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Viognier | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: Viognier

You Never Forget Your First Crush

Scott Elliff of DuCard Vineyards once told me that harvest was a joyous time, the culmination of a year’s hard labor tending the vines.  And on September 21, after four years of planning, preparation, and hard work, we experienced that joy in our own vineyard, picking grapes from the vines we had planted with our own hands and nurtured like our own children.  If I’m at this ten years from now, I’m sure I’ll still find joy in the harvest, but I doubt that it will be anything like the euphoria I felt as we picked those first Cab Franc grapes this year.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

To recap a bit, the Vineyard Goddess and I began this adventure some four years ago.  We took classes on viticulture and enology at Piedmont Virginia Community College, did lots of research on our own, debated which clones and which rootstocks to order, and finally planted our vineyard in the (very) early spring of 2012. Since then, we’ve invested a lot of sweat, a couple of tears and even a little blood (I snipped my finger with the pruning snips during the harvest) in bringing those vines to the point where they were ready to produce a crop of grapes worthy of picking.

And, oh my God – did those vines ever produce!

The Cab Franc and the Petit Verdot were absolutely magnificent:  nearly perfect fruit that proved irresistible to the bees that laid siege to those rows of vines.  The Merlot, for whatever reason, fell behind.  I had thought we’d pick the Merlot first among the reds, and by all rights we should have. But after accumulating sugar at a rapid pace, the Merlot vines just shut down.  We picked them October 5, and I’m hoping for the best.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

The Viognier was disappointing.  Virginia-grown Viognier makes a wonderful wine, but it’s hard to grow.  For some reason it’s subject to something called primary bud abortion, and I guess our vines experienced that phenomenon, because the Viognier was the least fruitful of all our varieties.  The grapes looked lovely, but I had expected about 100 pounds or so, and we got about 20.  Other vineyards around the Commonwealth had the same experience, though on a totally different scale (the difference between tons and tens of pounds).

The last of our varietals is Petit Manseng, and those grapes looked beautiful when we harvested them two weekends ago.  We want to make a desert wine from them, and so we let them hang a bit longer than we might have.  We had hoped they would accumulate a little more sugar and lose a little more acid.  If we had known we were in for some pretty significant rain the week prior, we might have chosen differently, but weekend vintners like us have to make some tough decisions and then live with them. As it turned out, we didn’t get the extra sugar or the lower acidity. We’ll work with it.

But getting back to where I started, there are some things you never forget.  I can still remember the first crushes of my life – the first time I saw the Vineyard Goddess in the newsroom of our college newspaper, the first book I really fell in love with (thank you, James Joyce), the first time I saw my children, and the first time I saw Venice, walking out from the train station on a beautiful sunlight day to see the Grand Canal sparkling with life.  Some things you just never forget.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

And so, I don’t want to get too sentimental about this, but when we had finished picking the Cab Franc on that beautiful September morning, the VG and I hugged and felt a sense of euphoria. All those years, all that sweat, and all that worry behind us; now we had the fruit of our labor in front of us, collected in a dozen five-gallon Home Depot buckets.  It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

A little detail: we had gotten up at first light that morning to pick, and we finished before the sun hit the vines.  The early morning, especially this time of the year, is cool, and you want the grapes to hit the crush pad (i.e., our driveway in Fairfax) cool. The crush, by the way, is the term applied to the harvest and the process of preparing the grapes for fermentation.

As we picked, we stored buckets in a refrigerator we had purchased just for this task.  With the shelves removed, we could fit six buckets, stacked on top of each other, separated by the shelves I had pulled out and repurposed.  As we brought more grapes up from the vineyard, we pulled the buckets from the frig and dumped them into a 120 quart cooler from Costco.  When it was filled, we pulled out smaller coolers.  The grapes were cool to the touch right up to the crush, and the must came in at around 60 degrees or lower.

