I love living in the heart of wine country on the North Fork of Long Island. There are three vineyards within walking distance to my house in Jamesport. That makes wine tasting and walking an easy weekend possibility. I think each vineyard has a unique contribution to the beauty of the local industry and landscape. My favorite wine and vintner has not won any awards- yet. He is a dear friend, Larry Vaccari.
Larry and his wife Christine moved to Peconic over 15 years ago, to enjoy their life together on the North Fork. They have two children, a son, who is a doctor in Brooklyn and a daughter, who is soon to be a graduate of McGann Mercy High School. Their bucolic home is set on a picturesque plot of land overlooking one of the local vineyards. On the outskirts of their property, enclosed with deer fencing, are five rows of neatly tended grape vines.
While the North Fork boasts many fine wines, by far, my favorite wine comes from the Vaccari’s backyard vintage. I don’t really care how it stands up in a tasting side by side from a local vineyard. The passion and the care that Larry puts into caring for his vineyard adds a satisfying depth to his home brewed wine that satisfies the palate and refreshes the soul.
The images of vines and vineyards weave throughout the scriptures. In particular, in John 15, Jesus presents the image of the vine and the branches as a metaphor of our lives, which, when rooted in Christ, bear much fruit.
The Vine and the Branches: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.” (John 15: 1-8)
I ‘ve read this scripture numerous times and I thought I understood it well. I grasped the image that Jesus is the vine with deep and abiding roots. All my efforts, my prayers, and committment help me to stay connected to Jesus like a branch to the vine. And in that connection, my life bears fruit. It all seemed pretty obvious to me until I decided to take a ride out east to discuss this scripture with Larry, my favorite winemaker.
Larry and Christine are committed Christians who are passionate about their Catholic faith and they understand these vine references and the metaphor very well. As they led me out to their backyard vineyard, we sipped the fruit of their labor, a full-bodied red wine. As he showed me the 100 plants that were neatly arranged in rows and expanding tightly on manicured vines, Larry explained the year round tending that produces the elegant wine, which I now enjoyed.
The spring is time for pruning and training the vines. Larry explained to me that if he were to let the vines grow wild, the leafy branches would produce small and bitter fruit. But when the branches are well connected to the vine, the dead growth pruned away and the branches are trained to follow the trellis, the vine produces lush grapes in season. Larry compared it to the our faith as he explained, “The things that take us away from our spiritual growth, sin, needs to be pruned away. That effort yields more and better fruit. It says something about how we need self discipline to grow.”
Larry also explained to me that growing grapes is a year round project beginning with pruning the vines in the spring and concluding with watching that the vines are carefully protected from winter’s cold. He told me that the new growth of the vines and the fruit must be protected from mildew, insects, birds and deer. The vines also need watering and fertilizing in the growing season to ensure a successful crop in the fall.
Harvest at the Vaccari home is very special event, usually occurring one Saturday in early October. They invite family and close friends to come to their home and help harvest the grapes. We have had the pleasure of attending the harvest. Each of us were sent to the vines with clippers, a bucket and a glass of wine produced from last year’s grapes. It is a lovely celebration of food and family.
Larry drew comparisons to the spiritual life as we discussed the harvest. He reflected, “The harvest is another sign of God’s table and the wine is a communion that brings us together around that table.” He continued, “ We draw strength from watching family help to harvest the fruit of this labor. We are all God’s children taking enjoyment from the fruit of the vine.”
In the seven years that my husband and I have known Larry and Christine, they have taught us much about vines and branches. Struggles early in their marriage, tempted them to give up on the commitment they made to one another. But rather than letting their vineyard run wild, this wise couple allowed their lives and their marriage to be pruned and trained by the Master Gardener. They recommitted their lives one another as they made the decision to “remain in God.” Then they reached out to help other couples that were struggling. The result is a fruitful marriage that ages like a fine wine.
As I listened to Larry share about the year round tasks it takes to go from vine to wine, I realized that I have been missing an important detail in this metaphor that Jesus gave to us. “My Father is the vinedresser.” (John.15:1) Larry takes excellent care of his vineyard, as he does his wife and family. If God is half the vinedresser that my friend Larry is, then all we really have to do is follow Jesus’ advice and stay connected to the vine, remain in Him and trust that we will bear much fruit.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at FreeIndeedFreelance.com.