Dining With Denise Neil

At this local business, hundreds of people beg to perform manual labor for free

Any small business owner would likely be thrilled to have people volunteer to do manual labor for no pay.

But at one local business, people are actually begging to work for free. In fact, when the business’s call for volunteers goes out every summer, the 1,000 slots are filled within hours.

This weekend, Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater will send one last army of eager volunteers into its acres of grape vines for its final harvest of the season.

The volunteers, armed with yellow bins and harvest forks, will help owners Dave and Natalie Sollo bring in the rest of the grapes hanging on the vineyard’s 4,500 vines, growing on 11 acres.

The work isn’t especially glamorous: The ground can be soggy, the bugs can be buzzy and the weather can be sweaty. But people really, really, really want to pick those grapes, a fact that thrills the winery’s grateful owners.

“When we first started doing this, we thought we might struggle a little bit some years to get volunteers,” said Jeff Sollo, who helps run his parents’ winery. “But it’s never been an issue. As soon as we put out that we are going to do this, we always fill up super quick.”

The Sollos opened Grace Hill Winery about a decade ago on land that sits about 30 miles northeast of Wichita. The business started out small but now has a tasting room, an event center and frequent public events.

Unlike in California, where vineyards are harvested with machines and day laborers, smaller Midwestern wineries rely largely on volunteers. When the Sollos first began inviting people out for picking, they were borrowing an idea they’d seen used in some of the wineries around the Kansas City area.

Those first few years, they’d send people into the fields then treat them to a little picnic as a thank you. Now, each harvest tends to draw about 150 people, and when they’re finished picking, the Sollos feed them a big barbecue lunch with sides and wine pairings and give them a discount in their tasting room.

This year, Jeff Sollo said, he posted the volunteer sign-up sheet online in late July, and every spot for the winery’s seven scheduled harvests was claimed within 10 hours. Some of the volunteers lived in towns a three- or four-hour drive away.

“It’s a great way to get people out here. You do do a little work in the vines, and certainly do a little labor with it,” Jeff Sollo said. “But afterward we wine and dine you. You’re usually drinking wine by 10:30 in the morning, so life is pretty good.”

Last Sunday, the Sollos put out an emergency call on Facebook for volunteers to come harvest a patch of Norton grapes on Monday. It was an unscheduled harvest, necessitated because of all the rain and unpredictable growing patterns this year. By the next morning, they had a group of more than 50 people on the grounds ready to work.

One of them was Wichitan Kathy Bowles, who has been volunteer harvesting for the past six years.

She first heard about the harvest when a friend shared the event online, so she signed up to volunteer and loved it. This year, she missed the sign up deadline, so when she saw spaces open up for Monday, she grabbed one.

She likes the work, Bowles said, and she likes the Sollos, so it’s satisfying to help them. Her time in the fields also makes her feel relaxed, she said.

“I cannot garden to save my life,” she said. “Nothing I grow turns out. So this is fun for me. It’s my opportunity to get out in nature and to do something with my hands.”

Bowles, who also is a fan of Grace Hill’s wines, said she also likes knowing that she might have picked some of the grapes that went into a bottle she’s enjoying.

Jeff Sollo said that the winery harvests about 30 tons of grapes each year, and the harvest season is August to September. Grace Hill grows chambourcin, norton, seyval, chardonel, muskat, vignoles and crimson cabernet grapes, which they turn into about 20 different varieties of wine. Grapes harvested this year will be turned into sweet wines in about six to eight months. Dry white wines take about a year to be ready, and reds take about two years.

On Monday, after a debriefing from Dave Sollo, the volunteers — who ranged in age from toddlers to grandparents — were stationed in a section of vines heavy with fruit. The Norton grapes they were picking were small, purple and hung in clusters from leafy vines.

Each volunteer was careful to clip off just the grape clusters and to leave behind what Dave Sollo called “MOTG — Material Other than Grapes. Grape sampling was an approved activity, he said, but he warned that Norton grapes were full of seeds.

As they picked, the volunteers’ conversations created a hum in the vineyard. Some were listening to music on their phones. Some were sharing tips on how to pick. Some were lost in conversation about their lives.

Dave and Jeff Sollo walked up and down the rows, grabbing full bins and dumping their contents into big containers in the back of a nearby truck. As they worked, they thanked volunteers and continuously reminded them about the feast that awaited them.

“It’s kind of a different experience for the Wichita area,” Jeff Sollo said. “You go and pick grapes, and you come back next year, and you try the wines from the grapes you picked. It’s rare that you get to be that involved in a local product being made.”

Grace Hill Winery Grape Stomp

Harvest is almost over, and Grace Hill won’t be recruiting volunteers again until next July. But it is about to put on its end-of-Harvest Grape Stomp, a family activity that gets people out to the winery.

When: Noon-6 p.m., Oct. 7

Where: Grace Hill Winery, 6310 Grace Hill Road, Whitewater

What: The grape stomp will include picking any straggling grapes off the vine and stomping them. (It’s just for fun — stomped grapes aren’t turned into wine at Grace Hill.) The event will include food trucks and Grace Hill wines, local beers, sparkling grape juice and soda for sale.

Admission: Free. No reservations required.