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Saving Our Grapes from Birds and Other Predators

Last year, as we approached harvest time, I was admiring our grapes one weekend day when I realized it was time to check the sugar levels.  Unfortunately, I had left my refractometer in Fairfax, which, well, wasn’t very helpful.  But not to worry.  I made a mental note to bring it with me to Afton the following weekend, when I was sure that the sugar in the grapes would be just about perfect.

I remembered the refractometer, but unfortunately, I could not find the grapes.  I searched the Petit Verdot rows, where I was sure I had seen small clusters hanging, and the Cab Franc rows, which I knew also had grapes hanging from the vines.  But there were none to be seen.

It was kind of like the time my car was stolen at the train station in Jersey.  I stared at the space where my car used to be wondering why it was no longer there, and then wandered around the parking lot as though I hoped it was magically somewhere else. Somewhere other than where I knew I had left it. Self-delusion is a terrible thing.

It was heartbreaking to see that the birds, bears or other predators had picked the vines clean.

It was heartbreaking to see that the birds, bears or other predators had picked the vines clean.

My car was gone, all those years ago, and last year, so were my grapes.   My first thought was birds.  Yeah, they love grapes, and they know when they’re ripe.  They descend upon the vineyard just at the time when the brix (a measure of the sugar level) is just right, and they steal everything in sight.

Of course, it could have been other predators.  It seems that all of nature has its eyes on grapevines as the harvest season grows near, and so the vineyard manager needs to be alert.  Raccoons love grapes, as do squirrels and bears and crows and turkeys.  As it happened, our neighbors told us about a bear they had spotted wandering through our property last year, right around the time we found a huge gash in our deer fence.  Jim Parkhurst of Virginia Tech told the summer technical meeting of the Virginia Vineyards Association that a bear will sit down in the vineyard, pull clusters of grapes off the vine, and then move down the row, sit again and pull off more clusters.

But, of course, it’s hard to know for sure which predator stole my grapes. Last year was a very difficult year because of the acorn shortage.  There are two types of acorns; those that come in every other year and those that come in annually.  In 2013, both types failed. So squirrels especially were desperate for a meal, and vineyards were like the free sample aisle at Costco.  I talked to vineyard managers who reported losing more than a third of their grapes to predators last year, which is extraordinary.

So, this year, we’re all taking precautions.

This is more or less what the netting will look like once it's dropped.  Here', I've just attached it to the first catch wire, and haven't yet rolled it up.

This is more or less what the netting will look like once it’s dropped. Here’, I’ve just attached it to the first catch wire on the Viognier vines, and haven’t yet rolled it up.

I spent the day Sunday (after a full day Saturday working with the Vineyard Goddess on canopy management) installing bird netting.  Bird netting places a barrier between the grapes and predators, and hopefully it will be enough to preserve this year’s crop.  I got about half-way through the vineyard, hanging the netting on my Viognier and Petit Verdot, and then rolling it up so that it will be out of the way until it’s needed.

I should point out that I would have also gotten the netting up on my Petit Manseng except that the Vineyard Goddess had found – I can’t even bring myself to say this – a bird nest in those rows, and asked me to wait a week or two.  I wanted to rip the nest out, but I couldn’t.  She’s the Vineyard Goddess, after all, and she outranks me when we’re working among with the vines.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t have gotten that far anyhow.  I ran out of clips before I was quite through the Merlot, and I ran out of energy before I got to the Cab Franc.  So, I ordered more clips today from Spec Trellising, and I’ll be praying next weekend that I don’t run out of netting.  The roll that they shipped is 1,650 feet long, which should give me a couple of feet to spare.  But who knows.

Here's what the netting looks like after it's rolled up, waiting until the grapes are ripe enough to attract predators.

Here’s what the netting looks like after it’s rolled up, waiting until the grapes are ripe enough to attract predators.

A couple of words of advice to the weekend vintner about installing bird netting.  First, don’t expect instructions.  Apparently the netting doesn’t come with any.  And don’t expect advice on how to install it – I didn’t get much.  Also, don’t think the Internet will be of any help.  I googled side-netting, bird-betting and every conceivable permutation of those terms for hours and got no help whatsoever.  I did find lots of helpful advice, videos included, on different kinds of netting, especially the stuff that hangs over the trellis, creating a ceiling of sorts that you can drive a tractor underneath.  But nothing for my side netting.

As it turned out, though, much to my surprise, bird netting isn’t all that hard to install.

Once I got the netting into the vineyard, and looked at the net clips, I was able to figure out (after one false start) how to do it.  The clips look like tiny boat anchors, with a hook at the top to hold it to a catch wire and one hook on each side at the bottom.  What I finally realized is that the back hook holds the netting on the catch wire permanently, and the front hook holds the rolled up netting (the storage position) until it’s ready for use.

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

I have lots of other questions, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  And I ordered one more piece of equipment –  small “C” hooks, which will hold the netting together at both the top and bottom to keep birds from finding a way in.  I also have a tagging gun which is supposed to be a good way to zip shut the net at the bottom, but truthfully, I couldn’t figure out how to make the gun work this weekend.

