Author Archive: Bob Garsson
It’s a pleasure to announce that the Vineyard Goddess and I are now co-editors of Grape Press, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association. Our first issue is the just-published Spring 2013 edition, and while we took over editorial responsibilities too late to have had any role in the planning, we spent lots of time collecting articles, working with the authors on final edits, revamping the look of page 1, and dealing with the hundreds (well, dozens and dozens) of little details that come up as you’re going to press.
We’re very excited about this opportunity for a number of reasons. First, lots of folks in the Virginia viticulture community have been very generous with us, giving hours of their time to assist in our education. Early on, for example, I posted a note to a web site for the Central Virginia Winemakers group asking a question about how much time I should expect to set aside to manage a small vineyard I got lots of responses, and two of the folks who replied to my query hosted us at their vineyard for what amounted to a seminar on growing grapes.
Secondly, we’re big fans of Virginia wine. We attended our first Virginia wine festival some 25 years ago, and while the wines weren’t great back then, some were pretty good, and we thought they all had promise. We were right. The wines got better each year, and today, we think Virginia wines have really come into their own. Virginia Viognier is a world-class wine. Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, Norton and a number of other grape varieties have been made into truly great wines. My personal view is that a number of the Commonwealth’s wineries are making wines that can compete anywhere in the world, and their ranks are growing each year.
A major reason for the continued improvement in Virginia wine is the quality of the fruit that wineries have to work with. As the old saying goes, wine is made in the vineyard. And the quality of the fruit is improving in no small part because of the willingness of so many in the business to help each other out. In this industry, people share knowledge. Grape Press is part of that process, and the Vineyard Goddess and I are thrilled to be able to play a part, however small, in the continued growth of the Virginia wine industry
As I said, we can’t take credit for the range of high-quality stories in the current edition, but we did have a chance to work with the authors, and it was one of the best journalistic experiences of my life. The writers were all involved in one aspect or another of viticulture, from the distinguished vineyard consultant Lucie Morton to grape pathologist Mizuho Nita to Ankida Ridge vineyard owner Christine Vrooman.
The writers were knowledgeable and intelligent, and their articles were infused with personality and wit, which made them a pleasure to read. I won’t try to mention everything from this issue, but Christine Vrooman’s series on sustainability, Andrew Hodson’s article comparing French and Virginia Viognier, and Jim Benefiel’s story on a VVA expedition to Bordeaux are among those I would recommend to anyone. And honestly, there isn’t a bad article in the whole issue. Bill Freitag, Katie Hellebush, Pete Johns, Lucie Morton, Mizuho Nita and Dean Triplett contributed excellent articles, and they’re all worth a read. For what it’s worth, I read the entire issue, word for word, at least twice, and I enjoyed it as much on the final read as I did on the first round of edits.
Membership in the Virginia Vineyards Association is a must for anyone involved in the Virginia wine industry. But Grape Press is great resource for anyone interested in viticulture, no matter where you live. It’s a great publication, and Chris (the Vineyard Goddess) and I will be doing our very best to ensure hat it continues to be great.
Reading Wine Wars, Mike Veseth’s superb book about the forces shaping the modern wine industry, brought two memories to mind, one of fairly recent vintage, the other decades old.
I’ll start with the older one, which involves a college night with friends. For reasons that I’m sure made good sense at the time, we decided it would be fun to buy a bottle or two of the cheapest wines we could find on the shelf at a nearby 7-Eleven. I don’t remember exactly what we bought or what I drank, but the names Thunderbird, Boone’s Farm, and Blue Nun spring to mind. I also can’t recall how much we paid for them, but it seems like they must have been a couple of dollars each, in line with the cost of a six-pack of beer in the late 1970s. And, oh yes, I vaguely recall waking up the next morning with a killer hangover.
The more recent memory involves a lunch in Madrid a couple of years ago. On the way to the Prado museum, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch. I ordered the menu del dia, or menu of the day, a common offering at Spanish restaurants that generally features a soup or salad, an entrée, a desert and a choice of beverages. When I asked about the choice of beverages, I was offered soda of some kind, water, coffee, tea, or wine. Naturally, I asked for red wine, pleasantly surprised, but realistic enough to expect nothing more than a glass of something that would be innocuous at best.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought a bottle to our table, set it down, and said something that I took to mean, “this bottle is all for you.” When I questioned him, he repeated the phrase. And I understood. Yes, it was mine, all mine. The entire bottle.
The meal probably cost 8 or 9 Euros, about $11 or $12 at the current exchange rate, at the bottom end of what I would expect to pay in any major U.S. city for a decent lunch at a nice, but inexpensive restaurant. Two things struck me about that transaction. First was the recognition that back home, the price of the meal would barely have covered a glass of wine, if that, along with a decent course or two of food. But what really surprised me was the casual way they threw in the full bottle. We’re talking wine, after all, not water from the tap.
I wondered off and on in the intervening years how it could be possible to serve a bottle of wine with a meal as though it was nothing more than a cup of bad coffee. Wine Wars gave me some answers.
Mr. Veseth discusses three major trends shaping the world of modern wine: globalization, “the miracle of Two Buck Chuck,” and what he refers to as “the revenge of the terroirists.” Globalization is a fascinating phenomenon, and far more complex than I can do justice to in this post. While most wine is made and drunk locally, globalization has made it possible to walk into an American wine store – or a grocery store, for that matter – and find wines from countries as far away as New Zealand and Austrialia, along with bottles from France, Germany, Chile and California, among other places. What’s interesting, as Mr. Veseth points out, is that globalization’s impact upon the local “wine wall” is largely seen in the high end and low end of the market.
