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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Don Quixote and the neglected percolation test

While it's all well and good to study the experts, often you can learn more from the quixotic fumblings of a pretender. And so, I offer you my latest mishap. We recently purchased a vineyard site. Before we made an offer, I was careful to assess its potential: I checked with the state extension viticulturist, who kindly accompanied me to the site to offer his opinions; I verified the wind direction and the aspect (direction of slope); I made sure there was an affordable water source for irrigation (3.5 acre lake); I tested the soil minerality and PH at the university lab; I made sure that there was good airflow and that the vineyard block sites were not subject to cold air ponding; and I checked the drainage maps, which told me that most of my vineyard bloc locations lie in "moderately well drained Winifield loam." Everything looked good, so We made an offer and were fortunate to get our target price.

Now, of all of these qualities the absolute most important characteristic of a vineyard is soil drainage. One might argue that, in freeze- and frost-prone areas like the Midwest, cold air drainage and frost-damage potential are equally important, but I think those come a close second.

It was winter when we bought, and I hadn't run soil percolation tests because of the frozen ground. So when spring came and the pasture thawed and drained off the early-spring mud-soup period that most Missouri country goes through, I dug a few holes, filled them with water, then measured the receding water over a one-hour period. It came out to roughly two inches per hour, which matches the "moderately well drained" description in the state soil maps. I was reassured.

But then I ran a more ambitious test. I dug four 12-inch holes in the area of my first planned vineyard block (2 acres, see the red X on the above map), filled them with water, waited four hours (they were almost totally drained by then) and then filled them again. I waited 24 hours and returned, expecting them to be empty. But they had only drained 7-9 inches. This was not good. After 24 hours, the second filling should be completely drained.

Drainage is important because quickly drained soil means deeper roots, which make for healthy vines for a number of reasons. It also means that vines won't get wet feet, and that vine stress can be encouraged at certain points during the season, benefiting fruit quality.

So I skipped one important step in evaluating a vineyard site. I have an excuse, as the ground was frozen. I didn't want to wait until spring or summer and chance losing the property or having to pay more because that's when the land market tends to pick up. But still, if I had waited, I may have found a better-suited property. This site has a number of advantages: it's high, ridgetop location and it's wind and sun exposure are excellent; it has scenic views; it has good distance from nearby forests to reduce deer pressure and the other challenges of proximity to woodlots. But still, I wish I'd done the drainage tests up front.

All is not lost. I still have one more drainage test to run: the 3-footer. It entails digging a 36-inch hole with a post digger, scrubbing the sides with a nail-studded 2x4, filling it to the brim with water, waiting 72 hours and then checking it again. The water should be gone. This could indicate an overall well-drained soil that just has some compacted layers between 12 and 36 inches. These layers could be ripped with a deep plow or by a dozer with a shank: an easy and inexpensive fix. Or I may repeat all 3 tests in the summer during normal rain conditions (our spring has been wet) and find that the drainage is good enough. But I may eventually find that I need to take more drastic measures, such as installing French drains or drainage tiles under each row. That would increase the planting costs per acre. I still may be able to produce good fruit, but I'd be starting with a much smaller acreage as hiring a drainage contractor would eat up a good deal of my funding.

We've all been cautioned about making assumptions. I trusted the soil maps. They can be a useful tool in site selection, but doing comprehensive drainage testing is essential so you know what you're getting yourself into. It wouldn't hurt to even hire a backhoe and dig soil pits to study before you pull the trigger on a purchase.

Even though its a suspect concept, it's always fun to talk about the "terroir" of your vineyard. The French claim that their terrior, which is the combination of the soil, the history, the culture and climate of a region and its cumulative effects on the grapes, creates some magical formula that makes one region superior to the other. I'm not sure I agree. But I do agree that every region does have a different terrior, or set of characteristics which serve to make a distinct wine. It bucks some of the romance to think that part of your terroir includes contractor-installed drain tiles that artificially change the natural drainage of your soil. It's like when you hear of a big outfit like Mondavi using bulldozers to push over an entire mountain to change its aspect. That sort of knowledge will always leave a different taste in your mouth.

So when you get the idea one evening while enjoying a good glass of wine on the veranda that, "Hey, maybe I should plant a vineyard," without any idea of what you're getting yourself into, realize that you're going to need an entire re-education to make this work. If you're lucky, you'll find that you enjoy the re-education rather than find it tedious. And as always, taking shortcuts could end up costing you in the long run.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

News roundup

_Can you really feel good about buying "fair trade" wines?
_BBC has a nice wine portal.
_Washington State now has 500 wineries; will have to go there someday.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A solution to the red wine migraine?

