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viticulture | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: viticulture

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

If we’re winter pruning, then Spring must be close

Maintaining a vineyard is a year-round enterprise.  Even in the winter, after the vines go into a dormant state, there’s work to be done.  In fact, dormant winter pruning is among the most time-consuming work of the year, and some of the most important as well, since it involves decisions that will affect not just the coming season’s growth, but the year after as well.

Vines before pruning - a bit of a tangled mess

Vines before pruning – a bit of a tangled mess

Most of the objectives of dormant pruning fall under the heading of “balance.”  Vines will grow just fine on their own, with no pruning at all, but most of their energy will go toward producing shoots and leaves, rather than grapes. Absent any intervention, the vines will continue to grow skyward for so long as they can find support.  The whole purpose of a trellis system and the pruning decisions that go with it are to force the vine to direct its energy toward the production of high-quality fruit rather than vegetative growth.

So we’re looking for balance as we decide which shoots and how many buds to retain.  Prune away too much and the vine will be undercropped, producing less fruit than it can reasonably support.  Prune away too little and it will be overcropped, producing a profusion of leaves and  shoots, as well as an abundance of fruit that is destined to be of low quality.

During the growing season, we’ll drop some fruit from the vine, again to direct energy toward the remaining clusters in the hopes of producing more concentrated and higher-quality grapes.  But the first decisions we make that will determine the quantity and quality of the season’s fruit are those made in the dead of winter.

Which is to say, when it’s cold outside.  Really, really cold.  Not to mention snowing every few days or so.  (Or maybe it just seemed that way this winter.) Which is one of the reasons we’ve put off pruning.

The other, more noble reason for delaying our pruning, has to do with timing.  It’s better not to prune too early in the season – the untouched vines will survive a cold spell much better than those that have been pruned back, and by waiting, you’ll have more options in the case of a late freeze that damages buds and shoots.

It’s helpful to be able to assess the vine late in the winter for cold injury before deciding which canes to remove and which few to retain. In our little hobby vineyard, we have the luxury of delaying for almost as long as we want to start dormant pruning.  Commercial vineyards that have acres of vines to prune, don’t have that luxury.  They need to start early enough to be able to finish the job before budbreak.  But many vineyards employ a technique of double pruning, going through once early in the winter to trim away the shoots they know won’t be used, and returning later to finish up the job.

Post pruning, these vines are ready to go.  Although we had hoped to cane prune everything, we settled for spur pruning when it was our only choice.

This cane-pruned vine is finished on the left arm, only partly done on the right. Click on the picture for a better view.

Our vines are all trained to a trellis system known as vertical shoot positioning, of VSP, and we have adopted a pruning method known as cane pruning.  In cane pruning, most of the previous year’s growth is pruned away, and two one-year old shoots, which have now achieved the status of canes, are retained and trained in either direction along the bottom, or fruiting wire.  These canes – the one-year old wood – will give rise to new shoots this summer, and these new shoots are the part of the vine that will bear fruit.

At the same time, we’ll be looking for renewal spurs below this year’s fruiting canes.  These will be pruned back to one or two buds to provide the fruiting canes for the following year.

I’ve taken a class or two on pruning, and I’ve done lots of reading and studied more videos on the Internet than I can count.  So, of course, I should be an expert.  And in theory I am.  I know a lot about the why’s and how’s of pruning.  But the actual pruning – the time when you come face to face with a vine and decide what to lop off and what to keep – that’s a whole different story.  I still remember my first pruning session.  I was sure that I was going to destroy the vine, and I stared at it for what seemed like hours before I worked up the nerve to make that initial cut.  I’ve gotten a little more confident, but only a little.  I still spend way too much time on each vine.  Fortunately, we only have 230 vines now, so I can get away with  it.

When the Vineyard Goddess and I got out a few weeks ago – and yes, we chose a weekend when the temperatures were in the 60s – we realized that we had not maintained the vines as well as we should have in the previous year.  No neglect, just the kinds of mistakes you make early on.  A number of the vines were just fine, but others lacked the kind of year-old shoots we were looking for to train to the cordon wire.

So, we made some adjustments.  On the vines that had perfect one-year old shoots, we cut away everything else and tied these canes down.  On those that didn’t, we resorted to a different pruning method called spur or cordon pruning.