As it turned out, picking the grapes was the easy part.  I had done a lot of research and reading, a lot of planning, and a lot of online shopping for the equipment and supplies we would need.  But for all that work, when it got down to actually making the wine, I found myself in the weeks before the harvest feeling a bit lost.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes -- this is about half the load of Cab Franc.  We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes — this is about half the load of Cab Franc. We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

So, before we picked the first grapes, I started making a cheat sheet.  It went something like this:

First, add sulphur at a rate of 50 parts per million (.33 grams per gallon), which kills off unwanted natural yeasts and protects the must (the mix of juice, skins, seeds, and stems that will turn into wine) during those vulnerable hours before fermentation begins.  Next, check the brix, pH and TA (titratable acidity) of the must (add a dozen steps here). Rehydrate the yeast (add a half-dozen steps here).  And so on.  (Add dozens and dozens of individual steps.)  And for all that, I found myself furiously reading the instructions (again) on my lab test equipment to be sure I knew how to test the TA, and reading other literature on hydrating and preparing yeast.

When we arrived back in Fairfax, we started with the easy stuff: the sorting table.  We had purchased a folding table, which turned out to be the perfect place for the family and friends to gather around for some work and talk. Kind of like what I imagine a quilting bee was like a century or so ago. We pulled some chairs around the table, and the VG and I, plus daughter Kate and a couple of neighbors, sorted the grapes. That’s easy and straightforward, but it’s also very time consuming.

The fruit was amazing, so we didn’t throw away very much at all.  Mostly, we were looking for MOG – matter other than grapes.  We found the occasional spider web (with the spider, in most cases, which elicited a few screams), and some extra leaves and such. But the fruit that went into the crusher was just about perfect.

The crusher-destemmer was way more of a machine than we really needed.  It crushed the fruit faster than we could drop it in, and we were finished with that part of the process in maybe ten minutes.  Honestly, cleaning it took way longer than the actual crushing.  But I’m still glad I bought it.  More on that in another post.

In the end, the Cab Franc yielded some 20 gallons of must – juice, grape skins, seeds and some stems that fell through the destemmer.  As luck would have it, I had a 20 gallon bucket on hand to catch it all.  Again, we’re still on the easy part.

The cooler is getting full!

The cooler is getting full!

I weighed the sulphur (potassium metabisulphite), mixed it with distilled water and added it to the must. And then, I spent hours measuring the pH and TA and brix, deciding whether to adjust the sugar level or acidity (I decided not to), and preparing to pitch the yeast.  And in between, I cleaned out the crusher, the extra buckets, and everything else I used in the process.  Not to mention sanitizing everything that came into contact with the must.

I have always used potassium metabisulphite for sanitizing, but now, with my own grapes at stake, I worried a bit.  I had used sulphites at 50 ppm to protect the must, and the mix for the sanitizing solution was much stronger than 50ppm. So I decided to go with Star San, an acid-based sanitizer that requires no rinsing afterward.  Pretty much every bone in my body was calling for sulphur, but I resisted.

It was some day.  We were in the vineyard at about 7 a.m., and it was close to 10 before I pitched the yeast, which started the fermentation (Not right away mind you; no, the yeast played with me, waiting days before they actually began to ferment the must).

Much of the time spent that day involved nothing more than anxiety – wanting to get everything just right and worrying that I was getting everything just wrong – but another part of it was the actual physical labor involved. By the time the day was over, I was exhausted, and the memory of hugging the Vineyard Goddess at the end of the harvest was just that – a distant memory.

Well, I suppose in the end, it’s like dating the first girl you had a crush on – the hopes, the anxiety, the desire to get everything just right, the certainty that you have gotten everything totally wrong, and the physical exhaustion that comes from working so hard.

But I’m hoping this crush is like the time I laid eyes on the Vineyard Goddess for the first time.  If this crush is as perfect as that one, we’ll have a wine for the ages.

