VineStress - A blog about starting a wine label from scratch in Oregon... Home | About | Wine and Vine News | Links | Subscribe

Monday, December 31, 2007

Monitoring your vineyard's mesoclimate

My last post of the year is another vineyard tip courtesy of Michael over at Amigoni Family Vineyards. He plants thermometers variously throughout his vineyard blocs to record variance in temperature of the mesoclimate. Because of slope, air flow, elevation, location of forested areas and water, etc., the temperature can vary greatly. Having a thermometer posted in each bloc, or even several for a larger bloc, can allow you to see that variance in action during a simple stroll through the vineyard.

Michael uses basic thermometers that also record the high and low temperature for a season by marking the extremes. This is especially useful here in Missouri where winter freezes can mean mortality for vinifera varietals. If you notice a temperature variance of several degrees in a winter low, say -10 degrees Fahrenheit at the top of the hill versus -13 in the middle of a slope, then you might want to plant your Chardonnay higher up and save your Cab Franc for the middle and maybe hybrids at the bottom, or avoid planting the bottom altogether. High temperatures are also an issue. Ours is a continental climate, which means we have strong extremes in the summer, too. We have hot growing conditions, and cultivars like Pinot Noir and Riesling are going to prefer the cooler mesoclimates within a vineyard as long as the winter lows won't wipe them out. You may find that the spots with the lowest lows don't necessarily have the lowest highs, and vice versa.

One note on the term mesoclimate. Most people incorrectly use the term microclimate when they mean mesoclimate. It makes sense, everyone knows what "micro" means, not so for "meso." But there are three climates that affect a vineyard. First, theres the regional climate, or macroclimate. That's the thing that we can't change. It's specific to an entire growing region, and it's what makes the Rhone the Rhone, Burgundy Burgundy, the true Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, etc. Then there's the mesoclimate, which is your variance in climate from bloc to bloc and row to row. We can affect that through careful planting of varietals, the direction of the row in relation to the sun and also in the winery by blending grapes from one mesoclimate within a vineyard with those from another. That's the term most connoisseurs use when they're talking about a specific vineyard's growing conditions and the style of the wine it makes. Finally, there's the microclimate, which, according to every viticulturist's good friend Dr. Richard Smart, is "the climate within and immediately surrounding a plant canopy." The temperature and humidity can be vastly different inside a dense canopy as compared to a few inches away on the outside. This is what we have the most control over through canopy management practices such as leaf removal, trellising, shoot positioning and thinning.

That's it for this year. It's been a productive year for me. We've purchased a property and vines are on order. What's more, it's a varietal with proven success in our area and one that area winemakers are excited about. See you next year.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Article and blog links

_ Pinot Noir grape genome sequenced. I'm an English major and not so great with the sciencey stuff, so what does that mean in translation? Well there's talk about creating disease resistant Pinot Noir with the same flavor profile as the real stuff. If that happens I'll put a row or two in the ground as soon as I can get my hands on them.

_ Here's a nifty blog called Wine Rendezvous; it features some brief, witty videos that also have some actual information in them. The blog is a promotional vehicle for O-Chateau, a Paris wine tasting company. Cool stuff.

Review: Wine & War

Here’s a good read for when you’re iced in and your sprayer has been winterized, and before you start pruning. Despite its focus on the weighty subjects of the title, it’s easy reading, following anecdotes from winegrowers and winemakers from most of the great regions of France as they suffered under German occupation. It’s often amusing as when defiant vignerons build false walls in their cellars and re-label their plonk for shipment to Berlin. Other vignettes find winemakers facing execution for supporting the Resistance or helping to hide a Jewish family from the Gestapo. Growers also face shortages of labor for harvest or lack of copper for fungicide as the Germans commandeered all metals for their war effort. It will make you grateful that your greatest obstacle to growing good fruit is the weather, as nasty as it can sometimes be.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Jeffersonian viticulture

Wine is now being made in all 50 US states, as NPR notes in this story. The piece marks the second time I've heard discussion of Thomas Jefferson related to viticulture in the past few days. The Grape Radio guys recently posted a video from Virginia where the grower mentioned the early colonists' obsession with planting vineyards and Jefforson's own experiments with vitis vinifera in the east. "He failed miserably," notes Fletcher Henderson of The Winery at La Grange.

But the NPR story mentions that this Jeffersonian vision of a nation of backyard vineyards is finally coming to fruition more than two centuries later. It also cites that the number of wineries in this country has doubled in the past ten years. There is a renaissance happening. There are vineyards going up all over the place, a fact to which I can attest.

What's contributing to this change? Why are people planting vines on their farms or in their back yards in places like Minnesota? Is it Thomas Jefferson's prescience about the American spirit? Is it evolving conditions due to global climate change? Information sharing enabled by the "so-called Internets?" New cultivars? New techniques?

A certain amount of this can be attributed to the pioneering American spirit, Jeffersonian innovation if you will. But then China is also planting new vineyards at an incredible rate.

What seems to be happening here, though, isn't industrial viticulture. It is something done not necessarily for money, but because people are driven to do it. I'd love to make money off of our vines, but if I were to never break even I'd just be satisfied with producing good fruit. There is a sort of neo-pastoralism at work here, and I can't quite put my finger on it. I remember seeing dooryards in Beaune and Tuscany where every house featured its own vineyard, and it seems we are recapturing that sort of of pastoral Old World sensibility. Whether we do it as a natural pursuit of some rural aesthetic, or if is happening in artificially planned vineyard communities for the well-heeled, a broad cross-section of our society is getting into viticulture. Grapes are going in the ground. Wine is being made. And it's a beautiful thing.

I just called to add 50 more vines, another row, to next spring's planting of Cab Franc.

Happy holidays!


Monday, December 17, 2007

Easter Freeze wrap-up

I've already written at length about what is now called the Easter Massacre that affected the vineyards in our region. I was fortunate to be able to cover a workshop held on the event for my day job. Most interesting was the use of oils to delay budbreak, which I'll try to elaborate on in a post soon.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hilling vines

Growing vinifera in cool climates requires extra care. One additional step is hilling up of the soil around the base of the vine trunk. The goal is to cover the base of the vine up above the graft union where the rootstock is joined to the scion. If there is a hard freeze, there is a better chance of the vine surviving. The trunk will likely die, but enough wood might be insulated and preserved beneath the soil to grow a new trunk from the scion. This first photo shows two recently hilled vine rows.

There are several ways to hill up vines. Here, Michael Amigoni (aka the GoMV) at Amigoni Vineyards uses a small tractor with a side-mount grape hoe to push the mounds of soil up against the base of the vines. There are custom-designed rear-disc systems as well. The wider the mound, the greater it's insulating factor. Hilling up is essential, as a hard freeze can be devastating. In the Finger Lakes region, 25 percent of the vinifera were killed a freeze in 2004.

Planting your graft unions an inch or two off of the ground is essential for ease of hilling and to get the maximum amount of soil over the graft union, increasing the insulation factor. Here is a close-up of the hoe blade. Care must be taken to avoid damage to the vines, and one key is to ensure that the trunks are as straight as possible from proper planting and training. On a side note, multiple trunks help fend off cold damage. If one trunk is split or killed during a hard freeze, there's a chance that the second trunk might survive, ensuring that you don't lose an entire crop to that freeze event. Snow can also help insulate vines, but we don't get permanent snow cover here in central Missouri. Mounding can also be accomplished with mulch or straw, but soil has a greater insulation factor. It can be done by hand, as in this backyard vineyard.

Hilling vines is just one technique in reducing winter damage in cool climates. Trunk renewal is another technique; this involves training a new cane every few years to replace an older trunk so that you don't have all trunks of the same age. That way a freeze that kills the older trunks might spare the younger wood that has undergone fewer freezing winters and less mechanical (tractor) damage. Here's a great summary of some cold weather practices in Canada, where they're growing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and both Cabernets where it is not uncommon for winters to dip below -18 degrees. As rare as it is to find vinifera in our region, it is also as easy to forget that these European grape varietals has been growing in colder regions for many years and with much success. It's a challenge, but few things that are easy are worth doing.

