Pickin’ & Stompin’ at the Clarks

Posted on 03 November 2011

A group in Decatur County has a grape-stomping, wine-making, good time get-together each year on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

That is when some St. John’s Episcopal Church members, and relatives and friends of Joe and Deborah Clark, gather at the Clarks’ Booster Club Road vineyard to pick and stomp the fall harvest of muscadines—all in preparation for brewing a batch of wine, some of which is used by the church for communion wine.

Clark said he learned his wine-making skills from a good friend, “Jake,” while living in Tallahassee, Fla. Jake made the communion wine for the Catholic church where he belonged. This inspired Clark to do the same for his church, Holy Comforter Episcopal. After Clark retired and moved to the 150-acre family farm on the banks of Lake Seminole, and began attending church in Bainbridge, the St. John’s rector at that time was Maryann Heine. After she learned of Clark’s wine making experience, she initiated the “Great Grape Stomp” in 1994.

Clark recalls that attendance was sparse in the early years.

“Only three or four people came to pick and stomp that first year,” he said, then added, “It was always so hot and gnatty, that people were reluctant to come.” But as the years went by, the crowd swelled. In addition to fellow church members, Clark’s children and their friends from Tallahassee began coming and people brought covered dishes to add to the hot dogs prepared by the Clarks. Some years there have been as many as 50 or 60 in attendance.

The process used by Clark is basic, which he described as “rather primitive.” The people pick the grapes from the rows of grapevines and place them in a children’s plastic wading pool for the stomp.

An old wooden press is used to extract the juice from the grapes. It runs through a tube into a 5-gallon jug, referred to as a demi-john. Sugar and yeast are added to the juice, and the jug is capped with a water lock that releases the gas that forms in the bottle during the fermentation process.

As the mixture ferments it bubbles fast at first. When it slows down and the sediment settles to the bottom, the juice is then siphoned out, the dregs are disposed of, and the wine goes back in the jug to continue fermenting.

Asked how long it takes before the wine is ready to drink, Clark replied, “It all depends on how bad you want to drink it.” He explained that in the siphoning you get a good mouthful of wine and you can taste to see how it is doing. “We usually try not to drink it before Thanksgiving,” he added dryly, with a twinkle in his eye.

The muscadine grapes make a sweet red wine and he gives the church a 5-gallon jug at a time, which usually lasts them about a year.

“When the sacristry people run low, they call and we take them a new jug.” Clark said, adding that he never bottles his wine, but leaves it in the jug.

This year, the Great Grape Stomp had its challenges. Due to the drought and extreme heat, the grapes matured early and there were relatively few grapes left to harvest come September. Clark said they barely picked enough grapes to make the one jug he has bubbling. Then, the stomp was all but rained out by Tropical Storm Lee, which put a damper on the day and reduced attendance, forcing the few hardy faithful inside the barn for the activities. Those who came had a good time picking between the rains. Everyone shared supper in the barn and enjoyed musical entertainment from some of those in attendance.

Clark began planting the grapes on the farm before moving there in 1985. He estimates he currently has 75 to 80 vines. Caring for the vines requires cutting them way down in January. The grapes only appear on the new growth that comes in the spring. Since the plants require a good amount of water, Clark has rigged a drip irrigation system for the vineyard.

The land was inherited from Clark’s father and divided up by Clark and his sisters. He has added some to his acreage by buying the strip of land across the back where the old railroad used to run from Chattahoochee, Fla., to Climax. He and his wife have five children. All of them, he says, want to keep the place together for future generations to enjoy the Great Grape Stomp and making of wine.

One Response to “Pickin’ & Stompin’ at the Clarks”

  1. eaves_mce says:

    I had the pleasure of working for Mr. Joe and Mrs. Deborah as my first job over 15 years ago at the Christmas tree farm. My family and I also attended St. John’s. I was wondering if the tree farm was still in operation even though it was not mentioned? I moved away from the area many years ago but every Christmas I think about the Clarks and going to the farm and picking out and cutting down our family tree. Hope all is well with the Clark family. Merry Christmas!

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