I’m feeling pretty good about the netting, though.  Unlike last year, I think most of my grapes will make it through to harvest.  And if they don’t, it will be for reasons other than birds and other predators.

And, this is my first real harvest.  As upsetting as it was to see my grapes stolen by predators last year, the fact is, it wasn’t that much of a loss.  We had dropped fruit during the year to give the two-year old vines a good start in life.  We wanted their energy to go toward developing a strong trunk and root system, not grapes.  So, for those of you wondering exactly how many grapes were stolen, the answer is something like a half-dozen or so clusters that we missed when dropping fruit.

Not the end of the world, thank God.  More like a cheap lesson for the future.

July 22, 2014 | By | Reply More

How I Came to Love the Idea of Mechanization

Well, the good news is that we no longer need to hedge most of our grapevines. The bad news is that when we arrived at the vineyard two weeks ago, we found the upper third of the vines covered with Japanese Beetles who were partying as though the wine had already been made and they had just broken into the cellar. They were chowing down on the leaves, having sex, and in some cases, doing both at once. I almost hated to interrupt.

But, of course I did. More on that in a moment. But first, you may be wondering what that has to do with mechanization. So, let me explain. (This will take some time.)

Looking good: the vineyard in the weeks before the Japanese Beetles arrived.

Looking good: the vineyard in the weeks before the Japanese Beetles launched their assault (and before leaf pulling).

A week earlier, I had arrived home in Fairfax, exhausted and in pain, after a short overnight trip to the vineyard. I had made the trip strictly for the purpose of spraying, and I had no idea what I was in for.

With recent rains and warm weather, conditions in the vineyard were ripe for a bunch of fungal diseases, so spraying was a necessity. But the abundant rainfall we’ve received this year had also prompted amazing vine growth.

Stepping back for a moment, let me say that we had taken steps to control the vines’ vigor. Specifically, we had finished shoot thinning and done some leaf pulling a few weeks earlier (this takes us back to the first or second week of June).

Shoot thinning and leaf pulling are part of the process of maintaining balance in the vine. More on this in a future post, but for now, suffice it to say that shoot thinning and leaf pulling help open up the canopy for air flow and spray efficiency, among other things, and shoot thinning ensures that the crop load of grapes is optimal for the vine. That means that the clusters of grapes that remain on the vine get sufficient sugar from photosynthesis to make good wine.

Clusters of grapes beginning to take shape!

Clusters of grapes beginning to take shape!

However, for all our work, it turned out that the vines still had many more shoots and many more leaves than they needed. And each leaf has to be covered, top and bottom, with fungicide. No exceptions!

In a commercial vineyard, we’d use an airblast sprayer that would spray a fine mist deep into the vine canopy, covering each leaf top and bottom as the tractor moved down the rows. Good canopy management helps, of course; spray efficiency is improved in a well-maintained canopy with properly separated shoots and an optimal number of leaves. But whatever else we might want to do, an airblast sprayer is clearly superior to what I’ve been using.

Uh, yeah. Clearly superior in the way that a Lexus is clearly superior to a bicycle as a mode of transportation.

What we had been using for the past two years were two-gallon, hand-pump sprayers. But I had moved on to a four gallon backpack sprayer that is continually pumped as I move through the vineyard. The sprayer weighs 43 pounds when full, and the pumping action has the effect of exerting even more weight on one shoulder.

Now, when I describe our little hobby vineyard to friends, the 225 vines we maintain seem pitifully – almost embarrassingly – small. But when I’m spraying, it seems huge – really, really, really huge.

On that particular weekend two weeks ago, I spent about five hours spraying some 20 gallons of chemicals. The backpack sprayer was heavy enough that the only way I could get it on was to sit on the ground with my back toward it, pull the straps around my shoulder, then turn to my side to get some leverage as I used my arms to push me to a standing position. That’s a technique I learned in the Army when we carried much heavier packs. But of course I was so much younger then.

The long and the short of it is that I wasn’t just exhausted when I finished, I was in considerable pain. The pack was heavy, it required constant pumping on one side which really hurt my shoulder. So, as I sprayed fungicide, I observed that a small number of Japanese Beetles were beginning to make themselves at home in our vineyard, but I was frankly too tired to care.

After I finished and cleaned up, I limped home, vowing that I would find a better way to handle the spraying.

The vines are okay, but it's still heartbreaking to see this kind of damage. Zoom in, and you'll see what I mean.

The vines are okay, but it’s still heartbreaking to see this kind of damage. Zoom in, and you’ll see what I mean.

The following weekend, I came face to face with the consequences of my decision to avoid dealing with the Japanese Beetles. As I said earlier, our vines were covered with thousands of the little buggers, and the damage looked extensive. Many of the vines had lost all of the leaves at the top, while others appeared to be almost totally denuded.