* Update - 1/12/08 Here's an article on hilling in the OSU Wine-Grape newsletter

Friday, November 23, 2007

Article links

_ The two varietals I've got on order, Cab Franc and Mourvedre, are being grown in Georgia. And we're talking "Gerogia on my mind," and not "Georgia the cradle of winemaking" where grapes have been cultivated for wine for over 7,000 years.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wine and turkey

Mike Steinberger over at Slate has as a good recommendation for this Thanksgiving. Since wine-turkey pairing is the topic du jour, I thought I'd add my own suggestions. While I think I may take Steinberger up on the Oregon Pinot notion, I also might suggest a lesser known varietal also grown in Oregon. Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian varietal, reminiscent of Gewurtztraminer, that is very food-friendly white wine that has enough complexity to hold up to a big, strong bird like a turkey. And speaking of Gewurtz, why don't you give that a try, too? Traminette is a hybrid of Gewurtztraminer that is grown commonly in Missouri, and it would be an excellent choice.

As for other varietals grown in our area...a Cabernet Franc that's light on the oak might be just the red wine to consider. I believe that turkey is one of the most versitile creatures out there. Any number of wines can be paired with this queen of the table birds. Try a Viognier for a white. Or the Chambourcin from Augusta Winery here in Missouri for an ideal hybrid red.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Adventures in agricultural lime

I know that the first thing that crosses your mind when you twist out the cork of that last precious bottle of Pommard 1er Cru smuggled home in the half case in your carry-on luggage after your anniversary trip to France back in the days before the paranoia of the twittering fear mongers (nothing to fear but...) rendered corkscrews and even liquid itself verboten in-flight, before that rich, deep, very French odor of slate, raspberry and barnyard slips over the lip of the bottle, before your acknowledgement of the event you're celebrating, before your expectation of the table conversations that will be lubricated by maroon sunlight in bottle form, before the possibility slips through your consciousness of the extra-curricular activities (if you're lucky [sic!]) that might follow whatever event warrants such a fine bottle of magic...yes the first thing you will think of upon pulling that cork is, of course, the soil pH. Yes, you will wonder, yes, what exactly was the pH of the soil in which these grapes were grown?

Okay, maybe I'm making assumptions. In truth, unless the bottle belongs to a soil scientist, a vineyard manager, or someone with a serious problem, the last thing on your mind when you open a bottle of great wine will be the soil pH. After all, the acidity of the soil doesn't even relate, directly, to the pH in the finished wine. pH isn't a sexy wine word like "slate" or "shale" or "minerality," terms which have all become cliches among aficionados.

But soil pH is important if you're growing wine. The pH of the soil has an optimum range for vinifera, hybrids and native American varieties. Natives tolerate, and even prefer, the slightly higher acids of a low pH soil (remember, it's an inverse relationship, low pH = high acid). Cabernet franc, which I'm planting, prefers a pH of around 6.5. At this optimum range, soil nutrients are more accessible and are taken in at the right levels. While a low acid soil won't necessarily mean you wind up with a low acid wine, it can affect the overall health of the vine and thus the ripening and health of the fruit.

My soil tests showed that the pH of my first vineyard block at the new site was 5.5. Since I'm planting cab franc, I wanted to raise that pH to around 6.5. The way to do this, effectively lowering the soil acidity, is to add agricultural lime. It's a common necessity in our region. Your handy Extension person and or website can help you figure out exactly how much lime to add to your site to raise your soil pH.

Lime additions are calculated and measured and bought in tons. Even though I spent time growing up on a farm as a kid, I also lived in an apartment in Chicago for many years, so the idea of tons of anything is a foreign concept. I was sure it was going to be expensive to add appx. 800 lbs of ENM (effective neutralizing material, aka lime) to my one-acre bloc. Especially when a single 50-lb bag of pelleted lime cost six bucks.

There are two basic types of limestone...calcitic and dolomite. I have high magnesium content (call it 'mag' content to sound like you know what you're talking about) in my soil, so I wanted to add calcitic limestone as dolomite contains higher levels of magnesium. You can have too much of a good thing, and excessive levels of any nutrient can cause toxicity that is as dangerous, or even more dangerous, to your vines than not having enough nutrients. At first I planned on using bags of pellet lime, spreading them with a rented lawn spreader and a borrowed ATV. I thought this was a pretty clever solution, and when I figured out that it would cost me around 400 dollars to perform the entire operation, I was fairly satisfied. The problem was matching up the ENM rating of the limestone in question. ENM is measured in lbs per ton, so if you have limestone with a rating of 400 (per ton), and your experts tell you that you need to add 800 lbs of ENM, that means you need to add TWO tons of the material to reach your target. That's 4,000 lbs! A lot of stuff.

Once I figured this out, I grew cost was doubling, not to mention the workload. But then I learned you could buy lime by the 12-ton truckload. And what's more, a good agricultural co-op will deliver and spread it for you. The problem is that you need to buy a minimum of 12 tons. I thought this might cost a fortune, but then I learned I could get 12 tons for a couple hundred bucks...a fraction of the cost per ton than what I'd been planning to spend on bag lime. The only issue is that you have to have a place for them to spread the extra lime. I had them dump two tons on my one-acre spot (at 400 ENM per ton, that would mean I added the required 800 ENM to the bloc) and then spread the rest randomly around our property. That way I'll be ahead of the game when we plant new blocs in the future.

I had the field disked ahead of time to allow the lime to work down into the soil. I had to wait a few weeks for them to come out to our property as, believe it or not, 12 tons is not a very large project. They were liming area corn and bean farms with hundreds of tons, so they had to work me in. I met them at the vineyard, showed them where I needed the lime and they took care of the rest. I'll let it rain, then rip and then drag the bloc smooth in the spring to further spread the lime. I'll test again every year to to see how the lime levels are shaping up. A couple years down the road I can make adjustments as needed.

This is probably confusing to novices. It was very confusing to me, but now that I've gone through the process I have a pretty good handle on the hows and whys of spreading lime. I also understand concepts like acid rain better. This is a problem in the northeast...acid rain can reduce pH of soils into the low 4-range (increasing acidity). That would be no good for wine grapes of any variety.

So now at Thanksgiving or on your birthday or whenever you pop open that next great bottle of wine, maybe the soil pH will be the first thing you think about. I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

November-December vineyard calendar

Farming is a seasonal business. Everything you do is tied to what Mother Nature is going to throw your way. Sometimes all you can do is react, but there is also plenty you can do to prepare yourself and your vineyard.

I'm beginning a new feature. At the beginning of every month I'll try to establish a comprehensive checklist of all the seasonal items to accomplish in the vineyard. This is specifically tailored for my region and varieties, but I'm basing this off of several calendars I've seen, both from the ICCVE and the fantastic "Production Budgets for Arkansas Wine and Juice Grapes" document. (I can't find it online anymore, otherwise I'd link to it.) I'm lumping the next two months together because this is the slow part of the season and many of these tasks aren't tied to what's happening in the vineyard and can be performed at any time during the two-month period. Once I have the entire year covered, I'll keep the posts intact and simply review and adjust them as I learn from experience. I hope folks can find this a useful reference, and also feel free to make suggestions.

  1. Clean and winterize sprayer(s)

  2. Winterize irrigation system

  3. Check on/confirm vine orders for upcoming planting season

  4. Review season disease and pest damage and revise/adjust IPM (integrated pest management) strategy

  5. Check stock of supplies, list items needed to order

  6. Adjust soil pH (add lime) if necessary

  7. Prepare ground for new vineyard blocs

  8. Check trellis, perform repairs

  9. Hill up soil on grafted vines

  10. Clean sheds, garages, equipment

  11. Evaluate effectiveness of and repair/adjust deer fence

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An international obsession

When Missouri viticulture comes up in conversation, invariably someone says, "I didn't know you could grow grapes in Missouri. I go into the whole story of how Missouri was the second largest producer before Prohibition, well ahead of California. I explain the state's German winemaking heritage, the strong showing of norton in international competitions in the late 1800s, and the fact that a few tenacious individuals even grow vinifera here. I've also visited vineyards in Canada and at nearly 7,000 foot elevation in Colorado, a pair of unlikely viticultural locales. But it wasn't until I started blogging and getting readers and reading other blogs from around the world that I realized how widespread this pursuit truly is. Carlos is growing wine grapes in Colombia. That's Colombia, South America, with an 'o,' and not nearby Columbia, Missouri with a 'u.' Louise is growing grapes in Kenya, where forced dormancy and baboons are issues we can't even comprehend. Of course, vineyards still grow where you expect them to, in countries like France. Bertrand has, in my opinion, possibly the best wine and vineyard blog going. And that's where I learned about one of the most traditional practices, bulk wine, a time-honored practice that it is completely new to me. His recent story about bulk wine is fascinating: going to the winery with plastic jugs to get your fill and then bottling at home. I doubt any wineries in the States are doing that.

