In Winemaking
on 31 Oct 2013

I cried only once for my hometown of Buffalo, New York, when I left this summer to start the next chapter of my life in Madison, Wisconsin.

I had spent the day in Niagara County, spending time with friends and enjoying the exciting wines being made in the region where I had my first wine tasting, my first wine job, and my first harvest. I came home and bottled my 2012 malbec, made from grapes grown at Arrowhead Spring Vineyards. And when I was finished, I cleaned up the mess (I’ve been called “the messiest winemaker” for my inability to bottle wine without looking like I’m butchering a cow), sat down on the porch, and cried. I felt as though the wine part of my life was ending.

Over the two years since I worked in the wine industry full-time, I had tried to keep feeding my wine passion despite office jobs, marathon training, personal struggles, and living 45 minutes from wine country. Now, I was moving to another state entirely––and surely there was no wine industry in Wisconsin (though I was more than a little excited for the beer). Was it time to say goodbye to one of my greatest loves in life?

I might’ve made a less dramatic scene on that summer night if I had known that not a month into my new life in Madison, I’d find myself in the middle of a vineyard with a cluster of grapes in my hand.

It all started with a post from Old Sugar Distillery’s Facebook page asking for volunteers to help pick grapes for their brandy and grappa. I think I was the first person to call the number, which got me Dave Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Vineyard in Oregon, Wisconsin––which, I learned, was just 12 miles south of Madison. I could get there by bike.

A few nights later, I was cleaning my clippers and packing a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich. I woke up bright and early and rode for an hour and a half, the country roads kicking my butt the whole way (Okay, Midwest, I’m sorry I called you flat. Point made.), and ended up here.


Mitchell Vineyard is the gorgeous, six-acre property of Dave Mitchell, who planted the first vines in 1976. “I swear, he knows every single vine. He talks to them,” Mary, his awesome partner, told me once with a smile. Dave is the kind of vineyard owner who sends his team beauty shots of individual vines at 10 pm on a weeknight long after harvest is over. In other words, he’s my kind of person.

After ten minutes in the vineyard I never wanted to leave. I asked Dave the next day if he needed help for the rest of harvest, and before I knew it, I was a Mitchell Vineyard employee. And the next phase of my wine life had begun.

Julia Burke is a wine educator and writer.