By Kristine Favreau and Joshua Winata
Killeen Daily Herald
LAMPASAS – Ripening in the warm Texas sun, juicy clusters of green fruit hung on the vine like shimmering pearls spotted with morning dew, filling the air with a thick, sweet aroma.
The grapes were ready for harvest.
On Saturday morning, nearly 40 people answered the invitation to pick grapes at Pillar Bluff Vineyards and took part in the grapes' journey from the vine to the bottle.
For the enthusiasts who came to learn about the winemaking process, the day was an interactive experience filled with fun, food and plenty of wine.
Taking to the fields, the harvesters picked more than a ton of chenin blanc and chardonnay grapes, which produced about 160 gallons worth of juice.
"This is the good part of growing – when you get to pull in what you've grown," vineyard owner Gil Bledsoe said.
The visitors watched as the grapes were loaded into a transport wagon and, in a surprisingly efficient, mechanical process, were crushed and destemmed. The grapes were pressed in large oak barrels until they yielded their golden juices ready for fermentation.
Participants also got their feet dirty in the process, crushing grapes the old-fashioned way – by stomping on them. In large black vats, wine lovers found themselves ankle-deep in squishy grape pulp. The event was largely ceremonial.
"It feels like you're running in mud," said Copperas Cove participant Michael Mundell.
"This is the best part of today," added his wife, Desiree Mundell. "This feels so good. I don't want to come out."
After they finished, the grape stompers imprinted T-shirts with their footprints stained purple by the juice.
As the temperatures climbed, the diligent vineyard workers enjoyed an epicurean afternoon, lounging in the shade and feasting on barbecue from The Yumm Factory in Lampasas.
"This is such a fun way to bond with my daughter before she leaves," said wine enthusiast Donna Wear, whose daughter leaves next week for Lubbock. "This was our last hurrah weekend."
Located near the outskirts of Lampasas, Pillar Bluff Vineyards sits nestled at the end of a winding road, surrounded by plentiful live oak trees and eight acres of vinifera.
Following his retirement from the military in 1992 and spending several years at Rose Hill Manor, a bed and breakfast inn in Stonewall, Bledsoe established the winery in Lampasas in 2002.
"Some days you think this just isn't economically feasible, but in the end, you do it for the passion," Bledsoe said of the venture, following a year in which his crop has been heavily damaged by rain, freezing temperatures and mold. "We were all happy when it started raining in July, but then it just never stopped again."
With torrential downpours all summer long, the output this year was disappointingly low. About half the fruit from this year's crop was lost because rain hindered the harvest.
"More than anything, this is a salvage operation," Bledsoe said. "We only have about a two-week window to complete the summer harvest."
The wines offered at Pillar Bluff are processed at the winery. The vineyard has won state recognition for its estate-bottled Chardonnay, along with a silver medal for its "Boar Doe" at the 2005 Houston Open wine competition. Many of its other wines have won awards as well.
During the grape stomp, Bledsoe offered participants samples of two distinctly different wines. The Founder's Red is a sweetened blend of five different grapes.
"This is a label that allows us to offer something exciting for people that also has the ability to pair well with foods from steak to pizza. It's an excellent table wine," Bledsoe said.
The winery also presented its Vioginier, produced from a Rhone varietal, which is a warm-weather grape, that provides fruit overtones of mango, tropical fruits, passion fruit and peach.
Pillar Bluff will host an Equinox Dinner on Sept. 22. An equinox is either of two points on the celestial sphere where the ecliptic and the celestial equator intersect. It's also one of two times a year when the sun crosses the equator, and the day and night are of about equal length.
The event, which begins at 7 p.m., will include a four-course dinner, wine and live music. The Sunny Mac Blues Band from Waco is scheduled to entertain, and the suggested dress for the evening is "Texas casual."
Reservations are not required, but interested parties can contact Bledsoe through the winery Web site, or call ahead. Tickets are $60.
Pillar Bluff's tasting room is open Friday through Sunday, or parties may call to arrange a private tour or tasting.
"Today absolutely gave us a greater respect for what goes into making a bottle of wine," Wear said while purchasing a bottle of Pillar Bluff wine after the day's events. "The wines they served us were definitely refreshing after a hard day of harvesting."