It's a fascinating pursuit. It's an obsession. Maybe it starts with a glass of wine or a photograph. Or maybe you're bitten with the bug when you stand in one of the world's great vineyards. It happened to me outside the little village of Pommard, Burgundy. Whatever the case, once you're afflicted by this strange compulsion to tame unruly vines, tend them until they bear fruit and then stomp the berries into submission so that you can begin the long, slow process of making wine, nobody is going to be able to talk you out of it. I'm glad to see that folks from every conceivable clime are similarly afflicted.

Monday, November 12, 2007

November surprise

A hard freeze turned the leaves brown overnight, and within hours they'd all dropped. The notoriously vigorous norton vines shed their dinner plate-sized leaves and exposed a few surprise missed clusters. I tried the berries (that weren't dessicated) and they were rich and without the usual norton acidic tang. It was a reminder to leave this varietal hanging longer to drop the TA as much as possible. I'm always overeager to harvest. I could have left them for another two weeks at least. Conversely, I should have harvested the traminette a week or even ten days earlier. It's a slow learning process, and you have to wait an entire year to correct your mistakes, by which time you're apt to have forgotten your lessons. How does the saying go? Insanity is doing things over and over again the same way but expecting different results. In any case, it's a great time of year...the season is over, and the weather pleasant for trellis repairs, which you can undertake at a leisurely pace.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Open for business

_ Michael Amigoni is taking his grapes full-circle. Inland Sea Wines, a new Kansas City urban winery, is open for business.

_ Here's another new KC area winery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Article links

_ "Extreme Viticulture" - growing organically in the northeastern US

_ "Eastern Cab Franc" - here's an article about the varietal I plant to plant. I'm also considering Barbera and Mourvedre. I'm leaning toward the latter...the late budbreak, thick skin and good disease resistance offers appeal.

_ "Hybrid Wines" - The title tells what this blog is about

_ "A Day in the Life of a Missouri Vineyard" - Annother MO vineyard blog

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dirt work

I need to prepare the soil for planting next spring on our first vineyard bloc. I've been having trouble finding the right implement...I'd like to rip the ground with a chisel plow (or v-ripper) to a depth of 24 inches. I thought it would be a challenge to start a vineyard without owning a tractor. But I caught our neighbor out in a field across from our property where he was discing some ground for winter wheat. He agreed to hit the bloc with the disk, cutting cross ways first and then going against the grain. It'll only be about 12 inches of soil work, but it should at least open up the ground enough for me to lime the bloc this fall and give me some more time to track down a ripper before I plant.

I need to add enough lime to raise the soil pH from 5.5 to 6.2-6.5, which is a better range for vinifera. In these photos you can see my neighbor, Poodle, cutting the edges of the vineyard block. The field has been in pasture grass for as long as anyone can remember, so I should be able to plant right away. If it were row-cropped, I'd want to leave it fallow or cover-crop it to work out any chemicals and add nutrients back into the soil.

In these photos you can see the tractor at work. I also added some lines so that you can see the eventual orientation of the rows. This is an area slightly larger than 1 acre, but it will actually only have an acre of grapes. I need to leave a 30-foot aisle in the middle of the bloc so that the electric company can get to that pole directly in the center.

The advantages of this bloc are its southeast-facing (but mostly south) exposure. The rows are perpendicular to the slope across most of the bloc, though one corner will have rows running directly up the slope. I'll cover crop the aisles with buffalo grass or fescue, so that will help prevent erosion. The bloc is also parallel to the prevailing winds. It's a windy ridge, so this should help with some frost issues as well as with drying out the grapes with the wind blowing down the aisles, which may help with fungus issues.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

TV star

Sharp-eyed viewers will be able to catch my cameo in this local news story, doing what I do best...and here's a hint, it's not the Macarena.

Hanging with the big dogs

I had a bottle of a homemade blended red sitting under my desk at work when a colleage walked by carrying his latest shipment from a well known wine club. The bottle caught his eye and he wound up trading me for a bottle of Lodi-area Cab Sav from his shipment, valued at $15. The bottle I gave him was a blend of 48% Cab Sav from central California (juice) blended with Norton and Chambourcin from my back yard. It was an experiment, and I blended in the Cab Sav to correct some cranked acids in the Norton, but it still was a bit sharp in the finished product. Still, the nose was interesting as you can pick out all three varietals overlapping. The color is good, too, because the Norton was on the skins for two weeks, turning it inky dark in a way that would take an extra-extended maceration in most vinifera.

It just so happend that my friend was heading out that very evening to a meeting of the local "snooty wine club," a monthly dinner where wine is shared. We're talking serious stuff, too. He said that there were bottles worth $75 and $150 on the table, some dating back to the early '90s. He set my humble bottle next to an Oregon pinot, and he undersold it as a home-grown curiosity. He rightly called out the slightly sharp acid and then some thinness in the body. But several of the "snooties" said that he wasn't doing it justice and went back for more. At the end of the night, there was less left in the bottle than the Oregon pinot, a Parker pick worth $60.

I taste this wine and put it squarely in the $5 to $10 class, but perhaps I'm not being fair. Or maybe the folks at the wine dinner were already a bit tipsy. Who knows. In any case it shows that you can do interesting things with blending vinifera with hybrids. And it also shows that there is something crazy, something completely insane going on in wine pricing. The most I've personally ever spent on a bottle of wine is $35. I've found a few brilliant wines in the $15 range, and we have plenty of standbys at $10. And if a $60 bottle sits next to my humble basement blend and doesn't get drained within minutes of the cork coming off, there's something truly amiss.

In any case, it was an interesting experiment, and I was happy to hear the results. In a few years I hope to repeat it with a wine made from a commercial-sized planting of Cabernet Franc, with a touch of Norton (4%) for added color and a bit of Chambourcin (8%) for complexity, and we'll see if a vinifera-hybrid blend has any real promise. Besides the novelty aspect, there are some serious economic advantages to the notion of such a blend, which I'll get into in my next post.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Vine time

It's been a hectic few weeks of bottling and harvesting. The mild weather and clear blue skies have also encouraged me to do a little fishing with my daughter, head to the pool, take longer dinner on the deck (with a bottle or two of good wine, of course).

But despite the time crunch, I've noticed how slow vine time actually is compared to the rest of life. As I'm bottling to make room for this year's vintage in the tanks, I'm reminded of the styles of wine I set out to make one year ago...and two years in the case of reds. Tastes tend to change over time, and there are random factors affecting what you like to drink, such as a bottle suggested/given to you by a friend, a trip to some wine region that offers fond memories, etc. As a result, the wines I started making two years ago aren't necessarily what I would make today. When you add to that the fact of planting and growing your own vines, the time delay is extended. It takes at least three years to get a full crop, and some varietals don't really establish their flavor profile until the vines reach their full maturity seven or eight years along. Add to that bottle aging and it could be a decade or more from the time you set out to make a wine and when you actually can sit down and experience a glass with a meal.

So when you're establishing a vineyard it's hard to know if you're making the right choices at every turn. You need to do your research and approach with caution. But at the same time, there's a price to be paid for waiting for several years to gain experience. My own philosophy in this area is to jump right in. Count on making mistakes. If you want to plant something, plant it, but be prepared to adjust as you learn and go along. Don't plan on getting rich, either. Seven years ago, when we planted our test vineyard, hybrid varietals were the only accepted option among all the growers and nurseries I talked to. I've now learned that folks have been growing vinifera successfully in our area, and similar regions in the East, and even up north in Michigan and Canada. A few weeks back we tasted our first ever Missouri Chardonnay...and it was very good.