The high end is obvious. It includes first growths from Bordeaux, cult wines from California, expensive Burgundies or the best Shiraz from Australia, among other fine wines. If wine drinkers are willing to shop at fine wine stores and pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, then producers will certainly ship them. But the low end is more interesting. After taking into account the cost of growing the grapes, making and bottling the wine, and shipping it across the ocean or over continents – let alone the cost of land and equipment – how can it be possible that a decent wine can be made available for less than $10 – and, in some cases, for much less?
Part of the answer is that much inexpensive wine is shipped from overseas in 24,000 liter bladders and bottled in the United States – a much cheaper approach than shipping 32,000 bottles. But another key is the ability of winemakers to produce good quality wine at low cost, and – much more important – to convince wine buyers that inexpensive wine can be good wine. And nowhere is that latter concept more evident than in aisles of Trader Joe’s, where Charles Shaw wine is sold for as little as $1.99.
Charles Shaw, or Two Buck Chuck, is the U.S. version of that wine I had for lunch in Madrid. Not particularly distinguished, but a solid, drinkable wine with no real flaws, made possible by California’s vast wine lake. Because of the way wine is taxed at the state level, most of us were never able to buy a bottle of Charles Shaw for the $1.99 price tag that gave rise to its nickname. But even at $3, it was something of a miracle. A wine that probably cost less than that bottle of cheap wine I purchased in college (even priced in nominal dollars) that is thoroughly enjoyable.
It’s a measure of just how much winemaking techniques have advanced that such good wine can be sold so cheaply. But as Mr. Veseth points out, that’s not the real miracle of Two Buck Chuck. The miracle is that in a world where most of us believe that price is an indicator of quality, so many wine buyers are willing to bring home bottles of wine that cost so little. And without Trader Joe’s, that might never have happened.
Trader Joe’s is a value retailer. It is a subsidiary of Germany’s Aldi chain, which sells drinkable wines at even lower prices than Two Buck Chuck. In fact, Aldi’s least expensive wines can retail for one Euro per litre (250 ml more than the standard U.S. bottle), which means its cost is about $1 per U.S. bottle, making it, as Mr. Veseth put it, One-Buck Chuck. But Aldi’s customers trust the chain, as does the clientele of Trader Joe’s. “If you put an equally cheap Two Buck Chuck clone in your typical upscale supermarket, it’s entirely plausible that no one would buy it because they assume low quality based on the low price,” he writes. “That’s where Trader Joe’s comes in. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for selling upscale products for a bit less – for providing relative value.”
Relative value. That sounds like something an economist would say, and that’s not surprising since Mr. Veseth is an economist. A wine economist, to be precise.
Before reading this book, I had no idea there was such a thing as a wine economist, but it turns out there are enough practitioners to have their own professional association – the American Assocation of Wine Economists. And the book is replete with interesting tidbits about economic theory, including the way that protectionist policies have led to the production of plonk, while free markets have forced producers to raise the quality of the wine they sell.
These are matters that Mr. Veseth devotes considerable time to, and that he explains in clear and elegant prose. He is an economist, to be sure, but he is a writer of considerable skill and his book is not just educational, but engaging and entertaining as well. It’s not just a great book about the wine industry, but a great business book, period. Mr. Veseth’s blog, The Wine Economist, is a wonderful source of information about the business, and it was the digital incubator that eventually gave birth to his book.
One final thought about a sub-theme that is evident in Wine Wars. Those of us who love wine live in both the best and worst of times. In many ways it is a golden age – never before has so much wine of acceptable, if not good quality been available at such reasonable prices. And yet, so much of what we drink today might be classified as commodity wine – interchangeable wine that could come as easily from one place as another. In other words, wine without a sense of place or terroir.
In a world without terroir, one cabernet sauvignon is not all that different from another, whether the grapes are sourced from Chile or Sonoma. And that’s a shame, since wine should be all about soil and climate and the intangibles of each vintage, such as weather, plus all the other forces that can make a grape variety grown in one wine region in one year so different from the same one grown in another.
And so the last trend in Mr. Veseth’s book is identified as the Revenge of the Terrorists, and it is a broad, complex topic that could probably justify the cost of the book by itself. But as Mr. Veseth said in an article on his blog, The Wine Economist, “nothing in wine is simple.”
I’ll close by saying that a part of me, the romantic part, is rooting for the terroirists, even if my palate has never been able to keep pace with my heart and my idealized views about wine. And yet, another part of me, the part that enjoys wine regularly, has to admit that there’s something special about a quality wine that can be had for $10 or less – even if I can’t tell where the grapes were grown, much less what year in which they were harvested. God save us from globalization, just not yet.
I was pretty excited last Monday when I began making six gallons of Tempranillo wine. I thought I had been pretty clever in the way I had gotten the temperature just right before pitching the yeast, and I was pretty confident that things would go well.
And 24 hours after inoculating the unfermented must with yeast, I was pretty sure fermentation was well underway. The airlock was beginning to accumulate carbon dioxide, or CO2, bubbles and there was a fragrance in the air that I have always associated with fermentation. Also, there was a loud hissing sound inside the primary fermenter said there was something alive and growing inside. Yeast is a truly amazing microorganism.
