My first encounter with Whirlwind Winery was at the almost-rained-out cheese festival in 2012. While the rest of the exhibitors were packing up, we made our way to the winery where we were invited to taste their selections, including a watermelon wine that was still in the makings. Along with the tastings, we were given a tour of the facility and invited to help with the harvest the following year.
I called Brad Stinson, co-owner of Whirlwind, near the end of August this year to see if the offer still stood. I was afraid that I was too late, since I only knew that it would be around August, and we were pushing the end of the month. Turns out, I was just in time, since the first harvest of the year had been scheduled for the following weekend.
I gathered a few friends and coffee for the early morning drive to the vineyard in Fay, OK. We were supplied with "nippers" and buckets and a short tutorial and went to work. Our harvest companions that morning consisted of a handful of "real neighborly" friends and family, including the other co-owner - Don - and Brad and his brothers - Chad and Thad - and their father, Allen. When I commented that "Allen" doesn't rhyme with Brad, Chad, and Thad; Chad quickly retorted, "No, but 'Dad' does." Their mother later told me that if she would have had another boy, she would have named him "Aw-Gad".
We called it quits for the day around 11:30 a.m., just as the mercury hit the century mark. We caravanned to the winery where we were treated to a plethora of homemade pastas, salads, bread, fruit, dessert, and (of course) wine. There, I met the bold and adorable Russian, Tonya - Brad's wife. She told me that they met on the internet, where she had advertised herself as "good-looking and good-cooking", but was quick to state that she was NOT a mail-order bride.
When Brad decided a few years ago that he wanted to grow grapes and open a winery, Tonya let him know that she didn't come to America to do manual labor. This expensive and time-consuming hobby takes five years just for the grapevines to mature. The weather and critters can completely obliterate a whole year's crop. When Don became a partner, he brought his own grape-growing experience with him and together they have learned a lot about the business. We heard stories about training sheep to only eat the goathead stickers that are plentiful in the sandy soil, but to leave the fruit alone. I'm still not sure if it is genius, or cruel.
|Brad and Thad|
|Pouring into the "crusher"|
|Chad cranking the press|
|Winemaking in progress|
|Grape "cake" after pressing|