So you need to jump in with surety and make and grow the kind of wine that appeals to you and that you think you can be successful with in your area. You may fail miserably, but such is life. If you were meant to grow grapes, you'll hit it harder next year. If you weren't, you'll rip out your vines and spend more time fishing.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Cluster weights

A very simple viticultural step that I've always overlooked in the past, mainly because I didn't know that I should be doing it, is to establish an average cluster weight every season. It's easy enough to do: grab 20 clusters at random from any one varietal, weigh them, average the score. Keep track from year to year.

Having a record of average cluster weight swill allow you to estimate your yield early in the season. Once you know your vineyard well, you'll be able to determine how many clusters you keep, on average, per vine, adjusting for weather events and conditions. That way you can prepare tanks if you're in the winery business, or if your a contract grower you can give your customer an accurate estimate.

Cluster weights vary greatly by varietal. But even then, weights of the same varietal can vary greatly based on trellis system, location, weather, etc. Sampling the weight at harvest is the only way to get accurate numbers. But with so much going on at harvest time it's an easy step to forget. I've picked the vidal and traminette already, and I forgot to grab weights on the latter before crushing. Now I've got to wait another year to record this data.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Harvest season

This year Mother Nature almost redeemed herself for the early season freeze. We had a hot and dry July August punctuated with a pair of heavy downpours that soaked the ground just in time to relieve serious vine stress. Brix, which is the sugar content in the fruit, was climbing by one degree every day. The Cynthiana/Norton were the least affected by the freeze and had a cropload to rival last year in estimated weight. What's more, the Cynthiana were already at a brix of 21, well ahead of last year, leaving me to think that I could push them to 25 or higher and get an extra-ripe fruit to compliment the typically high acid in that varietal. Chambourcin and Vidal were coming along nicely despite ongoing critter attrition and the strange aerial rooting in the Chambourcins.

I picked the Traminette earlier in the week. They were struggling all season because they're early bloomers/ripeners and were hit hard by the freeze. And then the rains hit...two hard days of rain and cool weather that spoiled our hot and dry end to the season. I'm going to have to pick the Vidal earlier than I like, and the Brix was pushed down in the red varietals. They can hang another week or two, but the damp conditions might encourage some not-so-nice side effects.

In the photos above, the order is Chambourcin, Vidal and Cynthiana. In the first photo, notice how the bird netting was pushed in by some critter and one of the berries was plucked from the cluster.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Techniques for organic viticulture

When we planted our first test vines in May of '01 after a epiphanic trip to Cote de Beaune (Burgundy) the previous harvest season, I had intended to grow grapes organically. That's why I chose hybrids with good disease resistance in our area, including Cynthiana/Norton, Vidal, Traminette and Chambourcin. I had visions of featuring "Made with Organically Grown Grapes" on bottles of my private stock. I'm a card-carrying Sierra Club member and a proud tree hugger. My little diversion into agriculture has even heightened my environmental concerns as I can see global warming working directly through the progressive forward movement of budbreak and harvest during my six years of growing grapes. I've never met anyone with grapes in the ground who harbors the slightest doubt about the pace of climate change.

So as an environmentally conscious individual, I set out with the intentions of growing grapes without any chemical assistance. And I've learned the hard way that, if you want to grow good grapes in our region, you have to treat for fungus aggressively, including chemical sprays. Now my goal has shifted from growing organically to growing the best grapes possible. Once I can produce a full crop of quality grapes on a consistent basis, I'll move toward embracing more sustainable (and riskier) practices. But you need experience to minimize risk, and I've got a long way to go.

There are several practices that I now employ, which I haven't in the past, that are completely organic and sustainable. They include aggressive canopy management and leaf pulling, use of grow tubes and use of bird netting. I found that much late-season rot on the Cynthiana was due to bird pressure...a couple broken berries can spread disease throughout an entire cluster. Grow tubes seem to allow for stronger growth and root development in young vines, increasing its disease resistance in the first few years. Leaf pulling around the fruit increases air flow, sunlight exposure and reduces the damp conditions funguses like.

There are other things you can do that are completely sustainable practices, including use of treatments like Serenade and Kalligreen instead of more caustic chemicals. You can use bio-fuel in your tractor, solar-powered or solar-charged tools and pumps in the vineyard. I also plan to irrigate from a pond rather than using district water as water shortage becomes an increasing problem, even in our area. These things can save you money as well as reduce the footprint of your farming operation. But I've also learned the hard way that you first have to focus on growing good grapes, and right now I can't accomplish that in our region without some chemical intervention.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Aerial roots: danger signal

I'm still trying to figure out what these aerial roots mean. They are appearing at the nodes on my Chambourcin vines, though not on any other varietals. Shoot growth has been strong, petiole samples showed balance, and the fruit looks good for such a strange year weather-wise. It could be trunk damage from our freeze, or perhaps some root pest, but aerial roots mean that the vine is losing faith in its root system and is ready to start over. I hope this row survives.

Even though these vines have been showing just a hint of water stress, the good kind for this time of year, I gave them a good soak tonight. We've had very little rain and dry. We should have fruit that is unusually concentrated for our region.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Simple enough for a three year old

Today I'd like to sing the praises of the hand refractometer. It's the simplest viticultural tool to use. Its purpose is testing brix (sugar level) and while it might not be 100% accurate, it's fairly close, and you can perform a quick check as you wander through the vineyard.

The device is like a little telescope with a flat glass space on one end. You lift up a little plastic shield, squirt a few drops juice from a freshly picked grape onto the glass, drop the shield on the juice just like you're preparing a slide for a microscope, and then look through the eyepiece. It will give you a reading that's roughly twice the potential alcohol for finished wine. Tonight's readings were between 10 and 20 brix depending on varietal and the sun exposure of the grape in question. The overall average of the quick sample in the vineyard tonight was 15. We like to get to an average of 23 brix in our region, which will give us 11.5% alcohol. This year, due to the freeze, we have uneven ripeness, so I'll have to pick a number in the middle of a wide range and hope there isn't too much underripe fruit. Had I more vines, I'd drop all the fruit that's lagging right now. I probably should have done it last week. But my test vineyard is only 60 vines divided between four varietals, so I can't afford to drop any more fruit than I already removed in cluster and shoot thinning earlier in the year...I wouldn't end up with any wine. We've had a dry stretch, helping to hold various rots at bay, so maybe I can leave the fruit to hang longer than usual.

Hand refractometers only cost around fifty bucks, and they have heft to them. It feels like a real serious scientific tool in your hand. If you want to feel like one of the big boys, then order one of these gadgets. I like to stroll down the rows and squint into the refractometer and play like I'm a vineyard manager in Napa or Tuscany. Then my neighbor hollers and waves, spoiling the fantasy. It's all a game and I'm a kid, which is a rationale I embrace. Tonight my daughter helped me with the's so easy she can almost do it all by herself. But then she is brilliant for her much more advanced than other kids.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Cynthiana/Nortons hit veraison

The Cynthiana/Norton vines are hitting veraison in my test vineyard 1.5 weeks after the Chambourcin. The two varietals couldn't be more different. Chambourcin hails from the much-maligned French-American hybrid stock while Cynthiana is 100% pure indigenous, a naturally occurring hybrid of
vitis aestevalis. Chambourcin has loose clusters with large, dark berries while Cynthiana has tight little clusters with small berries. You can get some incredibly dark, rich wines out of either, though Chambourcin excels in a less tannic must with less maceration. Both of them make a very nice red wine and have fared well in the test vineyard.

It's easy for me to overlook Cynthiana despite the fact that it performs wonderfully in our region. But I'm something of a contrarian and this varietal is our Missouri state grape, thus my plans to plant Cab Franc in my commercial bloc. Were the total acidity a little lower, Cynthiana would stack up well against any red out there, and I think there's huge potential for blending a touch with some varietals that tend to get a little flabby. When you consider the trend toward large, fruit-saturated, high-alcohol wines made with extra-ripe fruit, a little Norton/Cyn could add some needed backbone and bite without resorting to acid blends off the shelf. I'll certainly experiment with a Cab Franc/Cynthiana blend, maybe 90/10, when I have the chance.

