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Vines | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: vines

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

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

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

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

The Perils of an Early Spring

We arrived home Sunday afternoon to find that the vines in our Fairfax vineyard were blooming in a magnificent way.  I had pruned them during the winter, when they were still dormant, and have been wondering ever since if I had cut cut them back too severely.  When I saw them on Sunday, though, I felt vindicated. Yes!  Yes ! They would be up to the first wire (30 ” – or maybe 36″, I actually haven’t put the trellis in yet) in no time flat, I assumed.

The Fairfax vineyard is a bit overrun with weeds right now, but you can see the leaves on this vine if you look closely.

I couldn’t have been happier.  Until I showed the vines to my wife, the Vineyard Goddess.

“Well, that’s good and bad,” she said.  Good, of course, because the vines looked so healthy and productive.  But mostly bad, because, it’s still March and we could have some frost ahead of us.  The bud break I observed on my vines had come very early in the season.  And when she glanced over my shoulder at this post, she added another rule of thumb for vineyard management: “March will always be too early for bud break.”

And of course she was right.  (She’s pretty much always right.  Thank God she’s watching over our vineyard.)  This evening, I found an email alert from Tony Wolf, the Virginia Tech viticulture specialist, and probably the state’s foremost expert on all things viticultural,  warning of the likelihood of freezing temperature overnight.  According to NOAA ‘s web site, temperatures will drop to about 31 degrees tonight in Afton, the site of our Nelson County vineyard, and 30 degrees in Fairfax, where the aforementioned vines are Continue Reading–>

March 27, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More

Building the Trellis, Part I

Here's how the vineyard looked last weekend, March 17. The posts are in the ground, the rows have been ripped, and it's beginning to look like a real vineyard! You can see our neighbors, the Alpacas, on the hill, top left.

How we built the trellis

Well, I have to be honest, I didn’t exactly build it myself.  Much as I wanted to install the posts with my own hands, I ended up short on time with the planting season upon us.  We needed to get the vines in the ground, pronto.

I’d spent much of the winter, between viticulture classes, my job and all of the work that goes into maintaining two separate properties, thinking about how to handle the trellis.  There were moments when it seemed simple enough — eight foot posts put 24 to 30 inches into the ground, plus some kind of end-post system, which would be only slightly more complicated.  And then, there were times when I wondered if I was up to the job.

Here’s a shot of one of the rows, showing the ripped soil.

As part of the planning, I did some research on what kind of equipment I’d need to buy or rent.   A lot of the literature suggests that the best way to put posts into the ground is to pound them in, but the equipment involved would have made that impractical for me to do on my own.  The easiest way to get the posts in is to drill the holes with an auger.

So, I briefly considered the idea of a hand-held power auger, which was the least expensive approach, or an auger for my tractor.  I spent a lot of time visualizing the process, and considering whether it would be more cost-effective to do it myself or hire someone to do the work.  I was pretty confident I could get the line posts in without a problem, but I spent a lot more time worrying about the end posts, which are more complicated.  At some point, I began waking up at 4 a.m. to worry about how much work needed to be done and wonder if the vines we had ordered were destined to just, uh, rot on the vine?  No, bad metaphor.  Go to seed?  mmmm…. no, that doesn’t work either.  Wither and die?  Well, something like that.

Eventually, we passed the point where I could reasonably expect that it would be Continue Reading–>

March 22, 2012 | By | Reply More
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