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Martell's last grape harvest

Deb Martell tries her hand at harvesting grapes for the first time. She and her late husband, Tom Martell, started the vineyard in 1999.

The 2012 harvest at Martell Vineyards last weekend was a bittersweet event.

Not only did a harsh growing year with a spring frost wipe out the La Crescent grapes and reduce the total harvest to about half of last year's 37-ton production, but also owner Tom Martell, who established the five acres of grapes outside Somerset, died just five weeks before the harvest.

His memory will live on and the vines will not go fallow.

New owner Rod Benson was on hand for the harvest. The retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot closed on the property in May and has signed on Rudy Jungwirth of Valley Vineyards in Prescott to manage the business for three years while he gets his feet immersed in the grape business.

A number of regular volunteers were on hand Saturday morning for the harvest, although there was a definite emptiness about the place with the absence of the ever good spirited Tom Martell. He was a great ambassador to the wine and grape-growing business and conducted the harvest with a smile and goodly spirit.

"I'm determined to not feel sorry for myself," said Deb Martell, who was getting her first chance at picking grapes instead of aiding Tom in organizing the event. "Every moment I wasn't at work I spent with Tom," she said about their 12-year marriage.

Other members of Tom's family worked the vineyard including brothers Scott and Bruce and niece Emily Martell, a senior at Somerset High School.

Martell Vineyards started with the planting of Frontenac Gris vines in 1999. The first harvest was in 2001. "This last year produced our 100th ton," said Deb.

This was indeed the last harvest of Martell Vineyards as such. Benson will change the name to Blackhawk Vineyards.

Benson, 51, retired from a 20-year hitch in the Army in Fairbanks, Alaska, a couple years ago. He thought about retiring with his wife, Birgit, a native of Germany, in the 49th state. "After a couple winters in Alaska, I wanted to get back to the area," he said. His mother lives in Lake Elmo, Minn.

Benson said he looked at several other places that didn't work out. On a whim, he took a look at the Martell property that was up for sale. A tour of the bucolic 15-acre setting on a hillside not far from the Apple River Valley sealed the deal.

"I don't know a thing about growing grapes," he said, but he is determined to learn the business and acknowledged his retirement time would be busy.