 

 

 

 

October 31, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

Preparing for the Harvest – Part II

The bladder press is a lovely piece of equipment. below the juice channel, you can see the connector for the garden hose.

The bladder press is a lovely piece of equipment. below the juice channel, you can see the hook-up for the garden hose.

After three years and more of work and study, we’re close to our first harvest.  We started in 2010 with our first classes on viticulture at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and moved on to researching and ordering vines in early 2011.  We’ve spent three y ears nursing those vines along, and now some of the varieties – the Viognier especially – are only days away from being ready to pick.  (With the rest a bit further behind.)  And for all the time we’ve had to think about these things,  found myself scrambling in these last few months to make sure I knew what I was doing and had the equipment to do it with.

In some ways, assembling the small items – the yeasts, the beakers, the malolactic bacteria and the like, which I discussed in my last post – was the easiest part of assembling a home winery.  Those items mainly required research and an hour or so on the More Wine site.  The big items – the crush-destemmer, the bladder press, and the barrel room – though few in number, posed the biggest challenge.

Because they were the most expensive items I ordered, I spent quite a bit of time agonizing over the crusher and press.  There are lots of choices at very different price points, and I wanted to order equipment that would be adequate for the task without going overboard.

The crusher destemmer has two tasks. First, it gently crushes the grapes, so that, in the case of reds, they are ready to begin fermentation, and, in the case of whites, they are ready for the press.  Second, it separates the stems (which contain bitter tannins) from the grapes.  The stems fall out through one side of the crusher-destemmer into a bucket, and the grapes and juice fall into a fermenter.

Crusher-destemmr on its stand.  I built the wood dolly with plywood, 2x4 lumber and 3 inch wheels.

Crusher-destemmr on its stand. I built the wood dolly with plywood, 2×4 lumber and 3 inch wheels.

I would have preferred that it work in the opposite order, first so that there’s no risk of the stems being crushed, and second, so that the two processes could be separated allowing me to destem without crushing if I chose to.  But that’s a whole different price range, and all in all, I’m pretty happy with the motorized, stainless-steel machine I purchased.  I did wonder briefly if it was overkill for the quantity of grapes I’m likely to be processing, but I tell myself that it’s an investment in the future.  Yeah, that’s the ticket, an investment in the future!

I also ordered a bladder press, which is used to press the juice off the skins and seeds of the grapes.  The bladder press is pricier than the more traditional-looking basket presses (think wood stave sides and a ratchet handle at the top that is turned to push down a plate to squeeze the grapes), but all of the literature I’ve read suggests the bladder press is a much better choice.  The bladder inside the press fills with water from a garden hose to expand gently, pressing the grapes against a screen that lets the juice flow out, while the skins are kept inside.  It’s actually quite a beautiful piece of hardware.

After I unpackaged the crusher-destemmer, admired it, let it sit on the shipping pallet for a couple of weeks (it’s really heavy), I came face to face with a small mistake.  I hadn’t ordered a stand for it, reasoning that I could use sawhorses or something similar to hold it high enough to let the crushed grapes fall into a fermenter.

Inside the bladder press - the bladder at the center fills with water and expands to gently squeeze the grapes.

Inside the bladder press – the bladder at the center fills with water and expands to gently squeeze the grapes.

Well, not quite. It turns out the crushed grapes fall through the entire length of the bottom of the crusher, and need to be funneled into some kind of container, either a small fermenter or buckets to carry the grapes to a larger fermenter.  So, I turned back to MoreWinemaking, which is where I bought the crusher to see about a stand.  It cost $325, which isn’t terrible, but it would have cost nearly as much to ship it, since it has to go by truck.  That just seemed wrong, somehow.  I had paid one shipping cost for both the crusher and bladder press, and while the shipping was expensive, it was still only a fraction of the cost of the two pieces of equipment.  In the case of the stand, I just couldn’t bring myself to pay as much for shipping as for the item itself.

