On a warm October after-noon, April Bergez and her daughter, Audrey, 7, picked clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, even though they barely knew what they were doing.
They were told to pick the big, juicy clusters and leave the small stuff.
“This one’s a fatty, you just got to pick out some of the bad stuff,” April told Audrey. “Can you do that?”
Of course, she could. And she did, as did roughly 120 volunteers from all over the Northwest who descended on a vineyard in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills to pick grapes by hand so the winery, Water from Wine, can donate 100 percent of the revenue from that vineyard to clean water projects around the globe.
The 6-acre vineyard takes up a small slice of Sandpiper Farms, a 2,500-acre expanse of row crops in the remote hills south of Prosser.
Owners Pat and Teri Tucker planted the vineyard in 2002, just to sell the grapes as part of Sandpiper’s business. Overseas missions and nonprofit fundraising have always been the church-going family’s ethos, so they came up with the idea to start a nonprofit winery, donating the proceeds of their first vintage in 2017 to several water projects.
The World Health Organization estimates that one of every three people in the world lacks access to clean drinking water.
Andrew Martinez of Martinez and Martinez Winery in Prosser makes the rosé. The Cabernet Sauvignon is contracted to a Richland winemaker.
To preserve as much revenue as possible for the causes, the Tuckers called for volunteer pickers, and over the years, the harvest has grown into a destination event for some fans and friends. The cost of pruning, winemaking and bottling is paid for by $3,000 row sponsors.
Today, they boast that 100 percent of revenue — not just profits — from this vineyard’s grapes goes to the water projects.
Their wines, sold in tasting rooms at the farm and in Leavenworth and Tacoma, often carry the labels of the water project they support — Water1st International, Water Access Now and Clean Water for Haiti, to name a few. The winery also has its own label for donated wine.
There are only three wines from which the company does not donate proceeds, said Jamie Ssenkubuge, the Tuckers’ daughter and director of Water from Wine. Those three are small-batch wines made from grapes sourced from outside vineyards.
So far, the nonprofit has donated more than $1 million to water projects around the world.
Harvest and community
The annual harvest takes up one Saturday, with crews working in two shifts. The gathering of free labor saves the farm some money but makes its biggest impact in awareness, Pat said.
“The whole idea of it is to establish community and promote our nonprofit, and I think we’ve done a really good job at that,” he said.
After hiring professional crews for 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, the volunteers returned in October this year.
Pat stood in the back of a pickup truck to give instructions via poster board to the volunteers huddled around: Work each row moving south in teams of pickers, sorters and luggers. Pick only the big grape clusters and leave the isolated small ones. Careful, the clippers are sharp.
He then explained their impact. Each lug holds 30 pounds of grapes, which makes a case of wine worth roughly $360. Pick 10 of those and you have earned $3,600 toward clean water.
The teams laughed as they worked, kids helped their parents, and friends new and old chatted through the canopy. Afterward, they gathered in the tasting room, many of them purchasing wine, then enjoyed a spaghetti and meatball dinner in the farm’s nearby retreat lodge overlooking the Columbia River. Meal preparation and child care were handled by volunteers, too.
Many of the participants, such as April and Audrey, were members of Hillspring Church in Richland, where the Tucker family attends. Others were extended family of the Tuckers’. Still others came from farther away.
Social worker Angela Davis drove all morning from her home in Grand Ronde, Oregon, to join the afternoon shift, because she likes social justice causes and wine and has friends at Hillspring.
“This kind of just ticks a lot of boxes for me,” she said.
Katy Knibbe of Seattle heard customers talking about Water from Wine at the Fidelitas Wines tasting room in Woodinville, where she works. She and her family have their own history of mission work, so it sounded like a fun way to contribute. Her liked-minded friend, Jennifer Buma, hopped in the car for the fun weekend together. They stayed Friday night in the lodge.
“Giving to good causes, while also having fun with a friend,” Buma said. “I think it’s important that you connect together, and you give together.”
—by Ross Courtney