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.
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.
That created all kinds of problems. First is the issue of fungal disease. Virginia is a difficult venue for growing wine grapes in the best of circumstances. Unlike, say, eastern Washington state or the California wine valleys, our weather tends to be humid with regular rainfall. The only way to keep diseases such as Botrytis or Downey Mildew at bay is to spray regularly. That means within a day after a rainfall. And for a weekend vintner like myself, that isn’t always possible.
Our sprays were fairly simple: Mancozeb, and if it wasn’t too hot, sulphur. Mancozeb is effective for lots of things, but it has a long PHI, or preharvest interval. That means that the last Mancozeb spray has to go on some 60 days before the grapes can be harvested. That was okay, because we had made a decision early on not to harvest this year. Our vines are in their second year, and many of the folks we came into contact with through our viticulture classes said that the first two years should be devoted to developing a good root system and a strong trunk. Since then, I’ve talked with lots of people in the business who have gotten a small harvest in the second year. However, our vines didn’t make much progress in the first year, so it seemed prudent to let them have this growing season to develop roots and trunks.
I remember feeling a bit discouraged last year at the slow progress our vines were making. Many failed to reach the cordon wire, although in fairness our cordon wire is a bit high at 40 inches. Still I told myself that we should have faith in the root system that was surely developing out of eyesight, and in fact that proved to be true.
My wife, the Vineyard Goddess, suggested pruning back to two buds in the Spring, and we did. Well, actually, she did. I came close, but I couldn’t bear to prune away so much of the vine, so I left a bit more of the trunk behind. I suspect that the VG came along behind me and fixed things, but in any event, the growth this year was nothing short of amazing. They reached the cordon wire quickly, and by the end of the season were up close to or at the top of the trellis. Of course, some of that growth was undoubtedly hastened by the rain.
The Merlot we planted this year provided an interesting contrast. Those vines hit the cordon wire early in the summer, and grew up from there. I’m sure some of the extra growth was a result of the heavier rainfall, but some undoubtedly was the result of the rootstock we chose for these vines. All of the vines we planted the previous year were grown on a rootstock known as 101-14, which is supposed to be good for the clay soils we have. It also features moderate vigor. The Merlot was planted on 3309, which results in a more vigorous vine.
It would have been nice to have had some of the Merlot on 101-14 to be able to contrast the two rootstocks, but when you’re purchasing vines in multiples of 25 (that’s 25, not 25 hundred or 25 thousand), you tend to go with one clone and one rootstock. We purchased 50 Merlot vines, all clone 181 on 3309.
We approached harvest time with only a small amount of fruit on the vines. As I said, none of it was usable for wine given our choice of spray, but we were interested in knowing how well the grapes were ripening. One weekend in September, I tasted the juice from a cluster of Petit Verdot and another cluster of Cab Franc, and was thrilled with the sweetness. As it happened, the small amount of testing equipment I owned was at our other property, and I made a mental note to bring it with me next weekend.
I did bring it the following weekend, but I was confronted with yet another lesson in vineyard challenges: The vines had been picked clean. I assumed that birds were the culprit, but it could just as easily have been deer or bears or racoons or maybe squirrels. A few weeks later, we found that part of our deer fence had been torn apart at the top. Our neighbors informed us that they had seen bears prowling around in recent weeks, and the tear had all of the earmarks of a very large animal.
In any event, two of the lessons that stand out from this year involve the absolute necessity of a good deer fence and bird netting.
We weren’t alone in any of these problems. If you take a look at the regional reports in the fall issue of Grape Press, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association, you’ll see that everyone dealt with the same challenges.
“The outpouring of wildlife in the vineyards this year has reached biblical proportions,” said noted vineyard consultant Chris Hill, quoted in an article in Grape Press. “Birds (Robins and Starlings), raccoons, possums, and deer have been incredible, but the squirrel and the bear have been the biggest surprises of the year. Who would have guessed that squirrels could eat TONS of fruit? And who could guess that the black bear existed in such numbers?”
