We’d Just Met

8 Sep

Featured in this week’s G magazine, here’s a little about The Irvine-House Winery’s 7th Annual Grape Stomping Festival.

Illustration by Kate Butler

Like the Italian Festival held every May in my hometown or the Boone Hall Oyster Roast held every January, The Grape Stomping Festival at Irvin-House Winery has its own culture and demographic. Its devoted audience, centered around food and fermentation, is not too different from that of a cult movie. The grape-squashers have their own costumes, lingo, and unique priorities.

Few events can inspire the kind of emotion and sense of unity that a few barrels and a lot of people can. This is the 7th year that Irvin Vineyards, an oasis on Wadmalaw Island, has opened up stomping to the public. The people who come in droves also come in different shapes and heights; from elderly women with wine glasses to virile drinking buddies in baseball caps, Charleston’s demographics make for a hectic hodgepodge. The stretching Saturday afternoon flowed with odd people and introductions.

My host group was a ballroom dance company, and after four lazy hours, I became a part of a new culture and a new family. Our navigator, Marina Fridmanovich, left her home in Russia 18 years ago to found Elite Dance International Studios out in Mt. Pleasant. Tim Wisard, the driver, is a computer technician when not learning ballroom steps or wisecracking. He’s got a goofy smile and teases Marina like a younger sister. The two of them, when not discussing dancing details, joked about relationships or zombie hunting. After a 25-minute ride, Marina excitedly tapped the car windows and Tim stoically watched the rows of grapes.

The feel of the place was like a transplanted version of the Marion Square Farmer’s Market. The weekly event had been cancelled that day due to “hurricane weather,” but based on the décor and sweltering sun beaming down; I don’t really think the Farmer’s Market went anywhere.Vendors swallowed and hugged the people inside the knot of grape stompers. On the edge, bead makers, stepping stone designers, jewelry benders, children’s authors, and even hula hoop decorators showed and sold their crafts to people that were strolling-or stumbling-along. Food trucks from Carolina Creole and Taco Boy parked at the front of the field. In addition to fermentation, the scents of gumbo and fried fish tacos swept through the air.

I set up lawn chairs, brusquely met all 900 of Tim’s relatives, and teetered off to explore. The grapes hung off the neat and endless vineyard rows, and I became scientifically certified to pick high-quality muscadines. Note: the purple grapes have a tough exterior and seeds on the inside, so while I don’t imagine a lot of commercial potential for them, they’re my favorite grape.

The pulp on the inside smooshes under the feet and in your mouth, spreading a wine-like tang throughout. The darker they are, the sweeter they get. Pitch-black muscadines look like coal bunchesbut taste unlike any other grapes.

I got a barbecue sandwich the size of tractor wheel from the Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ truck. Now, I eat pulled pork as often as I sing Christmas carols. Like the grapes, Ron’s gloopy sauce and stringy pork surprised and stuffed me.

Apparently, the day’s itinerary involved an I Love Lucy look-alike contest; people knew, prepared, and studied for it. Polka dot bonnets, drooping shirts, and capri pants flooded the farm, to the point where I think Lucys may be another new subculture in this audience. The organizers rounded them up for a grape stomping performance. With the crazed costumes and audience cheers, it was like dinner and a show. And Charleston’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

The stomp itself was closed off to small, pre-registered groups. They bounced up on stage and boogied in the barrels.

Though we were not allowed into the public games, quitting the party was not happening-we had backtracked and eaten our way here, so feeling grapes between our feet was in fact required. We found a “public” well for squishing, so it fit. The wine barrel’s standing capacity clearly was four, so like a clown car, we stuffed and showed up in, we squashed ourselves into the bucket and squished and smooshed away. It was like standing in a swamp, with the occasional escaped grape flattening underfoot.

It was right then, while gushing in that lawn chair, that I felt like a kid at Thanksgiving. After the afternoon, I now felt like a part of Tim’s family. Charleston has a magical way of forging people together into one family over food. The fun and games belong to everyone, I know that from the friendly and pre-registered stomping competition. The teams laughed together, embraced, and clipped along to the banjos. It’s a unity I never expected to connect with, both at the beginning of the day and the beginning of my life down here.

A little girl exuberantly combed her aunt’s hair and babbled while an older African American man under Spanish moss laughed at the scene from a distance: that was the family reunion. For those of you wondering if this was the right choice or how you keep coming back to the Holy City of Charleston, the stomp had your answer. You always come back to your family, even if you just met them.

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