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Looking Back on the First Year

A spring-time view of the newly-planted vineyard

A spring-time view of the newly-planted vineyard

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.  Continue Reading–>

January 9, 2013 | By | 4 Replies More

Of Hurricanes and Early Frosts

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.

A vine leaning in the vineyard

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we found a number of vines had been blown over, and were now leaning down almost to the ground. Not good.

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. Continue Reading–>

November 21, 2012 | By | 5 Replies More

Natural Wine, part I: Alice Feiring’s “Naked Wine”

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–>

August 6, 2012 | By | 2 Replies More

No Grow Tubes, No Round Up, No Sweat. (Well, maybe a little.)

Our Vineyard

A view of our vineyard

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.

Our battery-powered cultivator, standing tall and proud

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–>

July 10, 2012 | By | 8 Replies More

Pruning and training first-year vines

 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?

Here’s what one of the Cab Franc vines looked like before it was pruned and tied. You can see the tendrils caught the training stake and are holding it straight.

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.

Here’s the Cab Francs after pruning and tying.

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!)

A Mammolo Toscano that we thought had been killed by frost is staging a comeback!

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!)

A row of Cab Franc vines in the foreground, with the first row of Petit Verdot just behind it.

Here’s a couple of Viognier vines before they were pruned and tied

June 8, 2012 | By | Reply More

Spring in the Vineyard

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

May 21, 2012 | By | Reply More

On Deer Fences and Surgery

With the new vines in the ground and growing beautifully, the need for a deer fence was growing ever more urgent.  Deer are only one of many pests that will go after the grapes once the fruit reaches a certain level of sweetness, but they will also go after the shoots themselves.  With all the work we put into this small hobby vineyard, we don’t want the vines to end up becoming a McDonalds for the local deer population.

The entire property has a three-board fence, with added wire meshing — good for keeping critters off the property, but not high enough to stop deer.

This seemed like an easier task than putting in the trellising system, but even so, we spent a fair amount of time researching deer fences over the previous month.  In our division of labor, I had worked out the details on the trellis, and my wife, the Vineyard Goddess, devoted herself to the deer fence.

Traveling around area vineyards, we got a sense of the variety of fences that were being used.  Some vineyards have installed metal fences as high as 10 feet, but that seemed like overkill for us.

Our property is already surrounded by a four-foot high, three-board wood fence that has a metal mesh fence attached to keep small critters out and our two Vineyard dogs in. We briefly toyed with the idea of doing something to raise the height of that fence by another four feet all around the property, but rejected that approach for two reasons.

And here Glory is demonstrating why a separate fence around the vineyard itself is absolutely essential.

First, it’s a whole lot of fence — about 1,100 feet.  For about $8 a foot, we probably could have put in a fence that would be way more utilitarian than aesthetically pleasing, but this property will someday be our home, so we’re going for aesthetically pleasing.  And second, while it would keep our dogs from wandering off the property, it would do absolutely nothing to keep them out of the relatively smaller vineyard area inside our property.

Phoeneix, the vineyard dog, isn’t so much of a problem by himself.  He shows a certain  Continue Reading–>

May 13, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More

The Great Experiment — Transplanting Cab Franc

Another busy weekend in the vineyard.  We transplanted four Cab Franc vines from Fairfax, researched and ordered a deer fence, and installed the bottom, or fruiting wire on our trellises in Afton.  And, of course, we spent some time admiring the fruit of our labors from the previous few weeks – 150 new vines buried under mounds of dirt.  The reds, which

Three weeks after planting, the Viognier, pictured here, and the Petit Manseng, are emerging from the mounds of dirt that protected them from the spring frosts.

we planted two weekends ago, were still hidden away, but the whites we planted a week earlier – the Petit Manseng and the Viognier – were poking through the hills, and we were just thrilled to see them pushing through the earth!  I have to say, they emerged from the mounds at just the right time, avoiding the frost that killed off our two prize Mammolo Toscano vines the previous weekend.  Frost is an issue that we’ve been giving a lot of thought to after our experience this winter, and it influenced our decision on where to locate the fruiting wire.  More on that in a future post.

