Salut! Prosit! Slainte! Cheers to the Vintage Vintners

It all starts in September, in a vineyard where the heavily laden vines bear round, plump, greenish-bronze scuppernong grapes ready for picking. That’s when a group of 15 seniors on foot and in golf carts advance on the vines. And in 20 minutes, nearly 80 pounds of grapes are harvested.

Amateur winemaker and volunteer Ron Peperak watches on as a Marian Manor resident harvests grapes

So begins the year’s wine-making program at Marian Manor, an assisted living facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia. And for five months it never really stops; from the harvest to a New Year’s Eve toast with the (fermented) fruits of labor, the program continuously contributes to each resident’s well-being on multiple levels as it builds community, offers a sense of accomplishment, triggers the senses, and provides physical exercise.

The day following the harvest (during which residents get outdoors, stretch as they reach for grapes, and enjoy a picnic at the vineyard), amateur winemaker and volunteer Ron Peperak meets with the group of residents in the facility’s activities room. At this point, the group grows a little larger, to about 25, as others who couldn’t make the vineyard trip join in. Plastic gloves donned, the Vintage Vintners (as they have dubbed themselves) begin cutting out seeds and smashing grapes in large metal bowls.

“They get their hands in there and they get to squeezing—I mean they get to squeezing like crazy,” says Peperak, a retired restaurateur. Administrator Desirée Mitchell, who was activities director when the program started in 1999, says that the residents with cognitive impairments take to the repetitive task of cutting grapes and then picking out the seeds, and that the task also helps to improve motor skills.

Some residents also claim that the process alleviates arthritis pain as they open and close their hands in the cool, juicy pulp. One resident said she could not participate because she felt that she did not have enough dexterity. However, after some encouragement from Peperak, as he placed his hands on hers, she was able to barely squeeze the grapes. “She thought that she couldn’t be involved, but she was able to do a little bit, Mitchell says. “And even a little participation made her feel like she was a part of what was going on.”

After the requisite “Lucy and Ethel” jokes that never fail to pop up during the grape-smashing process (referring to a classic TV comedy episode), the juice is then poured into six-gallon buckets in which chemicals are added and the juice is sanitized.

Over the next two months, as the juice undergoes the fermentation process, Peperak turns weekly taste-testing meetings into sense-filled reminiscing sessions. For him, this phase of the process has a number of positive aspects, such as education and the activation of the mind. He educates residents, staff, and family who may be around on the science of winemaking, which includes lessons on how to taste the wine, taking residents’ taste buds on a journey through the variety of flavors that come about as sugars are converted into alcohol. When the musk, or the pulp, is transferred from the bucket to glass carboys, Peperak lets everyone smell the fermented grapes, which can have a hard smell, he says.

“I pass it around and make sure everyone gets a sniff,” Peperak says, “I let them touch the stuff. They can see how it looks. And then I give them a taste. So they’re using all of their senses.” He also activates the sense of hearing by encouraging the residents to listen to the gasses that bubble up through the fermenting musk. “When the musk is working in the plastic bucket,” he says, “I open up the lid and I’ll tell them, ‘Can you hear that?’” Rolling the six-gallon bucket on a dolly, he lets each resident listen to the escaping carbon dioxide that is produced from yeast feeding on sugars.

After the harvest, Manor residents begin removing seeds and mashing grapes in large metal bowls

During these weekly meetings, as the musk slowly turns to wine, Peperak says there is a lot of downtime, which he takes advantage of by encouraging residents to reminisce about their lives. He asks them about their childhood—their first kiss, favorite food that their mother made, the name of their first pet. “I try to get them to think and recall, to remember the good times,” he says. “I try to give them things to think about so that they don’t just sit there and vegetate.”

Peperak sees a greater objective for the activity—it is not just about wine. “The whole thing is, it’s not the idea that we are making wine, the idea is to get them involved and mentally stimulated,” he says. The Vintage Vintners’ numbers grow considerably over the weeks as the juice’s taste is honed in. “Then, when it comes down to drinking it, we have the whole community there!” Mitchell laughs.

When the Vintners achieve the right flavor, usually sometime in October or November, they bottle and cork the wine with Peperak’s corking machine, which requires an amount of physical work. And although the wine-making process is finished, the program continues with a wine-naming contest, label design, and an international wine-making contest.

The group first entered the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition in 2002. It was at this point, Mitchell says, when the name “Vintage Vintners” was born. The next year, in 2003, the group won the gold medal in the competition and was featured in WineMaker magazine. The following two years the Vintners took bronze. Mitchell and staff bought plastic medals and presented them to the Vintners at the New Year’s Eve parties. It is not uncommon to see a Manor Vintner proudly wearing the medal for guests, such as family, the governor, or the newspeople who come to interview the residents about their award-winning wine.

Residents are involved in the complete winemaking process. Here, Peperak helps a resident cork bottles of wine

“They’re enthused about it,” says Peperak. “It makes residents feel great because they can actually take grapes from a vine and go all the way through the process and make a great-tasting wine. So that’s a hell of a sense of accomplishment. And I told them, ‘You guys won a gold medal. Do you realize people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s are killing themselves trying to win a gold medal? You guys did more than what these younger folks can do.’”

Winemaking at Marian Manor is a welcomed fall activity as the summer ends and the natural cycles slow down for winter. “When I look at that time of the year, people in general are more prone to depression,” Mitchell says. “It’s that time of year when things slow down a little and the days get shorter, but with this program, the timing is just right because it really gives our residents something to look forward to. It’s something very meaningful; it’s something that keeps them going on all levels.”

From the first single jug of wine to the 25 bottles they now make, Mitchell is amazed that the program has evolved into its current state. “It certainly wasn’t something that I masterminded in my head,” she says. “This was just purely listening to the needs of our people and figuring out how we’re going to make it happen and make it successful.”

The activity Mitchell once thought would last only a season has now become an annual program that incorporates a variety of positive physical, mental, and social outcomes for residents, staff, and family. “It’s quite a feeling of accomplishment,” she says. “I mean, we brag about our vintners here!”

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