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From berry to bottle at Sweet Acre Farms
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Chris Barto affixes labels onto bottles of Sweet Acre Farms blackberry wine Tuesday, May 29, 2018 at the Alto winery. The small winery uses the help of local volunteers to get their product into stores. - photo by Scott Rogers

A small group of volunteers gathered Friday to bottle a batch of Bramblin’ Sam, a blackberry and apple wine that is the most popular at Sweet Acre Farms Winery in Alto.

Volunteers respond to calls on social media to gather at the winery to help bottle some of their favorite bottles, and many of the volunteers have been with the winery since the beginning.

Jackie Wilson Richardson has been volunteering at the winery since it opened in 2016, and she came Friday afternoon to help out. She grew up on Bill Wilson Road, which is named after her grandfather and is where the winery is now located. Richardson, who lives in Hoschton, said she enjoys going to the farm to catch up with old friends, meet new people and help with the bottling.

“It’s like coming home every time I come,” Richardson said.

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Taylor Denton of Sweet Acre Farms unpacks new wine bottles for sterilization Tuesday, May 29, 2018 at the Alto winery as a small crew bottles hundreds of gallons of blackberry wine. - photo by Scott Rogers

Last year, the winery made about 3,000 cases, or 36,000 bottles of wine, said Lindsey Vrahiotes, who owns the winery with her husband Matthew. The couple bottled about 1,000 cases the first year the winery was open.

Matthew Vrahiotes said most wineries have an automated bottling process or hire someone else to do their bottling, but Sweet Acre Farms keeps their bottling in-house.

“We are much smaller than most wineries, so we’re a little bit slower, but for manpower, we have a nice little system. … We think it still adds the charm to craft wine in a small batch with people hands-on,” he said.

The wine at Sweet Acre Farms is bottled in the basement below the tasting room. Some of the blackberries are grown at the winery’s own farm and other fruits are from Georgia farms, with the exception of lemons. Wine is stored in 275-gallon tanks and bottled as needed — because the winery is a family business, schedules are relatively flexible.

First, the bottles are placed in racks and sprayed with nitrogen, which kills any bacteria that may be inside the bottle. Oxygen cannot be used because the wine might oxidize, and there should be some headspace between the top of the wine and the bottom of the cork in each bottle, Matthew Vrahiotes said.

After that, the bottles are filled up six at a time with a gravity-led tank and filling system. The bottles are then corked with a semi-automatic machine, and the labels, which feature a painting by Lindsey’s mother, Judy Crumley, are applied using a machine with a foot pedal. Finally, the cap is placed on and the bottle is inserted into a machine that uses heat to seal the bottle closed.

The bottling process is usually done in four-hour shifts, but when there is a shortage, the group may work late — they had been bottling until 11 p.m. Thursday night.

Warren Beal of Gainesville said he has enjoyed seeing the winery grow and has always felt at home there.

“I have always been impressed by how (Matthew and Lindsey) treat us as family. We’re more than customers,” he said.

Beal said he comes back for the friendly people and good wine, and he likes volunteering so he can support the business.

“You get to help invest and be a part of it. With this Bramblin’ Sam, I know that when I try a bottle, we as a group helped put it in the bottle and put the labels on,” he said.

Taylor Denton said that since he started working at the winery in fall 2016, he has seen the winery add retail partners and gain a following in the community. He joined officially a month ago as the winery’s first full-time employee, which was needed as business was picking up.

“When it gets to the point you have to add somebody full time, that’s how you know you’re growing,” Denton said.

Matthew and Lindsey Vrahiotes always knew they wanted to run a business together, but they weren’t sure what they wanted to do.

They met in college at Valdosta State University, and first they sold caramel apples together. After acquiring the land on Bill Wilson Road near Lindsey’s childhood home, they started a farm where they grew blackberries and blueberries and kept bees. For several years, they took their products to local farmers markets while keeping their full-time jobs — Matthew worked for nonprofits and Lindsey was a sign language interpreter.

Now, two years after their opening, they are ready to celebrate. The winery’s Two Year Jubilee is 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, June 2, at the winery at 7584 Bill Wilson Road in Alto. There will be live music and a food truck, and the tasting room will be open and serving wine all day.

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