For today, I’ll simply focus on our grand experiment, the transplanting of four of our Cab Franc vines from Fairfax to the Afton vineyard.  We had planted a total of seven Cab Francs in Fairfax to get a bit of hands on experience close to home.  I suppose at the back of my mind I thought I might eventually make a little wine from those vines, but mostly I

The Fairfax vines looked magnificent this Spring -- if a bit unruly. They need to be pruned, but that, I decided, would wait until they reached their new home.

wanted the experience of being able to go out in the evening after work to care for them and learn from that effort.  We planted another five of the same clone and rootstock in Afton to see how the same vines would do in a different environment.

The Fairfax vines grew fast and they looked just beautiful.  Clearly, the soil in Fairfax is rich, lending itself to high vigor growth.  That’s good and bad, but probably mostly bad.  It’s great to see the vines shoot up quickly, but ideally, we’d like them to struggle a bit so that the energy of the plant goes toward the grapes, not the vine itself.  Left to its own, the vine will grow as high as it can find support – up a tree, for example, pushing toward the sunlight – but spectacular as that vine might be, Continue Reading–>

April 30, 2012 | By | Reply More

Planting the Vineyard, Part I

With the trellis posts finally in the ground, we were finally ready to plant.  And not a moment too soon.

When we arrived in Afton on Friday evening, March 30, we had 50 dormant vines waiting for us: 25 Petit Manseng from Vintage Nurseries in Wasco, California, and 25 Viognier from Sunridge Nurseries, Bakersfield, California.  The largest number of vines we had ever planted before was seven, and we weren’t sure how long it would take to get

Here's the Petit Manseng vines still soaking in water just before planting

these vines in the ground, or even if we’d be able to get it done by the end of the weekend.  But we had another 100 vines set to arrive the following weekend, which meant we didn’t have much of a choice.  We decided to plant the Petit Manseng first, and prepared them by putting them in a bucket of water to soak overnight.

In the morning, we inspected the vines to see if they looked healthy.  This was kind of like the time in high school when my car wouldn’t start as I was taking my date home.  I opened the hood, looked inside as though I knew what I was doing, and just prayed it would start when I got back in the car.  It did start up, Continue Reading–>

April 24, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More

An Hour of Frost

Well, it doesn’t take much.  The forecast called for temperatures in my part of Fairfax County to dip below freezing for less than two hours, but that was enough to do some damage.   At least one of the vines appears to have sailed through the night with flying colors, but the others experienced at least some degree of frost damage.  As noted in my

Some damage on this vine – it’s hard to see in this picture, but compare the shriveled leaves on the right with the green, healthy ones on the left side.

previous post, this is a critical time of the year for vines.  Late frost is a threat in any year, but the early bud break this spring left vines everywhere in the state exposed to the threat of frost in the weeks ahead.

As WineMaker magazine noted, late frost is a danger “because the first green growth produced on a new grapevine shoot is two or three basal leaves, immediately followed by the embryonic flower clusters that will become this year’s crop. So, if frost strikes, it can greatly reduce or even wipe out the whole vintage.”

For my vines in Fairfax, I believe the danger is even more acute because they are still small and the buds are so close to the ground, where the temperature is coldest.  We’re still new at this, and it’s possible we pruned them back too far over the winter. For the vines we plant this spring, we’ll definitely be focused on strategies for dealing with late frost, and I’ll talk about some of them in an upcoming post.

This Cab Franc vine did okay - all of the leaves look healthy.

Of course, one of the most important considerations in dealing with frost is site selection, and we’ve already cast that particular die.  The Fairfax vineyard is challenged on at least two counts.  It’s at a low elevation, and it’s on flat ground, so the cold air has no place to go.  In Nelson County, where we have some vines planted and are preparing to plant another 150, the elevation is higher, around 750 feet, but not high enough to put us in the atmospheric sweet spot that probably runs from about 800 to 1,600 feet above sea level.  On the other hand, the land is sloped, so the heavier cold air should flow down hill and off the vineyard.  We’ll see.

But no matter how well you plan, you may still find yourself dealing with late frost.  I suspect most commercial vineyards in the state were monitoring the vines throughout the night and taking steps to mitigate the frost threat.  Larger vineyards have a number of tools they can bring to bear, including wind machines, heaters, and helicopters.  Many vineyards gather the wood pruned from the vines over the winter and leave it at the end of the rows to burn on nights where frost threatens.

This year, we didn’t have a lot of choices beyond praying and hoping.  However, the Fairfax vineyard is only experimental;  I’m not expecting to ever make wine from those grapes, although it would be a definite bonus if I do.  But for the vines we are putting in the ground this Spring, we’ll probably have some sleepless spring nights in our future.

March 28, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More