In spur pruning, a cordon is tied down to the wire and used year after year.  The shoots from the previous year are pruned down to two buds, which will give rise to fruitful wood for the current season.  It’s more like a haircut, and most people would say it’s a far easier method of pruning than cane pruning.  And it works well for at least the first decade.  At some point, however, these cordons grow thick from age and produce fewer spurs.  Moreover, they’re more prone to disease.  It’s the same with people.  The older you get, the more opportunity your body has to develop diseases.

Which method is better?  Well, they each have advantages and disadvantages.  Jim Law, founder and owner of Linden Vineyards, said he started with spur pruning, which worked well for years, but eventually moved to cane pruning, after the disadvantages  – disease in particular  – began to outweigh the advantages.

Our thought, however, is that we’ll spur prunes those vines that need it this year, while leaving some buds that we hope will give rise to canes that can be trained to the wire in 2015.  And while I remain hopeful that our vines will produce some wonderful fruit thisyear for making wine, I am confident that we’ll do even better next year and better still in each of the succeeding years.  After all, this is a learning experience, and Lord knows, we’re learning.

March 20, 2014 | By | Reply More

Wines that Won’t Break the Bank

Cheap Wine By Jeff Siegel

If you’re serious about wine, then Jeff Siegel’s volume on inexpensive value wine isn’t the only book you need to read.  But you might be better off if it’s the first one you read, and the wine-consuming world might be a better place if everyone did the same.

Why?  Because Mr. Siegel, known to fans of his blog as “The Wine Curmudgeon,” dispenses with the “wine-speak” blather that is meant to intimidate consumers and offers instead the Cheap wineradical notion that it’s okay to like wine that doesn’t cost a lot.  Not that there’s anything wrong with an expensive Bordeaux – depending upon the bottle, there will probably be a great deal to like about it – but it’s important  for novices to recognize that “Cheap Wine” can be good wine.  In fact, winemaking and viticulture techniques have improved to the point that the least expensive bottle of wine on the shelves at Costco or Trader Joe’s will likely be at least drinkable, if not actually enjoyable.  And with a little care, you can pick wine that is both inexpensive and good.

“Wine doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be enjoyable,” he writes.  “Call it cheap.  Call it inexpensive.  Call it a value wine.  But whatever you call it, it doesn’t have to be expensive.  Just $10 – and often less – will buy a perfectly acceptable and often excellent bottle of wine.”

What I like most about Mr. Siegel’s approach is that he makes wine approachable for folks that might otherwise stick with beer or vodka.  Wine can be intimidating for the newcomer, and too many wine writers, sommeliers, and even the staff in tasting rooms seem to delight in making in making wine something of a black art that only the initiated can understand.

As I write this, I’m sipping a $14 bottle of 2009 Barolo that I bought at Trader Joe’s.  As it happens, I had purchased this wine a few months ago and discovered last week when I opened it that it was “corked,” which is to say, inflicted with that wet-dog smell that comes from TCA taint.  I returned it to TJs, and without asking a question, they replaced the bottle.  So here’s a little side note:  trust yourself, and don’t be afraid to return a bottle that you think is corked or which otherwise suffers from a real wine flaw.  Chances are, the guy behind the counter knows less than you do about wine.

The replacement bottle was wonderful, and that brings me back to the real point of this story, which is that wine need not be expensive to be good.  Sometimes, in fact, cheaper is better — for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Continue Reading–>

February 14, 2014 | By | Reply 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

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

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

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

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

Our Vineyard

A view of our vineyard

We decided a year ago, after planting a small, educational vineyard (i.e., seven vines, planted for the sole purpose of getting some hands-on experience with viticulture) to forego the use of grow tubes.  That was a tough choice.  Almost every vineyard we’ve visited nurtures young vines in grow tubes, and there’s probably good reason to use them in large commercial undertakings.

But we decided against them for our small hobby vineyard for reasons that we think make sense.  Most of the research we’ve looked at suggests that vines raised without grow tubes do better in the long run than those that spend their formative months inside protective shelters.  We happened to speak to a vintner from South Africa over the weekend, and he echoed our views, noting that he had not even seen a grow tube before arriving in the United States.  He still believes, he said, that the vines are better off without them.

But, of course, everything comes with a price.  And this weekend, we got a real taste of the price you pay for growing vines without protective shelters.

