Blessing of the grapes
and other seasonal harvest adventures

By Cheryl Angelina Koehler, editor of Edible East Bay

 

Winemaker John Concannon gives the opening remarks at the
2017 Livermore Valley Blessing of the Grapes.

 

Each year, as the northern hemisphere tilts into fall, I like to indulge myself with a trip out to our urban fringe areas to look in on the harvest. My interest in Alameda County’s southeastern region began with the first issue of Edible East Bay (Fall 2005), when we covered Livermore Valley’s olive oil and wine production, and I like to return again and again to see how things have changed—and how they haven’t.
 
This time I aimed my visit for the August 23 Blessing of the Grapes at Concannon Vineyard. Several Concannon family members were in attendance to turn the page and enter the 134th chapter of their history as “America’s oldest ongoing winery under the same family label and stewardship.”
 
The Blessing of the Grapes, a ritual practiced in many wine regions of the world, officially marks the start of the wine grape harvest. Many winemakers in Livermore Valley attend to receive the blessing. The brief morning event features local clergy extolling the role wine has played throughout the ages of human history. “Wine gladdens the human heart,” spoke First Presbyterian Church of Livermore pastor Steve Harrington as he honored winegrowers and winemakers along with those who work in the field. The moment is a brief respite before the heavy and exacting work of the grape harvest.
 
I especially enjoyed the words of Rabbi Larry Milder of Pleasanton’s Congregation Beth Emek, and stepped up to ask him for his crib sheet so I could share it with our readers. (See below.)
 

Leaving Concannon, I rambled east for several miles, then north on Greenfield Road, finding myself at the eastern entrance to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Taking a perpendicular course away from the lab, I nonetheless I found myself racing through packs of fast-moving scientists using Lupin Way as a lunch-hour treadmill.

 
My destination was El Sol Winery. Proprietor and winemaker Hal Liske had extended an invitation to meet his bees, and the insects were impressively busy.
 
“The way they order their society, the organization of tasks, and how that changes through the workers lives is amazing,” said the winemaker. “You can tell how they are doing by looking in the hive. Each hive has a temperament.”
 
Liske served as a fire captain for the City of Hayward Fire Department for 36 years. On retirement, he bought his Livermore property with the intention of pursuing his longtime passion for beekeeping. Setting up to run a honey ranch with 200 colonies of bees as livestock, he soon found that lifting the heavy bee boxes was hard on the body.
 
“I decided as a 64-year-old guy not to stick it out,” said Liske. “Honey weighs 12 pounds per gallon, while a gallon of water weighs only eight pounds.”
 
Much of a beekeeper’s work centers on keeping the hives healthy, but Lisak’s take on the widely reported bee health crisis was more heartening than we often hear:
 
“Coming back in with computers has made it easier to address the problem. We are learning more about bee husbandry and raising queens. If you get a good genetic strain, they will be good at their own housekeeping and will be resistant to the varroa mite.”
 
Coaching local beekeepers has become the focus of Liske’s bee business, but he gladly offers honey tastes and a beekeeping demo to any tasting room visitor showing a glimmer of interest. Liske’s hive demos are listed as one of many highlights during the Valley’s 2017 Harvest Wine Celebration, coming up on Labor Day weekend.
 
“It used to be called the Honey and Wine Festival,” Liske says of this long-running annual celebration. Indeed, the valley once hosted a huge number of beekeepers, and bee demos were always part of the festivities. These days the honey part of the festival goes on at El Sol Winery, so be sure to stop by for a sweet and interesting visit as you are doing your Livermore Valley touring.
 

Photo above right: Local carpentry pro Paul Heald made this horizontal hive as a gift for his friend, winemaker/beekeeper Hal Liske. “He researched the colors bees like,” says Liske, as he points out the fine tongue and groove construction of the joints.

 
Photos: Cheryl Angelina Koehler