It’s a hot, stormy July day in southern York County. At Allegro Winery in Brogue, PA, an ominous cloud blots out the sun and the skies open up.
The wet weather drives the workers out of the rows and vineyard manager Nelson Stewart inside the winery. Recently, this has been a typical day of grape-growing in Pennsylvania: watching the weather and cursing the rain.
As he explains over the course of an afternoon visit, Stewart touches every single vine in Allegro’s vineyard. During the long winter months, he personally prunes each plant, making small decisions — cut, tie, trim — that will have a huge impact on next year’s grape harvest.
His expertise has been honed not through formal education, but via 30 years in vineyards. In a lovely confluence, the vineyard manager at this musically-named winery spent the first part of his career as a professional violinist, living in Europe and then taking a job with the Baltimore Symphony.
“I played a concert in Frederick, Maryland,” he recalls. “It was a Sunday matinee and on the way back, we took a side road. We passed this sign that said, ‘winery and tasting room.’ It was Elk Run Vineyard in Mt. Airy, Maryland. I got to know owners Fred and Carol Wilson. And then in 1988, I started volunteering, doing stuff in the cellar and in the vineyard.”
In 1993, Stewart bought a farm across the border in Stewartstown, PA, and planted five acres of vines.
“This is while I was still playing with the orchestra,” he recalls. “So I would go to rehearsal in the morning, then come home to do stuff in the vineyard. In 2001, I switched my hobby for my profession — I stopped playing the violin and started doing grapes.”
He took the job at Allegro in 2014. These days, he has four seasonal workers at the original vineyard in addition to several more at a satellite site 15 miles away — Allegro recently purchased Naylor Wine Cellars and its vineyard. Stewart rides his tractor back and forth. Managing heavy equipment is a huge part of his responsibilities.
“My job is to do everything mechanical,” he explains. “I spray, I mow, I herbicide, I hedge, I drive the tractor when we harvest. Every week, I get to drive down every row and look at every vine.”
He also manages his employees, chatting with them or texting the night before to let them know what tasks they’ll be tackling. If the weather isn’t cooperating, he sends them home.
During a chat inside the winery, Flo comes in from the vineyard, speckled with raindrops, to get confirmation that she can knock off for the day.
“Thank you, Flo,” Stewart says as she departs.
“I always say ‘thank you,'” he explains when he returns to the conversation. “It’s the best bonus you can give and it’s free. I’m sure you’d like to be told ‘thank you’ more often than you are.”
Stewart toyed with winemaking when he had his own small vineyard, producing a couple of barrels of wine every year. His current job stops at the doors of the winery when he delivers the ripe grapes. But while his impact on the wine ends with the harvest, his dance with the vines themselves is just beginning.
After a November vacation — taken in the window between harvest and when the vines go dormant, usually around Thanksgiving — it’s back to the vineyard. The work of pruning every vine lasts until the end of April.
“I do all the pruning cuts,” says Stewart. “Throughout the season, each vine gets touched about 16 times between pruning, tying up, shoot repositioning, thinning fruit, and cleaning off growth at the bottom.”
The rainstorm over, Stewart tucks his gray hair underneath a black beret and heads outside. The bright green leaves glisten with moisture and sneakers sink into the soft earth. Out in the vineyard, he points out rows of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Chardonnay; all the grapes are vinifera. He has some say in which varietals the owners plant, but has more control over the specific clones, rootstocks, and nurseries they use.
So how exactly did he learn how to do this?
“I killed a lot of other people’s vines,” he says with a laugh. “Killed a lot of my own, too. I read books. I asked a lot of questions. I know some really knowledgeable people who have given me advice and given me help. After 30 some years, I finally feel kind of confident.”
Stewart points out vines that have suffered in the recent rough weather, including last year’s record rainfall and brutal winter. Some rows have no fruit at all. He also bemoans the east-west orientation of the rows (something he did not do), which means the sun only hits the grapes on one side. In another section, they run north-south, just how he likes them.
“I know it sounds goofy, but the vines kind of tell me what to do because they’re all different,” he muses, pointing to one particularly pathetic plant. “You prune this one differently because it doesn’t look as happy. Probably if I was really nice, I would pull all these clusters off and just let it die peacefully.”
Stewart’s day starts at 8 a.m., and he is usually finished by three or four in the afternoon. He has a plan for what to get done. When that work is finished, that’s it.
“The weekends are mine,” he says. “As you get older, you’ve got to have a little more time to do nothing.”
The conversation veers back to music. Stewart still plays, taking some local orchestra gigs and filling in with the symphony in Baltimore. He hasn’t owned a TV in 25 years, and devotes most of his “nothing” time to reading and listening to music. But that wasn’t always the case.
“When I stopped playing in 2001, for about three years I couldn’t listen to anything that I could play,” he recalls. “It made me feel bad.”
While both jobs involve working with your hands, there are some deep spiritual differences between life as a professional musician and a life in the vineyard.
“When playing the violin, especially in the orchestra, everything changes so fast,” says Stewart. “You can change the pitch, you can change the tempo, you can change everything. Within an hour, you can go from not playing very well to playing it really great. In the vineyard, it takes forever. It’s farming. I don’t get the immediate gratification of doing something right…But even before I grew grapes, when I was just drinking wine, the fun part of it was that the wine tastes like the place where it was grown.”