A night in the Vineyard — with Snow

October 29, 2011 | By | Reply More

Before explaing why we found outselves in the vineyard late last night with the snow coming down, let me give you a little background, which hopefully will assure you that we are not crazy.  Not completely, anyhow.

Planting a Cab Franc vine
Planting the vines under sunny skies. Now it’s time to protect them from Mother Nature.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of weather in vineyard management.  Obviously weather is a factor in all things agricultural – there’s not a farmer in the world who doesn’t keep at least one eye on the sky throughout the growing season – but it raises very specific and difficult issues when it comes to viticulture.  Vines, after all, aren’t annual crops.  It takes three or more years to bring vines to the point where a crop can be harvested, and they can be be expected to bear fruit for decades after that, which means they must be nurtured through hot, humid summers and cold winters.

 I also talked about the importance of site selection in my last post, and it turns out that many of the issues in selecting a vineyard property boil down to coping with weather.

 For example, a late frost can cost you an entire growing season.  No grapes, no wine, and (if this is your business), no money – although you’ll still have to undergo the expense of caring for the vines throughout the growing season  And a serious winter freeze – one in which temperatures drop well below zero – can cost you the entire vineyard.  That’s why wine-grape growers in Virginia look for property with an appropriate elevation.  In much of the area east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, elevations above 800 feet are highly desirable, since they bring you into a sweet spot of a thermocline where warmer air is trapped.  Optimal elevations, those within a thermal belt or thermocline, vary by region. In our area (the Monticello AVA), I believe that elevations of 800 to 1500 feet above sea level (ASL) are optimal.  Any higher or lower and you risk problems from frosts and freezes.

Our home vineyard is about 750 feet ASL, which is probably not ideal, but not bad either.  Also important is where your property is located in relation to other properties.  No matter what the elevation, if you’re lower than everything around you, you’ll be dealing with the cold.  And if you’re higher, you be in much better shape.   Cold air flows down, which is one of the reasons slopes are so helpful to a vineyard.  There’s a lot of land around us that is much lower.  And absolute elevation is only one factor.

 In any event, the weather forecast for this weekend was for snow on Saturday with temperatures sinking below freezing.  That caused us great concern.  While temperatures above zero, especially in the high 20s and low thirties should not threaten the average vineyard, new vines, like ours, require special consideration.  The graft union, where vitis vinifera scions (or vines) join American rootstock, is especially vulnerable in the early years.  Probably not so vulnerable that they wouldn’t survive the weekend’s weather, but the Vineyard Goddess and I are conservative about such matters.  We (especially she) have put a lot of time and effort into this vines, and we are very hopeful that we will someday get a gallon or two of wine from them.  We really don’t want to lose them to the first winter frost.

 Which brings me to the story of why we found ourselves in the vineyard at 9:45 last night, after a two hour drive to Nelson County, hilling over our seven vines in the snow. “Hilling over” involves building a mound of dirt sufficiently high to cover the graft union and a couple of inches of the trunk above that.  Dirt has excellent insulating qualities, and will protect the vines during the winter from temperature extremes. 

 Night isn’t the ideal time for any of this work – I did most of the digging, the Vineyard Goddess did most of the hilling, and we shared responsibility for holding the flashlight – but we did it.  And I have to say, the VG loved being out in the snow and working the vineyard.  I suppose it’s better than working it on a humid, 100-degree day.  Phoenix, the Vineyard Dog, was outside with us through most of this adventure, but he clearly decided that the warmth of the house was better than a cold, wet night in the vineyard.  He beat me back to the house, and waited outside the door, giving me a look that said, “you can stay out if you want, but I’d like to go back in if you don’t mind.”

But it worked out fine for all of us.  We finished the work and spent the rest of the evening inside, enjoying a glass of wine and a lovely fire in our wood-burning stove, secure in the knowledge that our vines are safe.  Which, of  course, made the fire feel so much warmer and the wine taste so much better! 


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Category: All Posts, Viticulture

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