5 Questions with Stephanie Groves is an ongoing series featuring local women doing interesting things that we’d like to know more about. Want to be featured? Email us at email@example.com.
Laura Cleary has the impressive distinction of being Oliver Winery’s first female vineyard manager. Cleary began working for Oliver during harvest time in 2021, and before she took over the reins herself, she was able to work alongside Oliver’s former vineyard manager Bernie Parker to glean some of his knowledge and experience.
We asked Laura for some insight into what life at the vineyard entails, as well as how to get those pesky grape juice stains out of your clothes, so read on to learn more.
Can you please tell us more about what exactly a vineyard manager does?
The vineyard manager, or “viticulturist,” oversees all operations in the vineyard and has to understand the long-term investment that a vineyard truly is. They cultivate the grapes that are used for winemaking, or “grow the wine.” It’s critical to always plan ahead, but also to always know what is happening in the vineyard at any given time. This means regular vineyard monitoring, but also training and managing your crew to be aware of what’s going on with the vines as well.
The specific task at hand depends on the season, as there are different duties appointed at different stages of the grapevine’s growth. Right now, we are working on finishing our winter pruning of our spur pruned vines and clearing out those cuttings from the rows for disease pressure control. We started in January after the vines had entered into their dormancy period. The bulk of pruning is done during the dormant season, which in turn determines the number of buds and ultimately clusters that will form and grow. We will continue on with vine training and different aspects of canopy management in order to ensure each and every cluster of grapes has the right amount of sun and wind exposure as fruit set occurs through harvest.
What was the background experience that led you to this current role?
My undergraduate curriculum in Food Science allowed me the opportunity to visit and tour various distilleries in my bourbon saturated home state of Kentucky, but it was through my Sustainable Agriculture program that I first got to work with grapes and apples for wine and cider production. My alma mater, University of Kentucky, had a brand-new certification program for Winemaking, Brewing and Distillation Sciences at that time. And several of those classes were with Jeff Wheeler, UK’s Viticulturist & Enologist, who brought me into the small research vineyard and orchard. I spent time after class volunteering to help clean up in the cellar and fell in love with seeing the process come full circle, vine to wine and grape to glass. I ended up working in vineyards overseas in New Zealand’s Otago region and also managed a small vineyard back home in Kentucky that produced award-winning wine.
I spent the last several years working as a Cidermaker for an urban cidery start-up producing drier heirloom sparkling ciders, but longed for days spent outdoors working with vines. I was recruited for the role of Vineyard Manager at Oliver Winery when our former Vineyard Manager announced his retirement after over two decades of growing Creekbend Vineyard into what it is today.
Do you drink wine yourself, and if so, what’s your favorite variety of Oliver wine?
Yes! I love all wine and typically lean toward drier styles of wines. I’m quite fond of Oliver’s Sparkling Vidal Blanc, made in the méthode champenoise style, and also our Chambourcin Rosé, which I’m looking forward to enjoying more of in the Spring sunshine.
What’s the thing you think people would find most surprising about your job?
Most people might only consider the vineyard at harvest time, but there are a lot of considerations to make during all parts of the year that determine your yield and quality come harvest. The work in the vineyard never stops.
I enjoy that winegrowing is both physically and mentally challenging. There is always a new problem to solve and often times it forces you to be creative in how you tackle those issues. I’m constantly self-evaluating, critiquing my work, and also reflecting on what approaches worked best one season versus the next; quality always being the leading driver. For me, winegrowing and winemaking are the perfect merriment of art and science and that keeps both hemispheres of my brain engaged.
Do you have any great stain removal tips to get grape juice and/or dirt out of your clothes?
Caustic soda! This is typically NaOH (sodium hydroxide) or lye, but can also be KOH (potassium hydroxide). I’ve always been familiar with the hot process lye bar soap my Nana and mom used growing up to clean hard-to-remove stains.
Stephanie Groves is the Executive Editor of Indy Maven and she has sipped her fair share of Oliver wine.