So, we sprayed again. That weekend, the Vineyard Goddess was with me and she handled half the spraying. We were in a bit of a panic over the amount of damage, and so we immediately sprayed the vines with Sevin. Ordinarily, that would have been it, since the vines had received ample fungicide the previous weekend. But with all the rain from the past week, I wondered the next day if we should spray a fungicide. We assumed, however, that a second spray would wash off the Sevin, and we were more concerned at that point about the Japanese Beetles than the possibility of fungal diseases on vines that, honestly, seemed amazingly free of disease.

And need I say that a second spraying session that weekend would have involved some four to five man-hours of labor. Not that the labor had anything to do with my decision.

Which brings me back to my new-found love for the idea of mechanization. I would like to say “love of mechanization,” but I haven’t actually mechanized anything yet. It’s still in the idea stage. I’ve done a lot of research, though – enough to know that it probably won’t make economic sense to buy the airblast sprayer that I really want.

I suspect I’ll end up with a sprayer that will attach to a tractor and provide a long hose so that I can park at one end of a row and work my way through the vines holding nothing more than the sprayer nozzle and some part of the hose. I’ll use either my John Deere 2320 or, more likely a new 500 series John Deere tractor that is smaller, more maneuverable and more appropriate to the hobby vineyard we have. (But no, I’m not getting rid of the 2320 – the front-end loader by itself justifies the cost. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

In any event, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of mechanization. Before too many more weeks pass, I hope to make it a reality.

 

 

July 18, 2014 | By | Reply More

Tempranillo, Part IV: Wine Faults and Me

It’s been about a year since I bottled my Tempranillo, and so I thought it was time to give it a try.  This is a wine I had great hopes for:  I had participated in a tasting at WineMaker magazine’s conference last year, and the wine had received reviews that ranged from the merely positive to almost glowing.  And it had been in the bottle for only 35 days – hardly over bottle shock.

My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

Tasting at the WineMaker magazine conference.  My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

So you can imagine my surprise when, almost immediately after opening the bottle, I detected an odor – not an aroma, mind you, but an odor.  I thought perhaps that it was just one of those things – a little, well, I don’t know what.  I just thought it would pass.

It didn’t.

I poured the wine, swirled it vigorously, and sniffed.  It stunk.

And then I swirled the glass much longer and even more vigorously, and sniffed again.  It still stunk.

Well, I thought, perhaps it’s one of those wines with barnyard or some such aromas but wonderful tastes.  I think there are such things.  Well, actually, I have no idea.  I was just hoping.

But if there are such things, they didn’t account for this bottle’s problems.  It tasted just awful.  I suppose that if I were a still a college student, more interested in the alcohol content than the aromas and taste of the wine, I could have choked it down.  I’m sure I drank much worse in those days. (Remember Ripple?  Boone’s Farm?)

But today?  No, no way.  I would say that in an even more emphatic way, but this is a family friendly blog and such language is not permitted.

I can’t begin to tell you how depressed I was beginning to feel.  This was my prize wine, the star of all the wines I have made, and I had outrageously outsized expectations for it.  And yet, the evidence was clear.  It stunk.

That was especially bad news now, since I’m getting ready for our first grape harvest in a couple of months.  If my very best effort with a kit wine had turned out so badly, how could I possibly expect to do well with fresh fruit, which is a much more complicated process.

I decided I would give the bottle another day, so I set it aside and opened a California Pinot Noir to drink instead.

The next night, I opened the Tempranillo again, more in fear than anticipation, and quickly realized my instincts were right.  It still stunk.  Probably as much as the first night, maybe more.  Now I was really depressed.

But a day later,  on the way into work, I suddenly realized that I recognized that bottle’s foul smell.  TCA taint.  The wine was corked.   I was sure of it.

A corked bottle is one that has been tainted by 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short.  It’s usually described as smelling like a damp basement or wet socks left too long in the hamper.  Over the years, I’ve read that something like one to five bottles out of every hundred suffer from TCA taint.  I actually find that hard to believe, since I rarely encounter one.  In fact, I have to say that the only reason I recognized this flaw as TCA taint is because I took a class last year on wine faults and had an opportunity to sniff and taste a corked wine.

Even so, I clearly wasn’t prepared to believe that a wine I had made and bottled could possibly be corked.  The idea hadn’t even entered my head.

A tale of two bottles.  They came out of the same fermenter, made in exactly the same way, but one was a joy and the other sunk!

A tale of two bottles. They came out of the same tank, made in exactly the same way, but one was a joy to drink, and the other sucked!

But this evening, energized by this flash of insight, I pulled out another bottle of the same Tempranillo to taste.  I have to say, I was a bit concerned – clearly, my bottling technique could use some work because there was at least an extra inch of air in the neck of the bottle. Well, that’s why I’m working with kits: trying to get all the mistakes out of my system.

Opening the new bottle, I was prepared for the worst.  But after pulling the cork, I sniffed the wine from the bottle and was thrilled – no sign of TCA!  I poured a half-glass, swirled, sniffed and was elated.  The wine was definitely not corked.  But was it good?

