In a room within the kitchens of Caesar's palace (the royal residence, not the casino), six slaves slogged through the grape-stomping pit. They walked in place, mashing a thick mire of red grapes still attached to their brambles, getting scratched and growing bunions and corns, cursing Fate and occasionally peeing into the brine. Could they have imagined as they "trampled out the vintage" for their cruel taskmasters that 2,000 years later their indignity would inspire an oenological festival of jolly song and dance?
Though machines do the grape-crushing during the modern winemaking process, many vineyards hearken back to those squishy days of yore for parties like the Great Stone Hill Grape Stomp at the Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Mo. The 24th annual event gives visitors the chance to stand in a half-barrel full of 30 pounds of grapes still on their stems and smash the juice out of them for competitions in both quantity of effluent and stomping style.
The first thing to know about the Grape Stomp is that it's a hot ticket. More than 1,000 folks will probably show up at the winery during the course of the day, but only 90 kids and adults will be allowed to stomp grapes because of the constraints of time, equipment and harvest size. "Registration starts at 11 that morning, and, believe it or not, people will line up at 9," says Stone Hill director of public relations Patty Held-Uthlaut. By 11:30 a.m., she predicts, most of the slots will have been claimed.
At 1 p.m. the stompers, split into groups by age, will mount the platform, grab the bar to steady themselves and make grape juice the old-fashioned way for two minutes. The band Boney Goat from St. Louis will provide the mood music. And, no, the grape juice collected in buckets beneath the holey barrels may not be consumed, or, at least, that's not a good idea. The winery staff just disposes of the juice, along with the skins and stems from each barrel.
While some will be frantically sloshing juice through the barrel holes in their attempts to win the "quantity" contest, others will be spinning and shimmying in costume to try to capture the style award. Held-Uthlaut recalls competitors of yore dressing up as Bacchus, wearing togas and donning elaborate wine-bottle costumes with cork hats.
Stepping on mashed fruit can be a sensual experience. It has been noted that the feeling of grape juice and crushed skins stuck between your toes imparts quite a rush. After your romp through the grapes at Stone Hill, you may wish to return home, fill a bucket with halved peaches or peeled bananas, turn on some James Brown and let the good times roll.