Forty-eight hours in, I was beginning to worry. The airlock wasn’t bubbling up and down in the vigorous way I had expected, and I wondered if the fermentation had become stuck. Or worse, if it had actually been stillborn, and I had only been deluding myself the day before. I punched down the grape skins for a couple of minutes (the grape skins are pushed to the top of the fermentation vessel by the CO2 released during fermentation, and they must be “punched down” daily to ensure proper contact with the must – more on this in a later post) and then checked the temperature.
The results were a bit scary – almost 90 degrees. Apparently the heater I was using was a blunter tool than I had thought. That seemed a bit unjust. The last time I made wine, fermentation took forever, and was briefly stuck because I had let the house get too cold. Now, I had apparently gone too far in the other direction.
On Thursday, I was feeling even worse about the fermentation. I had shut down the heater, and the temperature had dropped to the low eighties.
Better for fermentation, but probably still a bit too hot to re-inoculate. I knew I could get the temperature down, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about reinoculating.
I had packages of two different kinds of yeast: RC212, which was the particular kind of yeast that came with the kit, and EC1118, a champagne yeast that is also supposed to be good for restarting stuck fermentations. I wasn’t sure which to use, whether I should rehydrate the yeast with some of the juice before pitching it, or whether I should get the temperature down first. So, I called the company’s technical support line.
I was using a Winexpert kit, and I can’t begin to say enough about their customer support. I got a real person on the phone in a couple of minutes, and she was terrific. Here’s how the conversation went (picking up after I explained the problem):
She: What was the specific gravity when you pitched the yeast?
She: What is it now?
Me: I haven’t checked, but since it doesn’t seem to be fermenting, I assume it’s still right around 1.08.
She: You need to check. Give me your number, and I’ll call you back in ten minutes while you take a reading.
After about ten minutes, she called back.
Me: I just finished sanitizing the hydrometer and wine thief and I’m just filling the tube (for the hydrometer).
Me: Uh. . . Can this possibly be right? It looks like it’s 1.02.
She: You got it! It’s working.
Me: Uhhhh . . . yes, it is. (but thinking, yes, I am an idiot. . .)
What I learned from her was to rely on the hydrometer, not my visual checks. She was good enough to stay on the phone with me for another five minutes to talk about winemaking and to answer a few more questions about the kit. Honestly, it was one of the best customer support experiences I’ve ever had.
So, I let the wine continue fermenting. Twenty four hours later, the specific gravity was down to 1.011, and the night after that, it was just a hair over 1.000, maybe 1.001. Sunday morning, I’ll check again, and I think it will be time to rack it into a carboy for the secondary fermentation.
Meanwhile, I’m planning to start making a new batch of wine in a week or two, this time Winexpert’s Lodi Ranch 11 Cabernet Sauvignon. And I’ll be relying less on visual observations and more on things I can measure, like temperature, pH, and specific gravity.
After all, your eyes may deceive you, but the hydrometer never lies.
So much of what I’ve written on Project Sunlight has to do with the vineyard – planting vines and tending them until they’re ready for that first harvest. Well, okay, we’re actually a long ways from that first harvest, so in fact most of what I’ve written has to do with that first year in the vineyard, from preparing the ground to planting and caring for the vines over the course of that year. Someday soon, I hope to write the next chapter, the one that has to do with turning simple grapes into something noble. But we have at least another two years before we take that step and make wine from our grapes.
And yet, I want to make wine – now. So, what to do? I am very hopeful that next fall I’ll be able to buy fresh fruit from somebody else’s vineyard, and make wine from those grapes. But that’s a long ways away, and I’m feeling a need to get some experience with the whole process of fermentation before I start playing with freshly harvested grapes. It’s also possible I’ll be able to buy some grapes shipped in from Chile in the next month or so (the southern hemisphere runs opposite to our world – our fall is their spring, and their spring is our fall), but I’m not sure about that.
Wine kits, though, offer a world of possibilities – literally. You can get kits that contains juice and crushed grapes from Argentina’s Mendoza region or South Africa’s Western Cape. You can buy Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or Australian Shiraz or Oregon Pinot Noir, for that matter, and make those wines at home whenever you want.
Years ago, I turned my nose up at the idea of making wine from a kit. But from what I’ve read over the past few years, kits have gotten better and better. Two years ago, after receiving a starter set with all the equipment from my daughter as a Christmas gift, I tried my hand at one. I made so many mistakes that I should have been grateful to have ended up with decent vinegar. But I worked hard at it, and when I was finished I decided that the very least I could say about it is that it was honest to God wine.
I wondered if that would be the most I would ever be able to say about it as well, and I suppose the answer is somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t great wine, but my kids liked it well enough to ask me to bring a couple of bottles with me when I traveled out to visit (in California, no less), so it at least found an audience. And every time I open a bottle, I tell myself, “Hey – this ain’t so bad.” And yes, I know – that’s a pretty low hurdle.
In any event, I decided to try my hand at it again. This time, I’m making a Spanish Tempranillo, one of my favorite varietals. The kit was made by Winexpert, and it came with a bladder of juice, a smaller bladder of crushed grapes, and of course all of the yeast, fining agents and the like that one needs to turn the juice into wine.
So, here’s what I did Monday: I mixed Bentonite, a clay granule that will help clarify the wine, with hot water at the bottom of a 7.9 gallon bucket that serves as the primary fermentation tank. After that, I dumped in the juice, and followed up by adding oak powder and then the crushed grapes. The grapes are held inside a cheese cloth sack, and there was a bit of free run left after I got them into sack, and that went into the fermenter along with the grapes.