I  tasted it, and wanted to shout.  Yes, indeed, it was good. Soft tannins, big fruit, nice acidity.  I’m guessing that Robert Parker won’t be including it in the next issue of the Wine Advocate, but whether it warrants a score of 92 or 82, it was good – a lovely, drinkable wine.

So, I’m somewhat more confident about my prospects as a winemaker.  And, as a bonus, I have another two cases of good wine that I don’t have to pour down the drain.

A final word.  I think everyone who loves wine should feel comfortable returning a bottle and telling a waiter at a restaurant or the manager at a wine store that the wine is flawed.  I’ve done this perhaps a half-dozen times in my life.  And at Total Wines, for example, they never bat an eye.  They take the bottle and invite me to get another.  And I suppose they would offer me a refund, but I’ve never asked. It seems more fair to get another bottle of the same wine.

And that’s the point.  If you buy a wine, you should be prepared to deal with it.  If you decide it’s not to your taste, ok, you won’t be buying it again.  But you shouldn’t think you’re entitle to a refund because you like soft tannins and the wine you bought needs a couple of years in the cellar.  Or because you bought a white that was aged in oak and you suddenly realize that you prefer whites aged in stainless.

But a genuine fault is different.  If the wine is corked or oxidized, if it has severe Brettanomyces, then you should feel comfortable in sending in back. It’s not always an easy call.  It took me two days to realize my wine was corked.  And Brettanomyces?  Well, that’s a touchy subject.  A little can add some character, more than that can ruin the wine.

So, I guess the best advice I can offer is to trust your instincts, but be reasonable.  And over time, if you taste enough wine, you’ll learn to recognize common wine faults.  Which, thank God, are few and far between these days.

 

June 4, 2014 | By | Reply More

Sampling Wine Across Europe

We’ve visited a lot of wine regions over the past 20 years or so, but as our interest in viticulture and winemaking has grown, we’ve begun looking at vineyards and wineries with new eyes.  That was especially the case on our most recent vacation, where we visited Venice, London, and Bordeaux.  Especially Bordeaux.  But I’ll get to that later.

While we enjoyed the winery visits we made in years past, it was a different kind of enjoyment from today.  Then, we would taste wine in

Murano, Italy - who knew this would be a gateway to a vineyard?

Murano, Italy – who knew this would be a gateway to a vineyard?

Sonoma or Napa or some other wine valley, and buy a bottle or two to take home.  Sometimes we might hire a limo or go in a van or micro bus tour with other couples, and those were great times that I wouldn’t trade away for anything.

Today, though, we are as interested in what goes on behind the scenes – in the vineyard and in the cellar – as we are in tasting the wine.  Actually, they’ve become related pursuits.  When we visit wineries, ideally we’d like to look at the vines and talk to vineyard managers about the soil, the climate and all of the other things that make their wine special.  We want to see the cellar and the barrel rooms (although I sometimes feel that when you’ve seen one barrel room, you’ve seen them all), and we want to talk to the winemaker about the vintages we’re going to taste, the challenges that they faced in each of those years, and the approach they take to making the wine.  And then, of course, we want to taste, but only after we know something about the vines and cellar practices.

That’s the ideal; the reality usually falls a bit short.  Actually, it usually falls a lot short.  Most tasting rooms in the United States are staffed by novices with limited knowledge of the wines they’re pouring, and it’s rare to find a winery where we can see the vineyard and talk to someone who knows anything at all about the vines.  Of course, there have been days when we’ve been able to realize that ideal.  And a week ago, in Bordeaux, we hit the mother lode.

The vineyard inside the medieval gates on Mazzorba.

The vineyard inside the medieval walls on Mazzorba.

First things first, though.  We had decided to start our trip in Venice, where we thought we’d relax and adjust to European time in a leisurely way.  And truthfully, we just love Italy in general and Venice in particular.  This trip, we decided to go for a change in scenery by staying in Murano, a small island that is perhaps a 20 minute vaporetto (water bus) ride from Venice.

On our second day, we ventured over to Burano, an island known for lace and, for us, the scene of some of the most memorable meals of our lives.  As it happens, Burano is connected by a bridge to another small island – Mazzorbo – and on Mazzorbo, there is a small restaurant and inn with a vineyard.  The vineyard is just over two hectares in size, and it is entirely surrounded by medieval walls that were rebuilt in 1727.  According to the web site, the vines are mostly ungrafted, which means they are growing on their own roots, rather than on an American rootstock that is immune from phylloxera, the aphid-like insect that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the 19th century.

Old as the walls are, the vineyard itself was planted just three years ago, the same year that we planted our own small hobby vineyard.  So, of course we were interested in comparing notes with the vineyard manager.  Alas, this is one of those times where our expectation fell short of reality.  We had the opportunity to wander through the vineyard, but unfortunately, the restaurant and tasting room were closed for an event, and most of the folks we hoped to talk to were missing.  Well, maybe next time.

