A Michaelmas Autumnal Tradition: Celebrating Forty-five Years of Grape Stomping at Frey Vineyards
A central beauty of Waldorf education is the deep and intentional observance and celebration of the seasons. As children progress through the grades, each year is marked by festivals, songs, theater, food, and dances that honor the passing of time. I had the good fortune to spend my kindergarten and grade school years at the Waldorf School of Mendocino County, founded in Potter Valley as Mountain Meadow School fifty years ago. One of the cherished aspects of my experience was the amazing field trips that we went on, each corresponding to the curriculum we were immersed in at school. Over the years, we traveled near and far, working, learning, and playing.
Another blessing of my childhood was growing up on a big, multigenerational ranch, where my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and many cousins live. When I was a young child, our family’s winery, Frey Vineyards, was a small enterprise.
My parents met studying organic gardening in remote Covelo, CA, in the late 1970s. Their mentor, Alan Chadwick, taught French intensive farming, which had many parallels with and influences from Biodynamic methods. After completing their apprenticeship, they returned to the Frey Ranch to start their family. Making money from veggie farming was tough, and there were grapes on the land that had been planted by the family the previous decade. My folks and uncles started experimenting with natural winemaking and released their first organic wine in 1980, the year before I was born.
While the winery unfolded into a nationwide enterprise, Mountain Meadow school was also gaining momentum. When my siblings and I reached school age, the small Waldorf school down the road was a good fit. The school was a wonderful place for my formative years, filled with rhythm, myth, science, movement, music, song, dance, and crafts.
Michaelmas is the first large festival of the school year, celebrating the gathering of courage and light to combat ignorance and fear. The autumn light is kindled and held to carry us through the coming winter. Students perform a pageant of Saint Michael lending his aid to the people of earth to tame the dragon that plagues them. Each grade performs a part; first-grade gnomes forge the sword from meteors showered down from a host of eighth-grade angels on the rooftop. Seventh graders build and bring to life a dragon, and other classes are nobles, farmers, tradespeople, and villagers. The development and richness of our school traditions was something I took for granted as a child. I now have children of my own attending this school, and a new appreciation of these traditions is blooming in my heart.
In 1984 Shauna Heiselt was teaching third grade at Mountain Meadow. She had studied Waldorf education in England at Emerson College, and her friend Rainbow Rosenbaum invited her to visit Mountain Meadow school here in Northern California as it was just taking form. Shauna visited the area, went to a concert and our local hot springs, and was drawn to the formative phase of Mountain Meadow after teaching in a well-established urban school. She soon relocated and joined the school’s faculty.
Shauna’s class was the first at the school not to be combined, so she began to develop a curriculum and field trips that complimented each grade. Third grade has a farming focus, and Shauna had always fantasized about grape stomping, inspired by the iconic I Love Lucy episode. She asked my mom, Katrina, if the third-grade class could come and stomp grapes at Michaelmas time. A new tradition was born!
Shauna recalls the trip as fun and rustic. She remembers the sweet slippery sensation of grapes popping between her toes and the bees seeking around for the sugary juice. The slipping and sliding in the bin brought a sense of excitement and fun. We have now hosted many years of third-graders for this beloved tradition. The set-up is still rustic and simple, and the kids love the experience.
My own third-grade grape stomping trip was in 1989. I remember a keen excitement knowing my class was coming to my family’s ranch. I felt so proud and special to be a hostess. For those who have never stomped grapes, it is a full sensory experience. The thorough foot scrubbing awakens the feet, the fruit is cold, and you can feel the little berries popping under our toes. Squeals of delight, surprise, and a touch of discomfort fill the air.
This last year it was my son’s turn to host his class. I saw the same ownership and pride on his face that I remember feeling with my class. Watching him drove home the passage of time in such a unique way. There is a beauty in repetition and tradition that feeds the soul. The class worked together to press, strain, and bottle the juice. It’s fun to see each child’s character come through; some are diligent and focused, others dreamy and distracted. The class shares the juice at the Michaelmas pageant. Served with ice and sparkling water, the juice becomes an offering from the class to their community.
As modern life moves ever faster, I am so grateful for these traditions that root us to time and place. The yearly rhythms of a well-established Waldorf School are a balm of comfort for children. Kids are nourished in this system of education that values the observance of seasonal rhythms. Our school’s yearly festivals of Michaelmas, Santa Lucia, Advent Spiral, Lantern Walk, Candlemas, and May Day root the children in time and give them a sense of place to anchor them through their lives. We look forward to another generation of little stompers!
Bio: Eliza Frey is the daughter of Jonathan Frey, Frey’s first wine maker. She studied chemistry at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and joined Frey’s winemaking team in 2005. She assists in all aspects of the winemaking process and communicates with growers to ensure that only the highest-quality grapes are used in Frey’s wines. To learn more about Frey Vineyards, the United States’ first organic and biodynamic winery, please visit: freywine.com