A couple of points. First, the Bentonite clumps up easily, and once that happens, it’s pretty hard to break it up. It’s easy to see that it really is a clay. So, I did the best I could and hoped that it would be enough.
Second, I’m using Sodium Metabisulphite as a sanitizer. Mixed it up in a one gallon jug, which is the perfect sized container, except that it’s not at all clear to me how best to apply the mixture to the various implements I need to sanitize, many of which are too big for the jug’s mouth. I bought another glass container with a wide opening, and used that to dip some of the implements into, particularly the stirrer.
I had stored the juice and grapes in the garage for the past few months, reasoning that the relative coolness would provide an optimal storage environment. Hopefully that’s true, but I hadn’t thought about how long it would take to warm the juice back up. The must required the addition of spring water, and so I used the aforementioned one gallon glass container to microwave the water (about 1.6 gallons altogether) before adding it back to bucket. That did indeed help to warm the must (the unfermented juice, skins, seeds and pulp), but it also meant shuttling the container back and forth from holding water to holding sanitizer. Each time I poured metabisulphite into the container, it had to be well rinsed before it could accommodate the water that would ultimately go into the must.
Well, we do what we, uh, must. Or at least what we can.
Winexpert warns against pitching the yeast until the must is between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was at about 67 degrees after filling the bucket, despite the microwaving. I left the covered bucket in our sun room, hoping the bright sunshine streaming through the glass would do the trick.
An hour later, the temperature hadn’t risen at all, so I decided other measures would be necessary. First, I tried a warmer that is supposed to raise the temperature by 5-20 degrees. It looks like a little paper-thin electric blanket for wine fermenters, and I left it wrapped around the fermenter for the first night. But an hour passed over the afternoon, and I was still at 67 degrees.
I decided stronger measures were in order, so I lifted the bucket into the kitchen sink, filled the sink with hot water and waited, checking the temperature every five minutes or so.
This worked. Twenty minutes later, the must was at 74 degrees, and I pulled the bucket out of the water (not a pretty sight, given that the bucket weighed something like 50 pounds at this point) and pitched the yeast.
I took a couple of readings. The specific gravity was 1.082, right in the range of where it’s supposed to be, and the brix (I couldn’t resist using the refractometer my daughter had given me for Christmas) was at about 22, right in line with the hydrometer reading. I also had a pH meter, but it turns out that calibrating the meter requires two buffer solutions, one for pH 7.01 and the other for pH 4.01. Being a novice, I had ordered only the 4.01 solution with the pH meter. Well, maybe next time.
For now, though, the must is resting on top of a chair, scrunched between a wall and a wine cabinet with the back of the chair facing out. I chose that spot and the position of the chair to protect the primary fermenter from the curiosity of my dogs, both of whom I’m sure would like nothing more than to paw at the lid until it popped off. I’m guessing they’d also enjoy a drink from the bucket, since the juice is very sweet.
So, hopefully it will make great, or at least good, wine. In another six months or so, we’ll have some idea. But first, I’m waiting for fermentation to begin. I’m sure I’ll be checking on it in the middle of the night, the same way I checked on my kids when they were babies. Because you never know what might be happening.
So, now that we’ve been through most of a full season, from preparing the ground and putting in the trellis, to planting and nurturing the vines all the way through the “harvest” (three clusters that grew despite our efforts to keep the vines free of fruit), I think it’s time to enjoy a glass of someone else’s wine, reminisce happily about how well everything turned out, and then get down to the serious business of evaluating what we did right and what we did wrong. On the plus side, I think we got a lot of things right. We spent more time than I care to remember researching and thinking through what varietals we would plant and more specifically, what clones would do best on our property – 740-feet above sea level, on a steep, westward facing slope in Afton. We settled on four grapes – Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Petit Manseng – and I’m very happy with the choices we made. We’re thinking of putting in some Merlot next spring, but I think the four we started with are great grapes for Virginia.
We decided to go with ENTAV clones, and worked through three different nurseries to get the vines we wanted. For the record, we ended up getting ENTAV 214 Cab Franc; ENTAV 573 Petit Manseng; ENTAV 400 Petit Verdot; and ENAV 642 Viognier. We put all of them on 101-14 rootstock.
Some nurseries were better than others for a small vineyard like ours. We spent more money on 25 Viognier vines from one of the nurseries than we did for 50 Cab Francs from another. We justified the Viognier purchase by telling ourselves that it would be a helpful to develop a relationship with multiple nurseries. Good theory. But we got a note a few months ago from the expensive nursery that loan sharked us those Viognier vines announcing that they were no longer taking orders for next year. I guess our 25-vine order didn’t make much of an impression. Well, so much for theories.
Continuing on the plus side, we hired a contractor to get posts in the ground for the trellises and the H-brace end-post system. I had wanted to do that work myself (which is to say, I wanted so badly to buy the auger and bits for my tractor), but with spinal surgery pending in May, I had to contract the work out. Later in the spring, I was at least able to run the bottom wire myself, and that was both fun and satisfying.
We also managed to get a deer fence up. Again, with my surgery falling between the start and the finish of that work, my primary contribution was to watch very hard (honestly, really, really hard) and to offer some advice. The real work was done by my wife and daughter, Chris and Kate, and they did a magnificent job. I will never forget the sight of Chris and Kate wielding sledge hammers to drive three-foot post holders into the ground.