The ancient city gate, the Porte de Borgogne, as viewed from the Terrace of our Bordeaux flat

The ancient city gate, the Porte de Borgogne, as viewed from the Terrace of our Bordeaux flat

But it’s pretty hard to be unhappy in Italy.  We had a number of great meals and some lovely wine.  And there’s something special about walking around under the Italian sun.

London didn’t afford us any opportunities to visit wineries, but between the British museum, the British Library, Kensington Palace and the wonderful London theater, we had some good meals and good wine.  And we did enjoy several wine bars.  One was the “Green Man and French Horn,” a bar that specializes (exclusively) in wines from the Loire Valley.  I found that surprising.  I suspect most people don’t know Loire Valley wines very well, if at all, and I didn’t know much about most of the wines on the list.  But there were some familiar wines, especially the Chinon, which are based on Cabernet Franc, and the Viognier.  Both grapes, by the way, do exceptionally well in Virginia, and we have both growing in our own vineyard.

Our favorite wine bar, though, was “The Ten Cases,” which serves a dozen or so different wines, but orders just ten cases of each.  Once those ten cases are finished, the wine is gone from this bar forever, and ten cases of a different wine are ordered in its place.  We loved the food, and loved the wine. If we lived in London’s Convent Garden area, where it’s located, I suspect we would dine there on the order of once a week.

Trying to fit in with the Bordelais - I think i've made it!

Trying to fit in with the Bordelais – I think i’ve made it!

After London, we moved on to Bordeaux, which was something quite special.  Our apartment looked out over the ancient city gate, the Porte de Bourgogne, and the Garonne River.  Inside, there was a small wine rack on the wall with four bottles of Bordeaux.  The information folder explained that some guests arrive too late to be able to purchase wine; in those cases, they should open the bottle of their choice and replace it with another.  The bottles weren’t terribly exciting – Bordeaux Superieur, for example – but I’m sure they were fine.  As it happened, we didn’t arrive too late to purchase wine of our own, and I opted for an inexpensive St. Emilion to keep handy for a late afternoon- early evening glass on our terrace.  I think I might have paid a grand total of 9 Euros for it, and it was delicious.

On our first day, still tired from waking at 3:30 a.m. in London to get to Gatwick for an early flight, we wandered through the town center, and sat down at a small café for some wine and cheese.  I believe the wine was a Pauillac, and it set the pattern: we didn’t have one bad glass of wine the entire visit.

But it’s one thing to enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant, wine bar or tasting room, and quite another to get outside the city and tour the great wine estates.  We did both, and I’ll focus on the estates we visited in my next post.

May 16, 2014 | By | Reply More

If we’re winter pruning, then Spring must be close

Maintaining a vineyard is a year-round enterprise.  Even in the winter, after the vines go into a dormant state, there’s work to be done.  In fact, dormant winter pruning is among the most time-consuming work of the year, and some of the most important as well, since it involves decisions that will affect not just the coming season’s growth, but the year after as well.

Vines before pruning - a bit of a tangled mess

Vines before pruning – a bit of a tangled mess

Most of the objectives of dormant pruning fall under the heading of “balance.”  Vines will grow just fine on their own, with no pruning at all, but most of their energy will go toward producing shoots and leaves, rather than grapes. Absent any intervention, the vines will continue to grow skyward for so long as they can find support.  The whole purpose of a trellis system and the pruning decisions that go with it are to force the vine to direct its energy toward the production of high-quality fruit rather than vegetative growth.

So we’re looking for balance as we decide which shoots and how many buds to retain.  Prune away too much and the vine will be undercropped, producing less fruit than it can reasonably support.  Prune away too little and it will be overcropped, producing a profusion of leaves and  shoots, as well as an abundance of fruit that is destined to be of low quality.

During the growing season, we’ll drop some fruit from the vine, again to direct energy toward the remaining clusters in the hopes of producing more concentrated and higher-quality grapes.  But the first decisions we make that will determine the quantity and quality of the season’s fruit are those made in the dead of winter.

Which is to say, when it’s cold outside.  Really, really cold.  Not to mention snowing every few days or so.  (Or maybe it just seemed that way this winter.) Which is one of the reasons we’ve put off pruning.

The other, more noble reason for delaying our pruning, has to do with timing.  It’s better not to prune too early in the season – the untouched vines will survive a cold spell much better than those that have been pruned back, and by waiting, you’ll have more options in the case of a late freeze that damages buds and shoots.

It’s helpful to be able to assess the vine late in the winter for cold injury before deciding which canes to remove and which few to retain. In our little hobby vineyard, we have the luxury of delaying for almost as long as we want to start dormant pruning.  Commercial vineyards that have acres of vines to prune, don’t have that luxury.  They need to start early enough to be able to finish the job before budbreak.  But many vineyards employ a technique of double pruning, going through once early in the winter to trim away the shoots they know won’t be used, and returning later to finish up the job.

Post pruning, these vines are ready to go.  Although we had hoped to cane prune everything, we settled for spur pruning when it was our only choice.

This cane-pruned vine is finished on the left arm, only partly done on the right. Click on the picture for a better view.

