Grape Getaway

Try your hand at picking the fruit of the vines at this Put-in-Bay bed and breakfast.

Dave Steger picks grapes on The Vineyard's 6.3 acres.

Chris Walters

Owner Mark Barnhill rests against his 1930 Model A Ford.

Chris Walters

Volunteer pickers share a meal.

Chris Walters

The guest parlor at The Vineyard bed and breakfast.

Chris Walters

The Lake Erie Islands are the perfect place for visitors to escape the heat of the mainland by boating, fishing, swimming or just stretching out on a hammock or lounge chair. But the number of visitors slowly drops with the temperatures after Labor Day, making it a great time to visit the islands.

Late September to mid-October is high season at The Vineyard, a bed and breakfast on 20 waterfront acres (6.3 of them vineyards) just outside Put-in-Bay. People come from as far away as New York City and Florida to pick the 20 to 35 tons of Catawba grapes that owners Mark and Barbi Barnhill grow each year for the nearby Heineman Winery, along with a few concord vines for Barbi’s grape jelly. Their compensation for each day of work: three home-cooked meals and a night’s accommodations, which normally start at $135 for a summer weeknight.

The activity is so popular that the Barnhills maintain wait lists organized by the number of times guests have picked and their reliability.

Mark, a 77-year-old former Air Force transportation navigator and air-traffic controller, fills the three guest rooms and a “honeymoon cottage” — a small one-bedroom home near the main road — with the same thought and care an experienced hostess uses to seat guests at a dinner party. Some are already acquainted, the result of picking together during previous stays. Others he believes will enjoy getting to know one another as they work. There is a two-night minimum stay, and only couples — “two pickers per bed,” as Mark puts it — are welcome.

I have to admit that the concept’s personal appeal was limited to its novelty as a story idea. As a travel writer, I am familiar with the “working vacation,” but toiling like a field hand didn’t figure into my definition of the word “vacation,” working or otherwise. As I drove west on St. Rte. 2 to catch a ferry from Catawba Point to South Bass Island one cold, rainy morning last fall, I wondered, “Who exactly does this? And why?”

The answers were revealed shortly after Mark picked me up at the dock. Part of The Vineyard’s attraction, I discover, is its history and homey charm. The main house, built in 1865, and the surrounding property are all that remain of 150 acres of vineyards that belonged to the now-defunct E&K Winery, a business owned by Barbi Barnhill’s family from 1863 to 1958. The interiors are decorated in a grape theme, right down to the pattern on the silverware, and filled with family antiques. Framed E&K memorabilia and ancestral photographs line the walls and stairway to the second floor, which provides access to the Niagara, Concord and Catawba guest rooms.

During a breakfast of corn pancakes and sausage in the dining room, guests talk about how they ended up devoting at least two days a year to the harvest. David Steger, a 55-year-old manager in a Cleveland data-processing center, remembers Mark calling one fall day in 1999, 13 years after he and wife Jane first checked in for a summer stay, and asking, “Hey, have you ever thought about picking grapes?”

“It was a special privilege to be asked to do it,” recalls Jane, also 55, an independent marketing and communications consultant. Ben Burke, the owner of a silver-recovery business in Lebanon, and his wife Kim, a registered nurse, became fall regulars a mere two years after they first visited together in 1997 — the result, Mark half-jokes, of 37-year-old Ben’s relative youth.

“He needs stronger backs,” Ben quips.  

Russell and LaNorma Bengry of Milan, 67 and 66 respectively, joke that the only reason they’ve picked grapes for the last eight years is out of familial obligation — their son married the Barnhills’ youngest daughter in 2002. LaNorma says that the six and a half hours spent relieving the vines of their fruit are truly relaxing, and everyone at the table echoed her sentiments.

“It’s a great escape — it’s mindless,” Jane Steger explains. And when you get done, you look back and say, ‘Look what I did.’”

The task was downright therapeutic for 37-year-old Kim Burke when she was working in hospice care.

“In the beginning, it was just something fun to do, an activity that we could enjoy together,” she explains. “Now, it’s grown into so much more. Mark and Barbi have given us so much over the years that they’re like family. You want to give back, and you want to help out, just like you would with your own parents.”

After the dishes are cleared, the couples scatter to prepare for what turns out to be the season’s last day of grape picking. Barbi hands me a jacket and hat from a stash of foul-weather gear in the hall closet, then fetches a pair of clippers from the front porch. “The grapes are sticky,” she warns as she hands me a pair of disposable rubber gloves.

Despite Mark’s dubious report of steady rain, the skies start to clear. But even in the rain, the vineyard is a beautiful place. Neat rows of vines appear to stretch from the back yard to the lake.

“We’re in Row 30, the last long row,” Mark says, directing me to a spot where the others are already working. The yellowing foliage sets off the remaining bunches of Catawba grapes, perfect little clusters of maroon orbs highlighted by raindrops glistening in the weak sunlight.

After an initial burst of conversation, the group picks in companionable silence, broken only by the gentle plop of grapes being dropped into bright-yellow plastic crates called lugs. LaNorma is right — the simple task is relaxing. And when the last grape is picked an hour later, I’m actually, well, sad. The atmosphere in the vineyard is akin to that around the Christmas tree after the presents have been opened.

“I can’t believe another harvest has come to a close,” Jane laments before she drives the tractor and its cargo of lugs to the barn.

On a normal day, we’d break for lunch, return to the vineyard for another four or five hours of work, and end the day with a drink on the porch and sit-down dinner in the dining room. Instead, we pose for a group picture to commemorate the harvest, then stroll the length of the property.

After a chat on the front porch, Mark announces he’s hungry, and Barbi warms up a pot of homemade chicken-noodle soup for lunch. As I eat, I wonder if the Barnhills will make another exception in their couples-only policy and let me pick grapes again next fall.

Visit for details, or call 419/285-6181 or 910/397-9456 December–March