And finally, in April, we planted the vines, a whopping 150 of them. We hilled the vines over until warmer weather arrived, and maintained the vineyard the best we could. It was a true joy to watch them grow, from dormant sticks to honest-to-God, bona-fide grape vines. We were pretty disciplined about sticking to a spraying schedule (and by “we,” I mean Chris), and I think our vines made it through the first year pretty much disease free. One of my favorite memories of the summer was the evenings I spent walking through the vineyard, astonished that I had something large enough to accommodate an actual walk.
But we did make some mistakes along the way. And I’m doing my best to catalog them all so that we can do a little better next year, when we plant more vines.
First, we decided to dispense with grow tubes for reasons that I still think made good sense. After sampling the research, we concluded that vines grown without tubes would do at least as well during the first season as those grown with tubes, and maybe better in subsequent years. Honestly, it somehow just felt right to let the vines toughen and grow at a natural pace. We also recognized that the main reason for using grow tubes was to facilitate the use of Roundup, and with only 150 vines we thought we could cultivate the rows by hand.
Okay, it was another great theory, and quite possibly it would have worked if I had not been out of commission for part of the season. But in practice, it was very hard to keep the rows clean and free of competing weeds. We used Roundup before planting, and throughout the growing season we cultivated the best we could. But keeping up with the grass and weeds in the row, even for a vineyard as small as ours, was a challenge, and we now know there was less clean space under the vines than there should have been. A simple experiment proved that.
For comparison’s sake, we sheltered a dozen of the Viognier vines so that we could use Roundup in the row just once midway through the growing season. The vineyard floor around those vines was beautifully clean, and they grew so much larger than the vines right next to them that didn’t have the benefit of Roundup. While that sample wasn’t large enough or random enough to allow us to draw an empirically sound conclusion, the evidence did seem pretty conclusive. Now we’re working on how best to tackle the cultivating next year so that we give the vines more room to grow.
Let me say this, though, in defense of the approach we took this past season. I would much rather do without herbicides if at all possible. I don’t like the idea of dumping chemicals onto the vineyard floor, killing off weeds, but who knows how many beneficial plants and beneficial insects housed by those plants at the same time? I would like to find a way to cultivate without herbicides. And as the vines mature, and develop deeper root systems that won’t be competing for water and nutrients with the other grasses and weeds, I don’t think it will be nearly as important to keep the floor clean.
Another lesson came late in the season, when Hurricane Sandy visited our vineyard and exposed another small mistake. We had used bamboo poles as support stakes, and they seemed sturdy enough when we put them into the ground. It didn’t occur to me, however, that we should clip the poles to the trellis wire. In any event, when we surveyed the vineyard after Sandy had passed through, we found a number of vines that had literally been blown over, along with their support stakes.
In every case, these were vines that had not reached the cordon wire, and were therefore being held in place only by the stake. Vines that had reached the wire and been tied off seemed to do okay. I think it’s pretty obvious that a clip at the top of the stake would have provided a lot more support. I had actually talked to a vineyard manager a month before Sandy about the clips. We didn’t really get into the reasons for using them, but when I said I hadn’t, he asked, “why not?” All I could say was that I hadn’t known to do it. I made a mental note to buy the clips and secure all the poles, but with everything looking so good, it didn’t seem urgent. Well, now I know.
We did get it right when it came to the pests, though. Our rescued puppy, not yet a year old, loved to wander through
the vineyard with us and proved to be a champ at keeping birds and rabbits out of the vineyard. Not to mention, beetles. We aggressively met our one Japanese beetle infestation with a spray application and a lot of handpicking, but it turned out that the puppy also likes to help pick off the beetles, and she does so without harming the leaves. Go, Glory!
Other mistakes? I’m sure there are dozens that I don’t know about, in addition to a few more that I do. We went for close spacing (3 feet), but in retrospect, I wish we had gone for an extra four to six inches. We’ll see how it works out, but every time I look at the vines, I wonder if their vigor can be contained in that tight space. We were good about spraying, but since we don’t live on the property full-time, we weren’t perfect. And I think we need a refresher course on dormant winter pruning sometime in the next few months.
But the vines are still there, they look wonderful, and I’m still confident that someday, not too many years from now, when I reflect back upon the summer, I’ll be drinking a glass of wine from those grapes and maybe laughing over some of the rookie mistakes I made. And yes, I think I’ll always remember that first year in the vineyard – the first vine I planted, the first time I experienced bud break, and the taste of those first errant grapes that weren’t supposed to be there. I’ll remember the mistakes too. But I know for sure that the things we did wrong will pale in comparison to the triumphs of that first glorious season.
One of the lessons we’ve learned from this first year of vineyard management is that it can be very difficult to maintain vines from a distance. In the best of circumstances, it’s hard for us to be at a property that’s just over two hours from our residence any more often than once a week, and we rarely find ourselves in the best of circumstances. So we do the best we can, using our time as efficiently as possible to make sure the vineyard is well maintained, and that we keep to a reasonable spraying schedule.
Two weekends ago, after a longer than usual absence, we arrived in Nelson Country to survey damage from Hurricane Sandy and prepare for the freezing weather that had been predicted for that weekend. My apologies for taking so long to get this post up, but sometimes life gets in the way. And what with my surgery and a heavy worload back at the office on my day job, Project Sunlight has been a bit neglected. But I promise to rectify that, starting with this post, which covers Mother Nature at her worst — a hurricane, followed by early frost.