Our vines are all trained to a trellis system known as vertical shoot positioning, of VSP, and we have adopted a pruning method known as cane pruning.  In cane pruning, most of the previous year’s growth is pruned away, and two one-year old shoots, which have now achieved the status of canes, are retained and trained in either direction along the bottom, or fruiting wire.  These canes – the one-year old wood – will give rise to new shoots this summer, and these new shoots are the part of the vine that will bear fruit.

At the same time, we’ll be looking for renewal spurs below this year’s fruiting canes.  These will be pruned back to one or two buds to provide the fruiting canes for the following year.

I’ve taken a class or two on pruning, and I’ve done lots of reading and studied more videos on the Internet than I can count.  So, of course, I should be an expert.  And in theory I am.  I know a lot about the why’s and how’s of pruning.  But the actual pruning – the time when you come face to face with a vine and decide what to lop off and what to keep – that’s a whole different story.  I still remember my first pruning session.  I was sure that I was going to destroy the vine, and I stared at it for what seemed like hours before I worked up the nerve to make that initial cut.  I’ve gotten a little more confident, but only a little.  I still spend way too much time on each vine.  Fortunately, we only have 230 vines now, so I can get away with  it.

When the Vineyard Goddess and I got out a few weeks ago – and yes, we chose a weekend when the temperatures were in the 60s – we realized that we had not maintained the vines as well as we should have in the previous year.  No neglect, just the kinds of mistakes you make early on.  A number of the vines were just fine, but others lacked the kind of year-old shoots we were looking for to train to the cordon wire.

So, we made some adjustments.  On the vines that had perfect one-year old shoots, we cut away everything else and tied these canes down.  On those that didn’t, we resorted to a different pruning method called spur or cordon pruning.

In spur pruning, a cordon is tied down to the wire and used year after year.  The shoots from the previous year are pruned down to two buds, which will give rise to fruitful wood for the current season.  It’s more like a haircut, and most people would say it’s a far easier method of pruning than cane pruning.  And it works well for at least the first decade.  At some point, however, these cordons grow thick from age and produce fewer spurs.  Moreover, they’re more prone to disease.  It’s the same with people.  The older you get, the more opportunity your body has to develop diseases.

Which method is better?  Well, they each have advantages and disadvantages.  Jim Law, founder and owner of Linden Vineyards, said he started with spur pruning, which worked well for years, but eventually moved to cane pruning, after the disadvantages  – disease in particular  – began to outweigh the advantages.

Our thought, however, is that we’ll spur prunes those vines that need it this year, while leaving some buds that we hope will give rise to canes that can be trained to the wire in 2015.  And while I remain hopeful that our vines will produce some wonderful fruit thisyear for making wine, I am confident that we’ll do even better next year and better still in each of the succeeding years.  After all, this is a learning experience, and Lord knows, we’re learning.

March 20, 2014 | By | Reply More

Wines that Won’t Break the Bank

Cheap Wine By Jeff Siegel

If you’re serious about wine, then Jeff Siegel’s volume on inexpensive value wine isn’t the only book you need to read.  But you might be better off if it’s the first one you read, and the wine-consuming world might be a better place if everyone did the same.

Why?  Because Mr. Siegel, known to fans of his blog as “The Wine Curmudgeon,” dispenses with the “wine-speak” blather that is meant to intimidate consumers and offers instead the Cheap wineradical notion that it’s okay to like wine that doesn’t cost a lot.  Not that there’s anything wrong with an expensive Bordeaux – depending upon the bottle, there will probably be a great deal to like about it – but it’s important  for novices to recognize that “Cheap Wine” can be good wine.  In fact, winemaking and viticulture techniques have improved to the point that the least expensive bottle of wine on the shelves at Costco or Trader Joe’s will likely be at least drinkable, if not actually enjoyable.  And with a little care, you can pick wine that is both inexpensive and good.

“Wine doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be enjoyable,” he writes.  “Call it cheap.  Call it inexpensive.  Call it a value wine.  But whatever you call it, it doesn’t have to be expensive.  Just $10 – and often less – will buy a perfectly acceptable and often excellent bottle of wine.”

What I like most about Mr. Siegel’s approach is that he makes wine approachable for folks that might otherwise stick with beer or vodka.  Wine can be intimidating for the newcomer, and too many wine writers, sommeliers, and even the staff in tasting rooms seem to delight in making in making wine something of a black art that only the initiated can understand.

As I write this, I’m sipping a $14 bottle of 2009 Barolo that I bought at Trader Joe’s.  As it happens, I had purchased this wine a few months ago and discovered last week when I opened it that it was “corked,” which is to say, inflicted with that wet-dog smell that comes from TCA taint.  I returned it to TJs, and without asking a question, they replaced the bottle.  So here’s a little side note:  trust yourself, and don’t be afraid to return a bottle that you think is corked or which otherwise suffers from a real wine flaw.  Chances are, the guy behind the counter knows less than you do about wine.

