full circle moment twenty-five years later when I had the folklorist’s opportunity of a lifetime in 2017 and 2018: I was awarded an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to document the work lives of a wide variety of people in Virginia’s wine industry through in-depth interviews.

I previously worked with the family operated “pick-your-own” orchards of Fauquier County and saw the boom in independent wineries and vineyards taking over the scenic countryside. Intrigued by the popularity and proliferation of this relatively new form of agricultural production, I set out to try and understand the people who sought out this kind of hard work as a way of life.

Intrigued by the popularity and proliferation of this relatively new form of agricultural production, I set out to try and understand the people who sought out this kind of hard work as a way of life.

While I collected dozens of interviews for the Library of Congress, it still does not feel like the public knows the full story of Virginia wine production. And perhaps that is part of the appeal for visiting wine-tasters — we flock to our idyllic wineries to escape the noise, traffic, and stresses of everyday life. Lounging on a flagstone patio, looking out over gorgeous Virginia foothills with a glass of wine can be the perfect way to relax. We fantasize about an idyllic farm life.

But make no mistake: running a vineyard is hard work. Sure, some of the wealthier winery owners may be able to pay staff to run the whole operation for them, but the majority are family-run and the bulk of the work is kept in the family’s hands.

The author getting her hands dirty with fermenting grapes. Photo by Paul D. Scott (Studio Scott)

Often the steep learning curve to a vineyard’s success here is a part of the allure. Virginia winemakers are a tough bunch. You would have to be to try and grow wine grapes in this humid and erratic climate. Late spring freezes can kill the darling buds of May; grapes grow on vines which have to be constantly pruned of leaves to allow air circulation and sun to shine on the fruit. Not to mention being vigilant to the constant threat of fungi, pests, and critters, which all want to nibble on those sweet fruits.

Harvest bags wait to be used by pickers. Photo by Paul D. Scott (Studio Scott)

The grapes that survive the growing year are harvested in late summer. The growers pray for sunshine and no rain to spoil the near-to-bursting fruit. When the sugar levels are just right, the grapes must all be picked and processed right away. Most family-run vineyards don’t have enough people on staff to pull that many grapes in at once; many bring in seasonal picking crews, while some rely on friends and volunteers.

I tried my hand at bringing in a harvest with a group of volunteers at Cana Vineyards in Middleburg that fall. We set out among the vines with gloves and sharp snippers to carefully cut the grape clusters from the vines and gently drop them into plastic trays. After thirty minutes my back was aching from bending down to navigate the tangled vines and leaves to retrieve grapes. And there were five or six more rows to get through. But as the proverb says, “Many hands make light work.”

We peeled our jackets off as the warm September sun climbed in the sky. And with the sun came the yellow jackets, buzzing protectively around the sweet fruit. Still we picked. The novelty of the experience had worn off; now I was just determined to get the job done. I asked Cana’s winemaker, Melanie Natoli, what would happen if we didn’t finish picking? “Francisco and I would bring in the rest,” she replied.

KS: What does being a winemaker entail?
MN: What does it not entail? Winemaker, vineyard manager, shipping and receiving department, warehouse, inventory, etc., etc. It’s not unusual to have many hats as a winemaker in a small family winery in Virginia. Most of us do that.

Natoli is a one-woman powerhouse who handles everything from the vine cultivation to crushing to fermenting and finally bottling. Her red and white wines have earned acclaim at many competitions, but it is her roses that are nearest and dearest to her heart. You can see her love of the pink in Natoli’s winemaking gear: rubber boots, gloves, and even her pink pallet jack.

MN: They go with my pink coat and my pink…. Part of it was we started working in cellars with other people and they’re not going to touch anything that’s pink. I have a pink flashlight! I had a electrician that had to borrow it one time and say “Oh, I’m not keeping this—” and I’m like “Exactlyyy, you’re not. You don’t want to.” So you get it all back, right? And then, my favorite wine is rosé. So, I’m in love with the color pink now because its my favorite wine to make. 

Melanie Natoli and Francisco Mendoza at Cana Vineyards. Photo by Paul D. Scott (Studio Scott)

Her only full-time staff in the vineyards and the wine-making process is Francisco Mendoza, a quiet man with a broad smile. His hands are rough with the calluses of farm labor. In comparison, we volunteers are a soft bunch who mostly work office jobs or are retired. Many are members of the Cana wine club and regulars who relish the chance to work behind the scenes and earn lunch and a bottle of wine gifted for their efforts.

Many Virginia vineyards rely on seasonal pickers that can quickly and expertly bring in the fruit. Generally, these men and women are migrant and seasonal farmworkers from Mexico or Central America. They start at the crack of dawn and work continuously until they lose the light. Dressed in long sleeves and hats to protect from the sun and the jealous insects, they do the tedious but essential work of snipping grape clusters from vines and collecting them in buckets and then huge bins.

Friendly and soft-spoken, these workers go down the rows of grapes on either side of the vine, collecting every last cluster. That means stooping down to get (literally) low hanging fruit, and often rising up on tiptoes to get to the top of the row. They have special snippers, razor-sharp to cause the least damage to the vine, but risky to fingers when distracted or tangled in leaves. The collecting buckets are worn like a baby carrier across the chest and pull the worker forward with its weight when laden with grapes.

At the end of each row is a giant bin, about the size of a four-person hot tub, where they dump the fruit from their buckets. When full, these bins are lifted by a forklift and carried to the “crush pad” for processing: stripping the green stems and gently crushing the fruit to collect the precious juice that will become wine. Their labor, while invisible at a casual winery visit, is essential to Virginia winemaking.

Harvest is just one stage in the winemaking process. It will be months before any customers can start popping corks. In the meantime, Melanie will work through the winter: testing batches of fermenting juice, monitoring the flavor and alcohol content; hand pruning vines; transferring wine into barrels and eventually into bottles. Migrant farmworkers move on to other crops in other states, or return home. Winter vines sleep through the cold, dreaming of sunshine.


Kim D. Stryker is an independent folklorist living in Falls Church, VA in a modern farmhouse with her husband, two big dogs, and a variable amount of chickens. She has an M.A.I.S. in Folklore Studies from George Mason University and was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2017 by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is also the recipient of an Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Kim is an adjunct faculty member at GMU and teaches “Intro to Folklore and Folklife” and “Food and Folklore.”

Paul D. Scott is a professional photographer based in Amsterdam, but who grew up in Arlington, Virginia. He and Kim have been friends since high school and reconnected to collaborate on this project and their shared love of wine. More of Paul’s work can be seen at studioscott.co.

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