I’ll start with Sandy. We felt lucky, especially considering the devastation in New York and New Jersey, to have escaped with so little damage. I once lived on the New Jersey shore, and worked in both Jersey and New York city, and I felt deeply for the people there who suffered so much. For us, in both Fairfax and Nelson counties, the most visible sign that a storm had passed through were the fallen limbs and branches that will likely provide a whole winter’s worthy of kindling. But that’s not to say we escaped scot-free. As we walked through the vineyard, we saw a number of vines leaning sideways, in some cases almost to the ground. And no, that’s not a good thing.
On closer inspection, it became clear that the vines that were worst off were those that had not made it to the fruiting wire. And as I thought about those vines, I had a sudden realization of where we had gone wrong.
One of the little tricks we hadn’t learned at the time we planted our vines was to employ little clips to secure the bamboo support stake to the first wire. When I stumbled across that technique later in the summer, I didn’t give it much thought – the vines were in the ground, the stakes were supporting them, and all seemed right with the world. Now, though, inspecting the damage, I realized that securing the stakes to the wire would have given them some stability, strength enough perhaps to stand up to high winds. Without them, they were easy targets for Sandy’s wrath.Looking at each individual vine made it clear how strong the winds had been. A number of the stakes were sitting in cone shaped holes, the kind of shape you might get if you whipped the bamboo pole around in a circular motion. I’m going to hazard a guess that it would take a pretty strong wind to do that.
In any event, I found myself going through the vineyard on my hands and knees, inspecting the vines individually and repairing the damage one vine at a time. The majority of the vines were okay. No damage at all. Some of the repairs were simple. If the stake was standing in a cone-shaped hole, but still erect, it was a simple matter of compacting some dirt around the stake to fill in the hole.
In the more difficult cases, the stakes had been lifted out of the earth, and were holding the vines prone to the ground. That required some delicate surgery. To avoid damaging the vine, I removed the ties and cut the tendrils that had wrapped themselves around the pole. Once the pole was free, I pressed it back into the ground, and reattached the trunk of the vine with the ties. And I used an extra tie to secure the top of the pole to the first wire. If we have another storm, I want the pole to be secure!However, in some cases, the root itself was sitting in an open hole, and that caused me some concern. I filled the hole with dirt, and tamped it down, as I had done with the stakes that were similarly sitting in open holes, but I worried that the exposure of the root to the air for an extended period might have caused some damage. I suppose I won’t know until next spring.
We had one total disaster. I found one vine that was clearly dead. Since it was close to a vine that had succumbed to a disease (and which we had pulled out of the ground and removed from the vineyard), we thought at first that the disease had spread. On closer examination, it became apparent that the vine’s trunk had been severed about a foot above the ground. That was pretty good news. The graft union was intact, so we are very hopeful that it will begin growing again next spring, taking advantage of the root system that developed this summer.
As it happened, that was only half the battle. With the weather forecasters calling for an overnight freeze, we wanted to “hill over” the vines. Hilling over (or hilling up, or mounding over – I hear all three terms used interchangably) involves building up a mound of dirt around the base of the vine, thereby creating a small hill that extends an inch or so above the graft union. The dirt forms a protective layer that protects the root up to the graft union from killing freezes.
What’s a killing freeze? I’ve never been through one, but everything I read tells me that for the vines we’ve planted, it’s about 15 degrees below zero. That’s well below yearly averages, but as Chris Hill, one of the Commonwealths’s most noted viticulturists would say, it’s not the averages that kill you, it’s the records. The averages can bump along for years comfortably above the level that would do serious damage to the vines, and then on one night, the temperature can hit a low that destroys the vineyard.
By hilling over, you still might run the risk of damage to that year’s crop, but if the roots and the graft union are protected, a new vine can emerge in the spring. Better to lose a season’s harvest than an entire vineyard.
Commercial vineyards mechanize the process, using an implement that scrapes up dirt along the row and pushes it to the vine. Our vineyard is way too small to justify buying an implement like that for my tractor, so I resorted to the low-tech solution of digging with a shovel and depositing the dirt around the bottom of the vine. For a variety of reasons, we planted so that the graft union would be four inches above ground, and that meant digging a lot of dirt. Remember, you’re creating a small hill, so the base of that mound gets much bigger as the hill gets higher. Think pyramids.
By the way, that’s a whoe lot of digging. Half-way through the job, part of me was wishing I had a vineyard large enough to justify the purchase of a plow that would push the dirt onto the vines.
The downside of hilling over is that it creates conditions for soil erosion, especially if your site is on a hill, as ours is. Virginia Tech’s Tony Wolf would say that if you are getting freezes on a regular basis sufficiently severe to warrant hilling up, then maybe you picked a bad site for vines. It’s hard to disagree with him.
But in my own defense, I would say that ours is a hobby vineyard, and as I’ve said before, the hobbyist works with what he or she has. If we were commercial growers, micro-climate would have been a primary consideration, and I suspect we would have looked for a site with an appropriate elevation to ensure reasonable safety from winter freezes.
Of course, we weren’t dealing two weekends ago with the prospect of a killing freeze. We were looking at temperatures just a degree or two below freezing. So, why did we take that forecast as a reason to hill over? Well, we tend to be very conservative, and I can’t bear the thought of losing a year of work on a project that will not yield wine any sooner than four years from its initiation. These vines are young, and we felt they deserve every advantage we can confer on them. And when you commute to your vineyard on an irregular basis, you take have to use the time you have. That weekend’s weather might not have hurt the vines, but in another week or another month, who knows? My personal philosophy is to expect the worst, and prepare for it early.