The replacement bottle was wonderful, and that brings me back to the real point of this story, which is that wine need not be expensive to be good.  Sometimes, in fact, cheaper is better — for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Continue Reading–>

February 14, 2014 | By | Reply More

A Holiday Book List for Wine Lovers

With the holiday season upon us, I can’t think of a better gift for someone you love (or even someone you don’t like all that much, but for some reason are obligated to buy a gift for) , than a book about wine, save perhaps for a bottle of the actual stuff.  In the time since I started writing this blog, I’ve read a fair number of books on this subject, many of them about the process of growing grapes and turning them into wine, others on the joys of drinking wine, and still others on some topical issue, such as the touchy subject of natural wine.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few books that might make a nice gift for a friend or stocking-stuffer (yes, I know, that would be some big stocking – but you can just leave it under the tree).  Most of these are books I’ve read and enjoyed, and some are volumes that I’ve put on my own list.  Among those in the category of books I’ve loved, I’ve either reviewed them or have plans (and yes, I have more plans than time) to write a review on Project Sunlight.  So, stay tuned. Meanwhile, here’s the list:

Some Books I’ve Loved

Of all the books I’ve read about wine, I’ve enjoyed none more than Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW (Master of Wine).   authentic wine cover_editedThe book’s subtitle, Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, gives a broad hint about where it’s heading, but one of the most appealing things about the book is its balance.  The authors clearly respect the idea of natural wine and sustainable viticultural practices, but their first priority appears to be good wine, and they understand that a business isn’t sustainable if it isn’t profitable.  Authentic Wine falls neatly into two parts, one dealing with viticulture and the second focusing on winemaking.  I’ve read this book twice (you’d think after that I’d have taken the time to write at least a short review), and I’ll will probably read it yet one more time.  They write intelligently and lucidly about a variety of current issues in the wine world, from reduction to the difference between natural and cultured yeasts to the trend toward riper fruit and higher alcohol levels.  The get into the science and technical issues, but the writing is accessible and easy to follow.  That’s quite a rare feat, and one of the reasons I’m so high on Jamie Goode.

Also high on my list is Mike Veseth’s wonderful discussion of current wine industry trends, Wine Wars.  (Reviewed March 28, 2013) Subtitled, “The Curse of the Blue Nun, the wine wars coverMiracle of Two-Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terrorists,” this book ranges over a great deal of history to put some of the trends into context, and provides a lot of insight into some of the things, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, that are right in front of our eyes.  Could a two-dollar (somewhat more outside of California) bottle of wine have succeeded if it had been sold anywhere else but at Trader Joe’s?  In a world in which quality is often equated to price, it might not have worked at a retailer that had not already won the trust of its customers.  And yet, in Europe, some perfectly drinkable wines sell (or at least sold recently) for a Euro a liter, making it effectively One-Buck Chuck.   Mr. Veseth writes with the authority of the wine economist (a profession I did not know existed prior to reading this book), he is, and it’s clear that he not only knows a lot about wine, but that he loves it as well.  The fact that his prose is both clear and engaging is just a bonus. Continue Reading–>

December 14, 2013 | By | Reply More

A Tough Year for a Weekend Vintner

It was a tough year to be a weekend vintner.

When you’re separated from your vineyard by a two-hour drive, you have to make the most of your time.  And we try.  But the weekends are short, and there’s so much to do. And every curve that Mother Nature throws your way puts you just a little bit further behind.  This year, Mother Nature was throwing curves, sliders, and the occasional spitball.

This year began with a late spring frost, followed by rain.  Not just a little rain, but lots of rain, which gave rise to all kinds of fungal disease potential.  Powdery Mildew, Downey Mildew, Botrytis, you name it.

And then came the pests:  Japanese beetles, birds, raccoons, squirrels, deer, and even bears.  Yes, indeed, bears.  No lions or tigers,though.  Just birds, deer and bears.  And yeah, racooons and beetles and the rest of the pests.

First came the Japanese beetles, but there were so many other predators that followed.

First came the Japanese beetles, but there were so many other predators that followed.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve not been able to pay much attention to this blog.  Another was that Chris and I took on responsibilities for editing Grape Press, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association.  But mainly it was the challenges of the growing season.  It seems like we spent all of our spare time each weekend keeping up with the vineyard.  Spraying, cultivating, pruning, and spraying.  Yeah, lots of spraying. It wasn’t easy.

Let’s start with the late frost.  I remember arriving at the vineyard early one Saturday morning to find our whites all but devastated.  Honestly, it looked as though someone had sprayed Round-Up and left them to die. For a while, I actually wondered if they had been the victims of spray drift from the herbicide we had used to clear a row for new the new vines we had planted this year.

Fortunately, that was not the case.

After checking the temperatures recorded nearby, I realized that we had probably experienced at least one and possibly two frost events in which temperatures had dropped just below freezing for a few hours in the early morning.  My reds were fine, but they are planted higher on the slope and there’s a good possibility that temperatures stayed a degree or two higher in their part of the vineyard.  Alternatively, bud break came earlier for the whites and they may have just been victims of bad timing.  I’ll never know.