So, I tried other vendors, and the story was the same everywhere, until I stumbled across Carolina Wine Supply.  They were willing to ship it UPS or FedEx, unassembled in a flat box, for something like $25.  Definitely a company I’ll be doing more business with.

For what it’s worth, having equipment shipped by truck isn’t exactly a trouble-free process.  They really want to ship to businesses with loading docks, not to suburban homes, and the cost goes up significantly for the latter.  Moreover, they expect you to make arrangements to be there when they arrive, which can be difficult because they don’t always provide much advance warning.  I was able to bargain with the trucking company to leave the items on my driveway while I wasn’t home, which worked after a couple of false starts, but it did mean I waived my rights to inspect the items for damage.  Well, you work with what you got.

At some point over the summer, I began to wonder where I would store the wine while it was fermenting and aging.  Once the initial fermentation is complete, the wine goes into glass carboys for secondary fermentation and, later, for aging.  I have quite a number of glass carboys, and it occurred to me that spreading them across the garage wasn’t practical.

A six gallon glass carboy is heavy to begin with, but once full, it weighs an additional 48 pounds, so moving a full carboy around is physically demanding and mentally harrowing.  If it slips from your hands and breaks, you end up with a garage full of spilled wine and broken glass.  Not good.

Still under construction, my garage "barrel room" will hold at least 15 six-gallon carboys of wine.

Still under construction, my garage “barrel room” will hold at least 15 six-gallon carboys of wine.

So, I’m constructing a garage “barrel room” that should be large enough to hold 15 six galloncarboys on three shelves, plus either large plastic fermenters, small oak barrels or more carboys on the floor. The shelves are installed at a 15 degree angle, which makes it easier to insert a wine thief or racking cane into the back shelf.  By using a pump to move wine, I’ll never have to lift a full carboy.

The very top shelf will hold an assortment of one gallon jugs, supplies etc., and a 5,000 BTU air conditioner mounted near the top will keep it cool inside. I have most of the inside finished, but need to build the doors and mount the air conditioner.

I’m pretty pleased with the way this home “barrel room,” looks, and I have to credit Steve Hughes’ book,The Homebuilt Winery.  The book includes the plans, but fair warning, the average person will probably want to spend some time studying and interpreting the plans.  I’ve done a lot of home construction projects in my time, and I have a pretty complete workshop, but I still found some parts of these plant to be a chore to figure out.  So, while I like the book a lot, I wish it had provided a bit more detail for some of the projects.

However, the idea for the barrel room was worth the cost of the book, and the plans were adequate to get me through the project.  The book also gave me the inspiration to build a dolly to move the crusher-destemmer around, and there are a few other projects that I might eventually take on.  For the really ambitious, he shows you how to build your own ratchet press and destemmer, and a dozen or so other things. All in all, it’s a book I’d recommend for the aspiring Garagista.

We’re hoping to harvest Viognier in just a few days, though with rain in sight, that may not happen.  Hopefully the grapes have another week in them before they start to become over-ripe.  I was thinking of picking last week, but the brix (sugar level) was at 21, a few points lower than I wanted.  The decision on when to harvest is based on lots of things, including ripenesss and the weather forecast, and you don’t always get the perfect combination.  Waiting can be stressful, and it was hard to resist picking those Viognier grapes last week.  A friend at a nearby winery counseled me to wait and deal with the stress, adding, “don’t lose your nerve!”

Well, I haven’t.  At least not yet!

September 12, 2014 | By | 1 Reply More

Saving Our Grapes from Birds and Other Predators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

The hooks that hold the netting to the catch wire.

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

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

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

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

July 22, 2014 | By | 4 Replies More

A Tough Year for a Weekend Vintner

It was a tough year to be a weekend vintner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, that was not the case.

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

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

But then it started to rain. Continue Reading–>

November 26, 2013 | By | Reply More

Just off the Grape Press: New Editors

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 Grape Press cover 1very 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.

 

 

April 5, 2013 | By | 1 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

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
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