Oh, and hope that someday I’ll be living within a few minutes of my vineyard.
Alice Feiring: Naked Wine
One of the most arresting moments in Alice Feiring’s book on natural wine is occasioned by a question she posed to Jacque Neauport, one of the movement’s pioneers, on what motivated him to make wine without sulfur. He is momentarily speechless, then nearly convulsed with laughter.
“Because we were drunkards!” he finally responds, explaining that they hoped that wine without sulfur would allow them to drink heavily and avoid hangovers. Ms. Feiring is clearly shocked. “I had come to the oracle for answers, and all he had for me was a punch line,” she writes.
There’s something disarming about these passages, although I suspect that readers who have been put off by her writing style and dogmatic approach to natural wine will take some pleasure in her discomfort. My reaction was different. I’m not sure I would have had the courage or confidence to retell a story like this, so it made me like her, as well as her book, a good deal more than I had up to that point.
Early on, I wondered if I would be able to recommend Naked Wine, or for that matter, even finish it. Her book is written in the style of a blog, and it is infused with her personality. If you happen to like that personality, you will probably like the book. If you find her style, as a friend of mine did, “annoying,” then you will find much of the book insufferable.
At the end, I’m somewhere in the middle. The book is definitely not for everyone, but for those interested in making an initial foray into the world of natural wine, it’s a pretty good introduction. Continue Reading–>
We decided a year ago, after planting a small, educational vineyard (i.e., seven vines, planted for the sole purpose of getting some hands-on experience with viticulture) to forego the use of grow tubes. That was a tough choice. Almost every vineyard we’ve visited nurtures young vines in grow tubes, and there’s probably good reason to use them in large commercial undertakings.
But we decided against them for our small hobby vineyard for reasons that we think make sense. Most of the research we’ve looked at suggests that vines raised without grow tubes do better in the long run than those that spend their formative months inside protective shelters. We happened to speak to a vintner from South Africa over the weekend, and he echoed our views, noting that he had not even seen a grow tube before arriving in the United States. He still believes, he said, that the vines are better off without them.
But, of course, everything comes with a price. And this weekend, we got a real taste of the price you pay for growing vines without protective shelters.
The main reason vineyards love grow tubes is because it makes cultivation easy. You can spray herbicides such as Round Up around the vine to kill off the weeds without having to worry that your Cab Franc will die with them. Okay, I know that’s not a controversy-free statement. Advocates of organic wine, natural wine, biodynamic farming and so on will object right off the bat to the use of herbicides, however easy they make the task of maintaining a vineyard. And my heart is mostly with them, for a variety of reasons I’ll explore in future posts. But the fact is, keeping the weeds down without Round Up can be just plain drudgery.
Trust me, I have the aching muscles to prove it.
Now, it’s true that our vineyard is small. Right now we have only 150 vines, and the space they take up wouldn’t fill a small corner of even the smallest of the Commonwealth’s commercial vineyards. So we thought we could afford a few luxuries when it came to maintaining the vineyard. But it turns out that pulling weeds by hand is work – really, really, really hard work.
We started off a few weeks ago with nothing more than a hoe and our own hands. And by “we,” I mean my wife, the Vineyard Goddess, as I was still recovering from surgery on my cervical spine (Level 4 ACDF for those of you who know or care about these things). I was there in spirit, but it was the Vineyard Goddess who was working the soil with a hoe, and then kneeling down to pull the weeds by hand. I wasn’t actually there, but I have no doubt that it was slow, painful work.
And I know that, because we talked about it. I might have been unable to do physical labor, but I was still available as a consultant, and it occurred to me that there might be mechanical devices to help with this chore. Sure enough, there are. My preference would have been a small, gas-powered cultivator, but with our very steep slopes, we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to control it well enough to avoid damage to the vines.
We looked at the somewhat smaller electrical tillers, both corded and battery-powered, and settled on the latter. The corded ones are probably perfect for a garden located next to the house, but our vineyard is a significant hike from the house. And the furthest rows are, as they say, “a fur piece.” Continue Reading–>
First-Year Vines Need Lots of Care
I’m still in the process of recovering from surgery and so unable to travel or tend a vineyard, but it turns out the vines are growing perfectly well without me. Who knew?
Still, young vines still need lots of care. In my absence, Chris, the Vineyard Goddess, and daughter Kate were on site in Afton last weekend to prune the vines, tie shoots to the training stakes and handle other assorted chores (mowing and spraying, among them), and once again they provided pictures and a full report from the front.
Tying the shoot to the training stake is an essential part of the vine’s development, and it turns out that there’s more than one approach to pruning and training first-year vines. Tony Wolf’s Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America, for example, suggests leaving two or three shoots on the young vine, so that you’ll have something left if deer or other predators find their way into the vineyard and begin chowing down, or if one or more shoots simply break.
Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe’s vineyard manager and a regular columnist for WineMaker magazine, suggests a different approach. Choose the best of the shoots, tie it to the training stake and then – once you are certain that the shoot you’ve chosen is safely on the stake – prune away the remaining shoots and any swelling buds. We went with this approach, and hopefully we’ll finish the season with strong and relatively straight trunks to support the vines in the years to come.
You can see the results in the photos.