It turned out okay, though.  Both the Petit Manseng and the Viognier had enough secondary buds left to generate growth for this year.  Within a few weeks, we were seeing buds break and shoots begin to develop.  And by the middle of the summer, they were looking like grape vines again.  So, all was well.

But then it started to rain. Continue Reading–>

November 26, 2013 | By | Reply More

Where Did the Grapes Go?

Five days ago, at the end of the holiday weekend, I was thrilled with the progress of our vines.  We hadn’t allowed a lot of grapes to accumulate, given that the vines were only in their second year, but we had left a few clusters, and they looked beautiful.  Moreover, they tasted amazingly sweet.

Alas, last weekend I had left my refractometer at the other house, and so I couldn’t measure the Brix, which would have told me how much sugar had accumulated in the grapes and therefore the potential alcohol.  Not essential, given that we weren’t planning to make wine from this grapes, but it would have been nice to know.  But I told myself, it’s Monday, I’ll be back on Friday, and I’ll be able to measure the Brix on Saturday morning.  What could go wrong with that?

Well, of course, lots of things could go wrong.  But what I wasn’t expecting when I returned this weekend was to find the grapes gone.  Yes, gone.  As in, missing.  As in, virtually none of them left on the vine.

You can see that most of the grapes have been picked off this cluster

You can see that most of the grapes have been picked off this cluster

It turns out I was right about one thing.  The grapes had ripened and accumulated a decent amount of sugar.  Which meant that they were not only close to being ready for the crush, they had become attractive to lots of the critters that roam through the country near our vineyard.  Birds, deer, badgers – who knows?  Almost any animal cruising near our property could have decided to chow down on our grapes.

So, a few lessons.

First, we didn’t lose quite all the grapes.  I had put bird netting up around some of the Cab Franc vines a few weeks before, and those grapes were largely intact.  I measured the Brix and it came in at about 21.2 percent.  Not bad.  Not quite ready for the crush pad, but getting there.  It’s been a horrible year with the rain and dark skies, but another week or two in the sun (assuming we get a week or two of sun) and they might have made pretty decent wine.

Second, among the grapes we didn’t lose were those in the “mother vineyard.”  These are the Cab Franc vines we had planted in the first year before we even knew where the main vineyard would be located.  We had purchased them for practice and never even really considered that we’d use them for wine.  These, the critters left alone.

But why?  Well, when I measured the Brix it was at about 16 percent.  Not even remotely ripe enough for wine.  So maybe these grapes were ignored because they weren’t sweet enough.  Apparently the critters that hang around our property are pretty choosy in what they bite off. Continue Reading–>

September 9, 2013 | By | Reply More

Tempranillo, Part III

On the eve of our departure for WineMaker magazine’s annual conference, hosted in Monterrey, California, this year, I expressed some regret to the Vineyard Goddess that I didn’t have a bottle of home-made wine to take with me for one of the tasting events.  I had bottled my Tempranillo some 35 days earlier, and while it was just past the bottle shock stage, I had not yet tasted it (and it was way too late to try it that night).  For all I knew, it was plonk.

My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

“Take it anyhow,” the VG told me.  “Take two bottles.  We can taste one on the first part of the trip, and if it’s good, you can take the other one to the tasting.”

Sage advice.  I packed two, using my newly minted method of wrapping the bottles in bubble wrap (replacing my old method of wrapping them in t-shirts), and told myself we’d taste the first bottle when we arrived in Sedona on the first leg of our journey.  As it turned out, I didn’t get to it until we reached the Grand Canyon for the second leg of the trip.

And what a surprise!  It wasn’t the vintage of the century, but it was definitely good.  I knew I had made some mistakes in the process, especially in the area of temperature control (overheating it at some points, and not keeping it warm enough at others), but it was still a good, solid drinkable wine.  So, I felt confident that I could hold my own with the other winemakers, or at least not get ridden out of town on a rail.

The comments were generally favorable.  The 100 or so winemakers who gathered for the tasting were seated at round tables of 10, and half the table rotated every ten minutes to be paired with new tasting partners.  We tasted each other’s wine and provided feedback.  I’d like to say that everyone was totally, if not brutally, honest, but I suspect we were more diplomatic than candid.

So, here are some of the comments:

“Young, but very hearty.  As it ages, it will become a very nice wine.”  (Oh, yeah, as it ages — someday it will be a decent wine!)

“Good tannins, good acidity, nicely balanced.”

“Good color, very dry.  Nice tannins and structure.”

“Crisp acidity, not quite as much fruit as I’d like to see.”

Well, that’s as far as my notes go.  Nobody was talking about long finishes or specific kinds of fruit on the nose or palate, but all in all, for a first outing, it wasn’t bad.  As I said in a Facebook post, I had walked in with nightmares that my fellow tasters would spit my wine on the floor and then throw me out of the room.  It was a relief to see that they all stayed and finished their taste of Bob’s Tempranillo.

May 29, 2013 | By | 4 Replies More