Other vineyard managers said that the damage from predators had stolen a significant fraction of their crop this year. That’s heartbreaking.
But there’s more. Grape vines are subject to so many diseases that I sometimes wonder why anyone would get into this business. And as we approached the end of the year, we took a class with Lucie Morton, who has just been named one of the twenty most admired people in the North American wine industry by Vineyards and Winery Management magazine. Lucie is deeply concerned these days about a new grape vine disease, Red Blotch. This is a new one, and we only know so much about it. But the biggest concern is that vineyard nurseries can’t guarantee that their “certified” stock is free from Red Blotch. Lucie recommends waiting at least another year to order new vines. But those of us who planted over the past two years can only hope for the best.
We’ll be taking samples and sending them off to a (very expensive) test lab to see if they are free from Red Blotch. And while we’re at it, we’ll test for Leaf Roll 1, 2 and 3, plus Pierce’s Disease. We’ll be heartbroken if they’re infected, but better to know now then to nurse infected vines along for another year.
Well, my grandfather, who farmed 1,000 acres or so of corn, wheat, soy and other crops in Iowa, dealt each year with the vagaries of weather, prices, and disease, not to mention the Great Depression, which put many of his neighbors out of business. He knew that farming was a challenge in the best of times, but he always kept faith that next year’s crop would be better than the one before it.
And we are optimistic as well – no matter what, we think that next year is ours – the year our vines will be ready to produce a crop of grapes that we’ll turn into some really fantastic wine. Get ready to raise your glass.
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.
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 the bite off.
That leaves open the question of why the Brix was so low in these vines. One possibility is that they were positioned at a point on our property that gets sun later in the morning, depriving them of an hour or so a day of potential ripening. Another is that they are a different clone from the rest of our Cab Franc. For these first, experimental vines, I had just wanted some stock to play with, and I wasn’t all that selective. There wasn’t much left to choose from at the time I ordered.
The clone we got is a UC Davis varietal. For the real vineyard, we were very selective. We picked a French ENTAV clone, specifically the ENTAV 214, which in the view of many is the best. Lucie Morton, the distinguished Virginia vineyard consultant, says that one reason Virginia wines, including Cab Franc, had come out so badly in the early years is that we were using bad clones. I believe she’s an advocate of the ENTAV 214, and who knows – maybe that made the difference. I may keep these UC Davis FPS (Foundation Plant Service) vines because they are pretty vigorous, but I think I’ll crush them separately from the rest of the vineyard.
In any event, when we arrived this weekend, the grapes had mysteriously vanished. A clue about what happened came Sunday morning while my wife, Chris – the Vineyard Goddess – was spraying the vines. She discovered a bird trapped in the netting, and naturally, she called me to deal with it.
OK, I sprung the little bird. But first, I gave it a stern talking to about the importance of respecting other people’s property. In particular, my property. I warned the little fellow that I wouldn’t be so nice next time, and told him to pass the word on to his friends.
I’m not sure he got all that, but I set him loose anyhow. He took off without a word of thanks.
I gotta say, this really is a tough business. You work so hard all season long to nurture the grapes along to the point that they’re ready to be made into wine, and then, at that very moment, all of nature descends upon the vineyard to feast on the fruit.
It’s enough to make you want to quit.
Well, my grandfather was a farmer in Iowa, and no matter how bad things got – and each year had its own set of challenges – he remained optimistic. He was always looking forward to the next spring planting and the next fall harvest (corn and wheat, not grapes).
I’m his grandson, and I inherited a bit of his spirit. And so I am sure, absolutely sure, that next year will be perfect. And I’m sure beyond any doubt that nature, from the weather to the critters, will cooperate and provide us a harvest of perfect grapes.
But just in case, I’m putting up more bird netting and reinforcing the deer fence. A weekend viticulturist can’t be too careful.
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.
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. Continue Reading–>
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!)
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
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
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–>
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
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.
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.
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.
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–>