One problem with Norton/Cynthiana is the dual name. I like the latter while the former is more recognizable. Add this schizophrenia to its regional nature and the anti-American varietal stigma and it's got a long way to go to gain wider acceptance. I'm not sure the day will arrive when this varietal will make a splash in the wine press, though good stories abound. Paul Roberts has written extensively about this varietal, and there's a very amusing sequence in his book, From this Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana's Wine where he brings some splits of his homemade Norton to the great houses of France to solicit some feedback.

So when I talk about larger plantings of vinifera, I sometimes feel like I'm neglecting a local upstart cultivar that makes a very nifty wine. But then there are plenty of folks in the area making some good Cynthiana. And there are other folks out there promoting this varietal, so I still think it has a bright future.

Wine news

_ NPR has produced a great story on climate change and its impact on the Bordeaux growing region, which ran this morning.

_ Here's another viticulture blog featuring a fellow starting from scratch with a backyard vineyard.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Taking the Wine Aroma Wheel for a spin

I have to admit that I felt completely ridiculous when I pulled my six dollar piece of laminated plastic out of the envelope. I wasn't really going to use this Wine Wheel thing, was I?

I might pretend that describing a wine's aroma by comparing it to molasses, soy sauce, kerosene, geraniums, figs and so on is a strange thing to do, but in reality I'm just hesitant because there are plenty very good writers already doing it out there with wit and insight, including this guy and also this fellow. They can simply do it much better...what have I got to add?

But it occurred to me the other day that I'll have some gaps to fill in the winter. I can skim for interesting articles and talk about grafting or growing vines in your basement (I'm growing a row of ten Traminette from cuttings in the test vineyard, and some are already chest-high), but this blog will get stale with no new pictures to post from the vineyard. I'll be able to snap a picture or two of winemaking in the basement, but that's dull sport as making wine consists of 90% cleaning (unless you're a flying wine consultant and you zip around barrel tasting and reading lab samples, with other grunts doing the scrubbing).

But even after all that, I'm left with spaces to fill in the winter, and I don't want to lose the tiny audience I've managed to acquire, so I figured I'll write a few tasting notes when it's slow. After all, that's what it's all about, right...all of the time spent sweating in the vineyard and late nights in the's about that glass of wine at dinner. I might as well pitch in my two bits.

Thus the Wine Aroma Wheel. Now I can use the right vocabulary like the big boys. We took the Wheel on a spin last night with a bottle of budget white Italian wine my wife found at the supermarket. A few weeks back I gave her strict ABC (anything but Chard) orders and she came home with a bottle of Mariana delle Venezie 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pino Grigio. It was lovely for a budget white, and when it warmed up to room temperature you could clearly distinguish both varietals. I consulted my trusty wheel, sniffed and pondered and came up with lemon peel, dried straw and a bit of butterscotch on the Chard. The oak, if any, was quite subtle, and it was a nice change all the way around. I've had some terrific budget Chards lately, including a 5-dollar Santa Barbara from Trader Joe's that had some surprising citrus and tropical fruit (Wheel!), but I'm tired of the malolactic fermentation, oak and extra sweetness that one usually finds in Chards in my humble price range.

So there you have first ever tasting note blog. Look for more in the winter.

Tonight in the vineyard I hauled a couple buckets up to water the new vines. The Traminette is turning Gewurtz gold and it's almost time to check the sugars on that one. We've had 0.5 inches of rain in the past several weeks...just enough. The vines are showing just a trace of stress...the good kind. If the freeze hadn't happened it might have been a terrific year.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Veraison hits test vineyard

I know that I once said that budbreak is the "pinnacle of the viticulture experience," but now that veraison has hit the Chambourcin vines in the test vineyard I'll have to retract that statement. It seems as soon as the berries turn you can taste the spice, jam and dark fruit on the skins, and I can't help popping a few in my mouth as I walk down the aisles. This really is as good as it gets. There's a lull now that I'm finishing with the bird netting, the vines are trimmed and the sprays are up to date. The summer is drying out and the vines are less vigorous. Now I can enjoy veraison until the next crisis. There is so much potential in the fruit at this stage.

Veraison is easily identifiable in red wine's the stage where they start to take on rust and and then purple color. In white wine grapes, the hard green berries will begin to turn golden and the skins will become translucent, and it's like peering into a glass marble. Veraison engages the white clusters more subtly, but it's no less enjoyable.

Veraison also means that the grapes are sweetening and become more palatable to the critters, so it's a period of heightened concern. Rots also like the sugars, so you have to have enough stomach to sweat it out while you watch clusters whither away and hope it remains limited to only a tiny portion of the crop.

Trimming vines trellised on VSP

I just finished trimming and hedging the vines in the test vineyard to prepare them for bird netting. The Vertical Shoot Position or VSP trellis system is the most attractive. A well-maintained Geneva Double Curtain (GDC) or High Wire Cordon (HWC, also known as Sylvoz) can also be beautiful at various times of the year, but nothing is more gorgeous than a meticulously maintained vineyard of VSP. That being said, it's one of the least productive trellis systems out there. You can produce more fruit per acre on a split canopy, and without loss of quality according to Richard Smart, studies by ace VA Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf and other sources.

But I love the VSP aesthetically pleases me. In some ways it's easier to work allows you more access to the trunk for weeding and hilling (mounding dirt around the trunk to prevent winter free damage). It's more labor intensive to keep it trimmed and to keep the shoots tucked between the training wires. But it's also more logical...for some reason I can walk into a VSP vineyard and know exactly what canopy management tasks need to be tackled next.

Were I planning on planting more than a third of an acre per year, and had I any expectation to be earning a profit at this endeavor any time soon, I'd have to seriously consider GDC for my Cabernet Franc, or some hybrid trellis like the Smart-Dyson Ballerina. But for now I'll just do what feels right.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Best viticulture reference ever

Well, maybe not the best but on my shelf it is giving Richard Smart's Sunlight Into Wine a run for the money. It's A Pocket Guide for Grape IPM Scouting in the North Central and Eastern U.S. It is clearly the best disease guide out there for our region. It would even be handy on the West Coast. The genius of this guide is its the title implies you can slip it in your back pocket whenever you head out to the vineyard and you can diagnose ailments on the spot. Sometimes it's hard to tell your mildews or rots apart even if you are experienced.

This guide has good quality photos of multiple symptoms, a brief overview of each disease. It also covers insect injury, nutrient deficiencies and pesticide damage. There are other charts and images that come in handy, including photos detailing each stage of grapevine growth and berry development. I could have saved a few dollars in laboratory fees if I'd had this handy guide a month ago. I'm a big fan of the whole idea of a land grant university, and MSU's extension program is the original. I'm not surprised they're behind this clever little guide.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The godfather of Missouri vinifera

I spent Saturday at Michael Amigoni's vineyard in west-central Missouri. Michael is the godfather of Missouri vinifera, and his dedication to the growing of these traditional European varietals borders on obsession, but in a good way. Our region is still devoted almost entirely to hybrid varietals. I like many of these, but I personally feel that we need to grow at least 30% vinifera to help build a consumer market. Missouri vinifera could provide a bridge for consumers skeptical about both Midwestern viticulture and the unfamiliar varietals largely grown here. Michael would probably rather see 100% vinifera grown in Missouri despite the extra dedication, risk and labor involved in producing it here. He is having success, as you can see from the above photo, which shows veraison well underway in his Cab Franc block.

Michael's uncompromising dedication to premium winegrowing is tempered by his unrestrained enthusiasm for viticulture and a willingness to advise all comers. His vineyard is always filled with neophytes seeking knowledge, and he'll share everything he knows in exchange for a few hours of labor. One of his disciples has been recently motivated to sell his dental practice and plans to move to Washington to start his own vineyard and winery.

Michael has had his greatest success in the region with Cabernet Franc. Despite the fact of this year's freeze, he has a healthy crop of this varietal. With the number of Cab Franc plantings increasing, I'm tempted to change my plans and begin my commercial vineyard with a few barrels of this varietal. I believe Riesling would do well here, but it needs to hang a long time and Franc would have fewer problems with sour rot, bitter rot and ripe rot. Unfortunately, we have to contend with that trinity of cluster maladies rather than botrytis, which would actually be welcome in a Riesling vineyard. We also discussed Gruner Veltliner, an interesting, food-friendly Austrian varietal gaining popularity despite its cumbersome handle. It might be even more rot-susceptible than Riesling, though, and it has some issues with tenderness in early shoots. That doesn't bode well for my windy vineyard site or for the potential for more frost damage due to changing weather patterns.

