CLEAR LAKE – Farmers and gardeners all around are up to their knees during harvest season, and that includes wineries like Satek Winery, which not only owns its own vineyard, but strives to support and help harvest with other local producers.
Satek, owned by Larry and Pam Satek, first planted his own vineyard in Lake James in 1992, but has been a loyal customer of Nob Hill Vineyard on Clear Lake since the grapes were ready for harvest in 2007.
“It’s really, really easy to make bad wine from good grapes, but it’s actually really, really hard to make good wine from bad grapes,” said Satek winemaker Shane Christ. . “The key is good fruit, and you can tell this is the place for it.”
Christ and other Satek grape pickers were at Nob Hill Vineyard in late September and early October, working alongside Nob Hill owners Ron and Kay Cummer to harvest all the grapes.
“In 2007, we shook hands with Larry Satek and told him you were the deal,” Ron said. “Since then, they have bought all of our grapes. “
Not just buy, however. Christ and the other Satek workers personally went to the vineyard to get their hands dirty and harvest the grapes directly from the vines.
“We are really working a lot to try to make the harvest easier,” Christ said.
While the harvest may seem as simple as cutting down a vine, Christ pointed out many natural hazards in the field that can interfere with the health of grapes.
“You will start to see a bit of honey bee and hornet damage around this time of year,” Christ said, referring to the holes that many of these insects have made in grapes. “You know, when you start to see this sort of thing, it’s time to take them out. “
Deer and other wildlife also often roam the vineyard in search of a snack, and even the vines themselves are at risk of damage from cicadas that chew on the wood and try to burrow inside to lay eggs.
“Some vineyards are worse than others, but this one is actually pretty well protected,” Christ said.
Besides the parasites, there are also natural factors that influence the color of the skin and the condition of the grapes.
A fungal disease called phomopsis is a common condition that can weaken vines and deteriorate the quality of grapes. It is quite easy to spot because it gives the grapes a shriveled appearance.
With healthy grapes, however, a key indicator of readiness to harvest is the undertone of skin color. Black grapes have been exposed to more sunlight, which affects their flavor.
“What we’re really looking for are these good dark ones,” Christ said. “These will be much softer. Then something that has been shaded will be slightly underripe.
Nob Hill Vineyard grows two varieties of grapes: Traminette, the Indiana state grape, and Steuben, a darker grape that doesn’t actually bear the county name but was developed in 1925 in New York City.
While Satek buys grapes from other vineyards, Christ always makes sure to put all of his effort into preparing these grapes for the best wine.
“Wine is actually made in the vineyard,” Christ said. “What we are looking for are high quality fruit and a good sugar-acid balance, which means high sugars and lower acidities.”
Heavy rains can dilute the flavor of the grapes as the vines soak up excess water through their roots, and picking the grapes at cooler temperatures helps preserve the flavors better.
Once picked, however, there are potential risks with transportation and other logistics that can damage the grapes before they even reach the winery.
“The key is to get them into your controlled environment as soon as you can,” Christ said. “As soon as they are crushed and in the tank, now we really have them under our control, so the risk is much lower.”
While mistakes during the harvesting process are often not ideal for business, Christ admitted that they can sometimes lead to new discoveries.
“Often things are done by mistake or by chance. A classic example would be ice wine, ”said Christ. “In Germany they forgot to pick a specific piece of the vineyard and decided in the winter, oh my God, we forgot to pick it all and the grapes were frozen. So they went ahead and squeezed the juice anyway, and it turned out a lovely dessert wine. “
Now that Satek’s grapes have been harvested for the year, Christ and the rest of the winery team can take the next step: making their wine.
Cindy Marquardt, a recent addition to the Satek team, spent her first day of work harvesting at Nob Hill and is particularly excited to see how these grapes will now turn into the tasty wine bottles Satek is known for.
“I’m going to be able to be a part of it every step of the way, and that for me is just breathtaking,” said Marquardt. “To hold a bottle of wine and know, I bottled it, labeled it and helped make it.”
Marquardt joined Satek after spending many years in the restaurant management industry where she developed a particular interest in wine.
“I took a class at Olive Garden, and when I took that they gave you a wine class on dark reds to lighter reds to whites to blush and pairing them with food.” , said Marquardt. “It was really cool because you learned which wines really complemented which food.”
Part of what attracted her to Satek was the cellar’s ability to maintain a consistent flavor with their wines, even though it’s a flavor that is ten years old.
“It’s a hat trick because you can’t find that in a lot of places,” Marquardt said. “It’s consistent, overall.
Marquardt believed that the consistency of the winery is possible not only because of its methods, but also in part thanks to the knowledge of the chemistry of Christ.
Christ previously studied chemistry at Purdue Fort Wayne, formerly IPFW, in order to better understand the more specific aspects of wine properties and how they interact with each other.
“He’s right with chemistry. I mean, then you know how that’s interacting with what, ”Marquardt said. “So if he wants to think outside the box and create, he has his basics. “
Christ admitted that his education can be useful, but that it is not always essential for making good wine.
“Chemistry is helpful, but it’s not an absolute necessity,” Christ said. “There are a lot of winegrowers who don’t have technical degrees, but to really make good wine all the time, it’s useful.”
Christ’s decision to study chemistry, however, is a testament to his dedication to winemaking and his desire to go deeper into the industry.
Originally majoring in business, Christ started working for Satek right out of college when the winery had just started.
“When I graduated from college it wasn’t too far after 9/11, so the economy was really weird and there really weren’t any jobs,” Christ said. “I had this business degree, and the winery had just opened, and I was more curious than anything. So I started by taking care of the vineyard.
Christ learned the nuances of winemaking directly from the winery co-founder, Larry, and has happily continued working at Satek ever since.
The harvest may be over for the year, but Christ and the Satek team will now have their hands full to craft the great wine for which they have become so well known throughout the community.
“It is definitely a labor of love,” said Christ.