The main reason vineyards love grow tubes is because it makes cultivation easy.  You can spray herbicides such as Round Up around the vine to kill off the weeds without having to worry that your Cab Franc will die with them.  Okay, I know that’s not a controversy-free statement.  Advocates of organic wine, natural wine, biodynamic farming and so on will object right off the bat to the use of herbicides, however easy they make the task of maintaining a vineyard.  And my heart is mostly with them, for a variety of reasons I’ll explore in future posts.  But the fact is, keeping the weeds down without Round Up can be just plain drudgery.

Trust me, I have the aching muscles to prove it.

Our battery-powered cultivator, standing tall and proud

Now, it’s true that our vineyard is small.  Right now we have only 150 vines, and the space they take up wouldn’t fill a small corner of even the smallest of the Commonwealth’s commercial vineyards.  So we thought we could afford a few luxuries when it came to maintaining the vineyard.  But it turns out that pulling weeds by hand is work – really, really, really hard work.

We started off a few weeks ago with nothing more than a hoe and our own hands.  And by “we,” I mean my wife, the Vineyard Goddess, as I was still recovering from surgery on my cervical spine (Level 4 ACDF for those of you who know or care about these things).  I was there in spirit, but it was the Vineyard Goddess who was working the soil with a hoe, and then kneeling down to pull the weeds by hand.  I wasn’t actually there, but I have no doubt that it was slow, painful work.

And I know that, because we talked about it.  I might have been unable to do physical labor, but I was still available as a consultant, and it occurred to me that there might be mechanical devices to help with this chore.  Sure enough, there are.  My preference would have been a small, gas-powered cultivator, but with our very steep slopes, we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to control it well enough to avoid damage to the vines.

We looked at the somewhat smaller electrical tillers, both corded and battery-powered, and settled on the latter.  The corded ones are probably perfect for a garden located next to the house, but our vineyard is a significant hike from the house.  And the furthest rows are, as they say, “a fur piece.” Continue Reading–>

July 10, 2012 | By | 8 Replies More

Pruning and training first-year vines

 First-Year Vines Need Lots of Care

I’m still in the process of recovering from surgery and so unable to travel or tend a vineyard, but it turns out the vines are growing perfectly well without me.  Who knew?

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

Still, young vines still need lots of care.  In my absence, Chris, the Vineyard Goddess, and daughter Kate were on site in Afton last weekend to prune the vines, tie shoots to the training stakes and handle other assorted chores (mowing and spraying, among them), and once again they provided pictures and a full report from the front.

Tying the shoot to the training stake is an essential part of the vine’s development, and it turns out that there’s more than one approach to pruning and training first-year vines.  Tony Wolf’s Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America, for example, suggests leaving two or three shoots on the young vine, so that you’ll have something left if deer or other predators find their way into the vineyard and begin chowing down, or if one or more shoots simply break.

Here’s the Cab Francs after pruning and tying.

Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe’s vineyard manager and a regular columnist for WineMaker magazine, suggests a different approach.  Choose the best of the shoots, tie it to the training stake and then – once you are certain that the shoot you’ve chosen is safely on the stake – prune away the remaining shoots and any swelling buds.  We went with this approach, and hopefully we’ll finish the season with strong and relatively straight trunks to support the vines in the years to come.

You can see the results in the photos.

I remain hopeful that in another week or so I’ll be able to see the new vines for myself, but for now, it’s nice to know that they’re independent enough to carry on without me.  And also nice to know that Kate is able to handle the mowing activities.  Believe me, handling a lawnmower on a 15-20 degree slope is no picnic, and I won’t be in a position to use the tractor for a number of months.  (Driving a tractor across the slopes is no picnic either; the pucker factor is always present!)

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

All of the nearby pictures were taken before she mowed, so the vineyard is looking a bit ragged in these shots.  The rows themselves are pretty clean (with the possible exception of the Mammolos), although in some pictures, the camera angle makes it look otherwise.

By the way, keeping the rows clean can be a challenge.  We decided not to use grow tubes to protect the vines, so spraying in the row with Roundup or another herbicide is more difficult and probably out of the question.  However, our vineyard is small enough that we’re hoping to keep the rows clean by hand.  (We’ll be getting out the hoe next visit —   and probably the kneepads too, since at some point we’ll undoubtedly be down at ground level pulling weeds by hand!)

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

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

June 8, 2012 | By | Reply More
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