So my goal has now changed. I plan to initially plant 300 Cabernet Franc vines next spring if I can get a block limed, plowed to at least 36 inches, and outfitted with an irrigation system. I'll then add at least 150 more vines (1 barrel) of Franc or Riesling every year after that.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Harvest workshop, Les Bourgeois

I attended a workshop on harvest decisions and vineyard cover crops at Les Bourgeois vineyards (yes, that's their actual family name) hosted by the ICCVE yesterday afternoon. As usual, it was filled with more good information than I can keep straight. We spent some time discussing sampling techniques and harvest decisions, especially given the legacy of this year's freeze event. We also covered some viral diseases and other harvest decisions. I include a photo of their harvester, which looks like some strange mechanical insect. It shakes the trunk and shoots, rattling clusters loose, which are then caught by rotating rubber bins and hauled up to the hopper. It sounds violent, but evidently such machines treat grapes more gently than hand harvesting crews. Something about it spoils that romantic notion of hand picking. I remember the crews we saw harvesting family vineyards in Italy...comprised of everyone from grandma on down to the toddlers. But then anyone who has done it knows it's hot, scratchy, tiring labor.

News links

_ Global warming to wipe out Napa vineyards? Money quote: "A study by the America's National Academy of Sciences last year suggested that the area of the US suitable for growing premium wine grapes could decline by 81% by the end of the century."

_ Maybe I don't need to buy a tractor.

_ For all those in the central and eastern U.S. who experienced serious freeze damage this spring, a seminar.

_ Missouri is in good company: Bordeaux has issues with fungus, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


These aphids are regular visitors to the test vineyard. I haven't read or heard much about their being a serious pest, but we had an explosion in the population after three days of serious rain in June and all growing shoot tips were covered with aphids and their ant minders. Growth appeared to be stunted, and then I started noticing other damage and defoliation.

I won't blame it all on the aphids, but they seemed to represent heightened insect activity. I've never sprayed insecticide before, but I finally broke down and applied a dose of Sevin. I'd love to grow as sustainably as possible, and it's disappointing to use the more toxic chemicals. But it's worse to watch a crop suffer.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

News links

_ New EU wine rules create controversy; growers paid to dig up 200,000 hectares of vineyards (at a time when China is planting copious amounts); small growers in the crosshairs.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The best food and wine movie ever...

...or at least the best food and wine movie since Big Night. Yes, it's the G-rated Disney kids flick Ratatouille, and it's smart, funny, clever, passionate and gorgeously animated. If, after watching this film, you don't want to rush home, pour a glass of last night's leftover red wine, prop open the Joy of French Cooking, throw a stock pot on the stove and start working on that difficult recipe you've never quite been able to master, then you don't have the soul of a true gourmand.

This is the story of a lowly country rat named Remy who has culinary aspirations. Stay with me here. After a series of misadventures he finds himself the head chef of the most renowned bistro in Paris. Of course, the health department reacts strongly, as do a rival chef and a ruthless restaurant critic with the power to literally kill a chef with a single vicious review.

This is a children's movie, but I took much more away from this film than my three-year-old daughter, who grew a bit squirmy during the love scenes. As an admitted foodie and wine aficionado, I drank in scenes of furry little Remy passionately seasoning a pot of boiling soup, delivering fresh rosemary, garlic and onions with his little pink rat paws, smiling in the dreamlike trance known only to the hubristic gourmand in the midst of a cooking fugue. Another scene finds little Remy doused with a full glass of deep ruby Cabernet, his gray hairs slicked with French wine, we oenophiles in the audience smacking our lips in jealously. Yes, this is a kids' film in which we can watch the villain get the hero drunk on a bottle of Chateau La Tour.

There's more to the picture than great animation, clever storytelling and an orgy of French cookery. Reviewers aren't raving about this film simply because it's the latest edition of Toy Story. There is something in the heart of this story that touches on our culture at this particular time. This is a film about cooking, food, and it's connection to the pleasures of living. It is something that we are just beginning to grasp as Americans, as evidenced by the explosion of Mediterranean cuisine and the foodie and wine boom. The film shows us that even a creature as low in station as a rat can live a rich life if he only pays attention to the essential things, like eating. French chef Joel Rubicon, and I'm paraphrasing here, once said, "There is no more direct, intimate and loving form of communication than cooking for someone." This is the lesson that Remy the rat teaches us in Ratatouille.

Ratatouille makes a further point in a speech at the end delivered by the crusty restaurant critic (Peter O'Toole) on the nature of elitism and snobbery. It is as profound a monologue as I've heard in any film recently...G-rated or otherwise...and it is one we should keep in mind when we engage in the pursuit of making, evaluating and buying wine.

The animation, especially scenes of the City of Lights, is stunning. The film is perfect for all ages, though my three-year-old wasn't completely engaged the whole time. I did only have to leave the theatre twice, a record for her, though I still did it grumpily as I was so engaged in the story. The film is perfect for kids from five to ninety. Head to the theatre and see this film on the big screen, especially if you love food, wine or Paris. Then go home and cook for someone.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Vineyard neglect

I've found that there are two major categories of events that can interfere with work in the vineyard. One is man made and the other occurs naturally. Weather is the latest holdup, and we've had 3.5 inches of rain in the past three days, much of it coming down in a two-hour stretch Wednesday evening. The rain isn't exactly unwelcome as we'd had two weeks of bone-dry weather and the vines were beginning to show some signs of stress. Better to save that stress for veraison, which is still two weeks away. But still, 3.5 inches is a bit much and a downpour tends to keep me out of the vineyard. Fortunately, I sprayed just before the rain using a spreader-sticker to make the fungicide stick longer during the deluge and spread more evenly in protection over the fruit clusters. I'll spray again when the rain passes and hope for a stretch of drought to dry out the soil and encourage the vines to send their roots deeper.

And as for the man made category of distraction: we had visitors. With five kids and three adults, we canoed in south-central Missouri and spent some time outdoors, always a healthy thing to do. Children make it an adventure, but fortunately the water was low (before the rain) and only one adult took a serious spill.

During the trip I picked up a bottle of Cynthiana (Norton) from an area winery and was a bit disappointed. Cynthiana is the only 100% native varietal I know of that makes a good red wine. It usually fights with high acid, but oak and age can tame this aspect. It traditionally has some spice and dark fruit characters, but this bottle had a vegetative character, including harsh asparagus. I was disappointed in that I've always been a booster of this varietal. Someone trying Cynthiana for the first time would not be won over by the poorly crafted wine I bought. I always will root for a wine, especially from local producers. I'll overlook a flaw or two and focus on the better qualities, but there wasn't much to cheer for here. The winery shall remain nameless.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Vine detective strikes out

So many things can go wrong in viticulture that I'm often amazed when growers bring a crop of gorgeous fruit to harvest. Region, of course, plays a huge role in the process, and I do happen to live in one that offers added challenges.

But I suppose this is also part of the attraction in the challenge of growing wine grapes. It's not so much Man vs. Nature as it is Man achieving a balance with Nature. In our climate-sealed bubble worlds where we slide from home to vehicle to office and back again, we might think we've got the natural world licked. The only growing things in our domain are the potted plants of our choosing. Any fauna appearing are pets, or otherwise they are immediately exterminated as pests.

But when you're growing grapes in the out-of-doors, you submit yourself to the gods of Weather and Sunlight. You are at the mercy of the crawly creatures that slip out of the forest and across the road under cover of darkness and feast on the literal fruits of your labor. I awoke one morning last summer to find a doe and her fawn munching on Traminette clusters as if I'd arrayed these grapes especially for their benefit. They'd eaten the equivalent of fifteen bottles of wine in one night. But then I'm growing my vines in her world and not mine...outside the sealed gasket of our house things are largely out of my control. And this is how it should be. It's almost comforting to be humbled by the natural world.