I remain hopeful that in another week or so I’ll be able to see the new vines for myself, but for now, it’s nice to know that they’re independent enough to carry on without me. And also nice to know that Kate is able to handle the mowing activities. Believe me, handling a lawnmower on a 15-20 degree slope is no picnic, and I won’t be in a position to use the tractor for a number of months. (Driving a tractor across the slopes is no picnic either; the pucker factor is always present!)
All of the nearby pictures were taken before she mowed, so the vineyard is looking a bit ragged in these shots. The rows themselves are pretty clean (with the possible exception of the Mammolos), although in some pictures, the camera angle makes it look otherwise.
By the way, keeping the rows clean can be a challenge. We decided not to use grow tubes to protect the vines, so spraying in the row with Roundup or another herbicide is more difficult and probably out of the question. However, our vineyard is small enough that we’re hoping to keep the rows clean by hand. (We’ll be getting out the hoe next visit — and probably the kneepads too, since at some point we’ll undoubtedly be down at ground level pulling weeds by hand!)
Despite months of crazy weather, it's finally springtime in the vineyard. And after all the hours of planning and research and all the work that went into getting the vineyard ready for planting vines – not to mention the planting itself – I was pretty bummed about not getting to see the early fruits of our labor this weekend. My wife, Chris, ably assisted by daughter Kate, the vineyard volunteer worker, traveled to Afton without me this weekend to un-hill new vines, continue the work on the deer fence, and handle a dozen other tasks that demand attention in the spring.
So, this isn’t exactly an eyes-on report from the scene. It’s more like something cobbled together by an editor hunkered down in a newsroom, piecing together a story out of dispatches sent in by reporters from the front lines. I've been both a reporter and an editor in my life, and believe me, being a reporter is way more fun. Editors sit behind desks in newsrooms waiting for reporters to tell them what’s going on. When I was an editor, I generally got cranky while waiting. Reporters get out of the office and see things happen. Even in the day of Blackberries and instant communication, I'm sure they still keep editors at bay during the day by telling them there’s way too much going on to stop and talk. And they’re usually right.
In this case, Chris and Kate filed their dispatches by text messages, emailed pictures, and a number of old-fashioned cell-phone calls, all of which provided some color on the early progress our vines are making. I have to say, we’re just thrilled with the results. Out of the 150 vines we planted this spring, only one appears to be clearly dead, according to the reports I've received, although another ten are doubtful. But the rest look magnificent! (Especially in the pictures.)
I’m particularly pleased with the progress of the first group of Cabernet Franc vines that we transplanted from our Fairfax vineyard two weeks ago. They not only survived, but they’re flourishing. And they have fruit! Big clusters of berries that will turn into grapes very soon if we leave them on the vine. Which, of course, we won’t. Even if the vines hadn’t been through the shock of being dug up in Fairfax and replanted in Afton, they’re still only in their second year of life, and they needto devote all of their energy to developing a strong root system and trunk. So we’ll be dropping the fruit soon.
We had planted seven Cab Franc vines in Fairfax a year ago, all for the purpose of getting additional hands-on experience working with vines. This weekend, Chris dug up the last three and moved them, so the Fairfax “vineyard” is officially defunct, although it lives on in spirit in Nelson County. We can’t be sure that all seven will make it, but we’re very hopeful.
In any event, I'm glad we tried this experiment, which was prompted by an article by WineMaker’s magazine’s Wes Hagen. He recommended ordering extra vines and planting the excess closely together on some spare land. That way, you have some surplus vines to replace the ones that inevitably will die. And that’s one of the sad facts of viticulture. No matter how good you are, no matter how carefully you plant, and no matter how great the nursery you buy from, you’re going to lose some plants. So, even though some of the 50 Cab Franc vines that we planted this year will surely die, with the additional one-year old vines Fairfax we should end up ahead of the game. Wish I had read the Wes Hagen advice before we ordered vines for planting this year.
Looking at the rest of the vinyeard, our whites are doing quite well. We planted 25 each of Petit Manseng and Viognier on the weekend of March 31, and mounded hills of earth over them, covering the graft union with about two inches of soil to protect the dormant vines from the possibility of late frost. We un-hilled them two weekends ago on May 6, and they have been doing quite well ever since.
Likewise, the reds are showing great promise. Chris and Kate un-hilled the 100 Cab Franc and Petit Verdot vines that we planted over three days in early April. Both grapes seem to do well in Virginia, and we are wildly optimistic about their potential. Which, of course, puts us in the company of farmers everywhere who start each spring full of optimism, no matter how bad the previous year went. And don’t get anyone started talking about the 2011 vintage. Trust me, just don’t.
By the way, the un-hilling I did two weeks ago involved a lot of careful work with my hands, but it was positively crude compared to Chris’s method. I pushed the dirt aside a little bit at a time, until the vine was completely uncovered. Okay, maybe a spare bud or two got knocked off in the process.
Chris would have none of that. She bought a makeup brush for the final removal of soil from the vines, and claims it worked like a charm. I wasn’t there, so I’ll take her word for it. It seems like a pretty time-consuming approach, so I’m pretty confident that I’ll do my part of the un-hilling next year sans the makeup brush. Unless of course the vines she un-hilled do better than mine. Let’s not even go there, okay?
And there’s still so much work to be done. I think I’m recovering well enough from surgery that I’ll be able to be in Afton myself for the next trip. Chris and Kate have gotten to be quite the dedicated and skilled vineyard workers, handling everything from driving posts into the ground to planting vines. I’d sure like to be able to lend a hand. Or at least be there to watch with great enthusiasm while they do the work