I recently set a tissue sample to the lab in order to diagnose the condition evident in the above photo of a Chambourcin leaf. Nature was turning on me, attacking my vines with some fungus, or robbing them of some needed nutrient. I decided that the condition doesn't match the profile of any diseases and seems more like some sort of mineral deficiency rather than a blight. I sent a tissue sample to the lab to confirm my assumption. But when I received the lab results (see below) for my tissue analysis, and everything seems mostly in balance (see Plant Analysis table).

I expected to find some glaring deficiency that I'd be able to correct by throwing a handful of this or that on the soil, or by spraying some substance onto the leaves. But from these results it looks like I was wrong and I am now left to wonder what caused those spots and the reddish tint on the leaves.

But another facet of the natural world, one we often forget in this age of the slash and burn, cement parking lot mentality, is her unmatched ability to heal herself. The blighted Chambourcin leaves seem to be dropping off now. New growth on these vines looks bright-green and healthy. Perhaps the best I can do now is to let Nature take her course and leave it alone. And maybe cross my fingers, too.

Lab Results
Nitrogen (N) -- 1.014%
Phosphorus (P) -- 0.570%
Potassium (K) -- 1.936%
Calcium (Ca) -- 1.418%
Magnesium (Mg) -- 0.642%
Iron (Fe) -- 5.1 ppm
Manganese -- (Mn) 38.1 ppm
Boron (B) -- 26.66 ppm
Copper (Cu) -- 10.2 ppm
Zinc (Zn) -- 36.3 ppm

Compare these results to the Plant Analysis table on this page to see how they match up. I'm a little low on iron and a bit high on phosphorous, but otherwise I'm within expected ranges.

Article links

_ All about extended maceration - here's another fancy term you can drop to impress your friends.

_ Parts One and Two of Mike Steinberger's Physiology of the Wine Critic series.

Interesting bit from the article: "...if he serves the same wine in two different bottles, one labeled a cheap vin de table and the other a pricey grand cru, people invariably lavish praise on the latter and scorn the former." This is called perceptive expectation.

While I don't doubt that the best wines in the world are made from the traditional European varieties of vitis vinifera, I do think that the much maligned hybrid varietals accused of "off" or "foxy" flavors suffer from perceptive expectation. There are some bad varietals out there, and bubble gum Concord wine doesn't have much to offer unless it's a hot, hot day and you're looking for a wine that goes with ice cubes. But other native or hybrid varietals have a distinct character and make some very good wine if thought and care has gone into the growing and winemaking process. But consumers have been conditioned to expect certain qualities in their wines, and many hybrids don't match the established profile. That's where I think perceptive expectation can turn 'different' into 'bad.' Even though I plan on planting mostly vinifera, I'm a fan of many hybrid varietals when they are made well. I always revel in the experience of finding a new varietal or region as long as quality and price balance out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Deciding when to harvest

It's probably way too early for this topic, but I recently listened to a Grape Radio interview with winery owner Calude Blankiet where he described winemaker Helen Turley's process of deciding when to harvest. Blankiet says that Turley likes to taste the juice at home in the evening. She prepares a must sample, allows it to macerate on the skins, chills the sample and then tastes it in the evening out of a wine glass. I've heard of winemakers tasting the berries in the vineyard and using this to inform their harvest decisions, but this is something else altogether. While she's tasting, she also reads the lab reports, which would have been prepared that day and delivered to her. Must be nice.

I'll have to do my own lab work at home with a hand refractometer, a hand pH meter, and a cheap acid test kit that feels like some high school chemistry project, but I see no reason why I can't try her must-in-a-glass technique. Tasting the juice while you're relaxed in the evening rather than sweating in the vineyard and spitting out seeds might allow you to evaluate with less distraction.

The entire interview is worth a listen as they spend the time walking Blankiet's vineyards. The section where he talks about Turley's harvest decision begins around the 20 minute mark. Those guys over at Grape Radio do a brilliant job, putting out a new 40-minute show every week. Their archive page is loaded with interesting interviews on just about any subject you can think of.

News roundup

_ Mike Steinberger on the vocabulary of wine, and a little gadget called the Wine Aroma Wheel so that you can sound like everybody else when you talk about wine.

_ Terrorist wine growers? - First let me say that I strongly believe there is no room for violence in viticulture. Renowned wine writer Bruno Tannenbaum once wrote, "If there's a formula for World Peace it certainly involves an uncorked bottle and a loaf of good bread." Jim Harrison wrote, "The sound of the popping cork has brought more happiness to mankind than all of the governments in the history of the world." But that being said, I suppose I can grasp the frustration these guys feel. It's already a risky business, and now the middle-men and corporate outfits are making all the profit in a surging wine market and these little growers are going under. Corporations, as much as they love to spout "free market" ideology, are subsidized at every turn by governments waiving property taxes, building infrastructure for them, or even directly supplementing profit (think U.S. agri-business and the Farm Bill). It's great hypocracy when they claim to pursue "free trade" as their lobbyists in Washington D.C. outnumber the legislators they pay off in order to write laws in their favor. Wine growers in Missouri are largely on their own while corn and beans are money-losers propped up by tax dollars. Why not help these French growers out the way corn growers are allowed to continue their way of life in the U.S.? There's a lot of money in wine. I'll do my part by drinking any good Languedoc wines I can get my hands on, but then if these masked guys make good on their threats and anybody gets hurt my sympathies will expire and I'll switch to Alsace or Burgundy and leave these guys on their own.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Meet the staff

Title: Assistant Vigneron
Name: Bailey
Height: 37 inches
Attention Span: 2.7 minutes
Skills: Leaf-pulling, cluster removal, shoot thinning - she doesn't always perform these tasks and prescribed times, but she's still learning.

Incidentally, leaf-pulling is an actual canopy management practice. When you hear the old saw that great wine is made in the vineyard, usually this implies extensive canopy management. You can see evidence of leaf-pulling in this photo in the dried leaves lying on the aisle in the background.

Leaves must be removed around the fruit clusters so that they receive more air circulation and sunlight, and so that the micro-climate of the canopy doesn't contain internal pockets that trap heat and moisture. You want to be able to see through your canopy. Dark, dense, shaded canopies are not good for quality wine grapes. But you have to be careful to remove the correct leaves. Too much direct sunlight can also be harmful, burning the fruit. We've already made one pass through the test vineyard pulling leaves on the north and east sides to allow early morning sun to dry off the dew on the fruit, but leaving more leaves around the fruit zone on the south and west sides to protect from harsh afternoon sunlight. This practice allows sprays to penetrate into the canopy and also helps to prevent damp conditions in the fruit zone where molds and rots like to do their work.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

News roundup

_ A truly French experiment.

_ A technical article on vine irrigation. I found this bit helpful: "A simple approach [to determining grape vine water stress] is to observe the tendrils. If they are green and growing upward, there's no water restriction. If they are oblique or horizontal, there's a slight water reduction and if the tendrils are dry, it's the beginning of water stress."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In need of diagnosis

All varietals in our test vineyard look healthy for a freeze-damage year like this one, except for Chambourcin. This varietal has been especially peaked lately. "Like an influenza epidemic victim," as goes a line from a song that has been ringing through my head lately. Flushed red features, brown spots.

I don't believe the lesions and discoloring in these photos are the result of disease pressure, though...none of the other varietals sharing this same block are showing signs of mildew or rot with the exception of a couple phomopsis spots very early...but there were only a handful and we removed the leaves and added a couple interim sprays and that seems to have taken care of it.

I removed 60 leaf petioles and sent them to the University extension lab for analysis. I am gaining an increased appreciation for land grant universities. The petiole is the stem of the leaf, between the shoot and the blade. A lab test costs 25 bucks, and should be done on every varietal every year in commercial situations. I'm suspecting magnesium or potassium deficiencies, and I hope I can correct things with some foliar sprays and soil amendments.

Still, the copper-rust color, especially on the new leaves, is beautiful. If only it weren't the sign that something is amiss. The notion of mineral deficiencies is troubling as it just adds another item to the already daunting list of what can go wrong when growing grapes.

Ah, the romance of viticulture!

Missouri sunrise

When you're working full time, fooling around with a vineyard and juggling various writing projects, you find yourself waking up earlier than you'd like. Sleep when you're dead, right? But I'm not a morning person and there's nothing I like more than awakening to the sound of birds outside the window and then rolling over and sleeping for another few hours.

However, sights like this one out the back door soften the cruelty of the alarm clock ripping me out of that favorite hobby of slumber. And when I pine for the city life and feel isolated in the country, a sunrise like this reminds me why we're here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A man called 'Poodle'

My daughter and I were planting trees at our vineyard site yesterday when a man pulled up in a red truck. He was an affable fellow of the sort one finds often in rural Missouri. He had a sunburned features and a white mustache. It turns out he owns the house and property that borders our twenty acres.

When he introduced himself and said, "The name's Bernie, but folks call me 'Poodle,'" I instantly felt a warm sensation inside. This, I thought, is the sort of neighbor you want to have in the country. A fellow named Poodle is a guy who knows people. You don't get a nickname like that by hiding out in your barn. You also don't receive or accept a nickname like 'Poodle' if you're a crotchety or unlikable person. By the end of the conversation he'd mentioned a friend with a cultivator and a couple of guys down the road who had also tried to grow grapes. I have a feeling that anything I need to know about the area where we purchased, Poodle will have the information.

But it gets better. Poodle also mentioned the fact that he has a backhoe attachment for his tractor. The warm feeling in my gut expanded. Here was someone who can help me dig soil pits in the planned vineyard blocks. A friendly guy named Poodle with heavy equipment is a good fellow to have for a neighbor when you're beginning an agricultural enterprise in a rural area with nothing but hubris, a few garden tools and a three-year-old vineyard assistant.

Poodle, Bailey and I had a nice chat, and then he drove away, warning us to watch out for ticks as we stood in the tall grass. He waved out the window: "Let me know if y'all ever need anything."

Don't worry, we will.

News roundup

_ Anyone want to go in on a vineyard in France?

_ Another Dust Bowl on the horizon? It's news like this that makes me lean away from the idea of dry farming our vines. What strikes me is the lack of mention in the U.S. press of this topic and its relation to global climate change, which, like evolution, is still a subject of debate in this country.

_ Blurb about Harry's Bar in Venice; it was here that Hemingway penned his famous line: "Some people drink wine, others drink labels," which I sullenly quote when I see people drinking wine I can't afford.

_ A hangover user's guide for those, like me, who will never spit out a mouthful of good wine. Or even not-so-good wine.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Tough season

Our Easter Freeze event, four days of sub-freezing weather this past April, has left us with a season's worth of headaches and can possibly stretch into next year.

These photos illustrate one of the ongoing problems, and that is the uneven development of the fruit. The top photo shows a cluster just entering a stage known as "bloom." Note the tiny flower petals around some of the incipient berries. The bottom photo shows a much more mature grape cluster, with the berries starting to swell. These clusters are on the same Vidal vine, and they're hanging only a few inches apart. The bottom cluster will likely reach peak ripeness at least one week before the top cluster.

This poses a problem at harvest. In commercial vineyards it is most economical to harvest at one time. If you hire a crew of temporary workers, you want to be able to do it all in one don't want to make a second pass one week later. If you use a mechanical harvester, you have no option but to harvest all at once. With variation in maturity of these clusters, it will be hard to keep all of the fruit on an already-reduced crop.

I've been taking a course at the ICCVE, and they have been stressing the dilemma that large growers face due to this year's freeze: do you drop all the unripe fruit and harvest just the ripe fruit? Do you make several passes through the vineyard? Or do you just leave the fruit for the birds when the costs of harvesting and caring for an uneven crop become greater than any revenue to be gained by selling what is already a small crop to begin with?

I have a small vineyard, so I can make several passes to harvest and crush only the ripe grapes. In Germany, it is standard practice to hand-harvest the steep Rhineland vineyards, in some extreme cases making a dozen passes down the same row to harvest grapes at different stages of ripeness for separate vinification. In this way one single vineyard can produce a broad array of Rieslings, each with distinct qualities. But this is expensive and tedious.

In a perfect year, the vineyard would be managed and maintained so that all of the fruit ripens evenly. Weak shoots and clusters would be removed, trellises would be uniformly maintained, irrigation and fertilizer standardized for each vine. But this year, with many primary buds being killed and thus secondary and tertiary buds sending out shoots a week or two behind the surving primaries, we'll have a grab bag of levels of ripeness at the end of the year.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

[International] News roundup

_ China is planting 250,000 acres of vineyards per year; India, Japan also chipping in.

_ U.S. sales up for 13th straight year.

_ Fascinating vineyard blogs from Kenya and Australia's Barossa valley; plus a goode wine writer in London.

Friday, June 1, 2007

High country viticulture

Lance and Anna Hanson of Jack Rabbit Hill embody the spirit of Western idealists. They're growing wine grapes on their terms in the place of their choosing. They also aren't allowing convention to determine what they grow and how they grow it.

To find Jack Rabbit Hill you have to switchback up Redlands Mesa outside the town of Hotchkiss, Colorado. The air is dry and the breeze stiff, and the West Elk mountains stagger on the horizon, and in the distance you can see the wild peaks of the San Juans.

Their home and winery overlooks 22 acres of vineyards. One might not expect to find vinifera growing at 6,000 feet, but they produce Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc among their varietals. But they also grow Chambourcin and Maréchal Foch of the oft-maligned French-American hybrid lineage. They are the only growers in the region to work with hybrids, and a recent freeze event that devastated other vineyards I saw in the region validates their decision to grow some cold hearty varieties. Their hilltop location with its exposure to prevailing winds, plus large wind machines of the sort found in Ontario vineyards, also must have helped them survive this year's spring cold, very similar to the event that hit our Missouri vineyards.

Their organic practices, along with their choice to grow hybrids, is what piqued my interest and encouraged me to look them up by way of a 100-mile detour during a recent fishing trip to the Gunnison River. When I stopped by in late May, their hospitality confirmed what I've often found in the wine industry: folks drawn to the practice of viticulture are friendly, curious and welcoming, particularly to anyone who shares an appreciation for wine and how it's made. There are few exceptions to this rule, and it's especially true in the case of small, family estates. We spent several long hours in conversation covering all aspects of the wine business. I probably could have spent several more if trout weren't calling.

We tasted a range of wines, including a very nice Riesling with hints of the petrol/slate texture found in some Saar/Mosel/Ruwer versions of this varietal. It was truly distinct from California and Washington Rieslings. The hybrids were surprisingly textured, especially the Maréchal Foch. The Chambourcin was a classic example of this varietal at its best as a food wine. The combination of cool nights, hot days, dry growing conditions, irrigation from the nearby Grand Mesa, and the intense UV sunlight of these high-altitude vineyards created a distinct characteristic to these wines. I'll be the first to admit that I know a lot more about a growing grape vine than I do about the vocabulary wine connoisseurs use to describe what's in the glass, but I also know Jack Rabbit Hill wines could hang with any number of wines grown in classic regions and falling in a higher price range.

Organic viticulture, I learned, is much easier in Colorado than in Missouri. I expected to learn of a list of organic sprays and fungicides, but it turns out that they don't have to spray on Redlands Mesa to grow quality grapes. Compare that to our 10 to 15 sprays of various cocktails in the Midwest. The dry weather and intense UV rays precludes most rots, molds and mildews. They're also blessed with that Grand Mesa snowmelt, so they have a ready source of irrigation despite their minimal rainfall. They do, like us, have to contend with cold weather, and it seems like intense springtime freeze events might be more common there than in Missouri. But unique wines always make it worth the extra effort. Adding to the singularity of their product is the small scale of their production: roughly 1,000 cases per year. The wine is made at the top of the hill in view of the vineyards where the grapes are grown in what is essentially the basement of their home. They also have a small distillery where they produce organic spirits for their Peak Spirits line of products.

If you run into a bottle of Jack Rabbit Hill estate wine, be sure to try it out. And if you're ever near Hotchkiss, be sure to stop by. Jim Harrison once wrote that "the sound of the popping cork has brought more happiness to human kind than all of the governments in the history of the world." Lance and Anna Hanson and their work at Jack Rabbit Hill confirm that bit of sagacity.

Sort by topic