Perhaps there is hope. To drink wine with impunity again would make me a happy fellow:
_ Red Wine Headache vs. Sulfite allergy
_ Some vitimine suggestions and home remedies
_ Advice from a foodie discussion board
_ More wine headache stuff

My favorite home remedy in the bunch..."a glass of beaujolais and a 500mg magnesium pill every evening.
' Folks also suggest avoiding American oak, popping vitimin B5 and some stuff called "quercetin/bromelain"

News roundup

_ The Pope of Beaujolais turns 74
_ Sean Connory and pairing wine with lamb
_ An Organic wine primer
_ News on the recent freeze and damage to Missouri crops.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wine and migraines

My new condition has me researching migraines. Here's an article on red wine and migraines. Also, this article seems to claim that it's not the sulfites that cause red wine headaches: instead it may be phenolic flavanoids leeched from the red skins. Actually, sulfites are natural byproducts of fermentation and it is impossible to have sulfite-free wine.

Monday, April 16, 2007

O cruel fate!

Weather reminds us that despite our advances as a culture we're still at the mercy of a series of natural systems. Like a fragile new shoot that will drop from a vine if you accidentally brush it with your sweater, all life is perched precariously on this great green and blue rock on which we reside. Last year my wife, daughter and I huddled in our cellar while village sirens announced the passage of more than eighty tornadoes. Such moments give you the perspective of a bug before the onrushing windshield.

The cold snap I documented in my previous post has brought more to my world than dramatic losses to our region's grape crops and massive freeze damage to my little test vineyard. I can be cynical and say that it's good for me to have this learning experience now, never mind the suffering of commercial growers. But the fickle weather systems have gifted me with an entirely new experience: a devastating migraine headache. My first one was on a bright morning just one day before the weather began to turn. We went from one of the warmest late March stints in the past 118 years to the absolute coldest on record. The vineyards and peach crops were wiped out. My headache preceded this front and should have served as warning. I woke up in agony that morning. I couldn't stand up without dropping to my knees and puking like a frat brother in the wee hours after binging on light beer and tequila. I was photophobic...needing a dark room all day. It felt like someone was shoving their thumb into my eye socket. Somebody big. I was babysitting Bailey all day, and I lay on a blanket in the shade while she ran up and down the hill behind our house. It was a pleasant day, but there were dark clouds on the horizon warning of the approaching cold front.

After that first headache, others followed. It's taken me a while to discover a pattern, but the worst of the migraines seem to blossom in the early morning after an evening that included a modest glass of red wine. I've heard of plenty of people with this condition, and I once had sympathy mixed with indifference: after all, that left more red wine for me. But my callus impulse has come back to haunt me.

Now, all of a sudden, on the heels of that cold snap, the red stuff, the glistening claret, the healthy tonic for all of life's woes, the elixir of now my curse. I mean, dear Fate, what the hell is going on? You couldn't conceive a more cruel punishment? We just purchased last month a little spot of land with designs of planting a vineyard. And right now the headaches are so bad that it's not even worth the risk of a half glass.

I'm running experiments now, one night with no wine, one with white, one with a touch of red. Perhaps it's coincidence. But so far, when I've avoided wine, I've been better for it. Perhaps when this spate of noxious weather passes things will get back to normal. Or maybe I'm stuck with this condition. Maybe I'll go on to grow winegrapes to make a product I'll never be able to consume. I'll sit on my tracter, mowing the aisles of premium vinifera while sipping on a Stag beer.

When stuff like this happens, you just have to shake your head with incredulity. When facing other crises (and do not doubt that this is a great crisis in my world), I'd often have a recipe and wine pairing ready as tonic...after all, harsh realities of life are more easily faced with a belly full of red meat and garlic, and then your veins flowing with a gentle Pommard or a spicy Australian shiraz. But I'll have to muddle through this challenge some other way.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Over before it starts

The winds hammered us out of the northwest for four days, dropping the temperature to seventeen degrees. The buds had just broken two weeks to0 early, ushering in a period of prolonged frost worry. But by April 9, the worry was over. The primary buds, many of which had turned into one-inch shoots, were dead on most varieties. This photo is of a freeze-killed traminette shoot.

Many growers lost everything. I'm still experimenting at this point. My commercial vines won't get planted until Spring '09. I won't have a crop until '11 or '12. But for those growers for whom this is all they do, it's going to be a tough year.

Below 22 to 24 degrees (F), young buds and shoots will sustain damage. Fortunately, the vines probably not die. It's possible that, once the sap starts running, trunks and cordons can sustain damage they'd otherwise be able to survive in the winter. But it's not a certainty. If the vines died, that would be truly disastrous, growers would be set back years rather than simply lose on crop (and possibly impact the following year's crop as well).

Some folks will get a crop. Each bud is actually a packet of three, holding two buds in reserve for just such an occasion. But the secondary and tertiary buds are usually not fruitful. Some hybrid varieties can actually sustain a solid secondary crop, but it's not common.

One grower recently said that it's time to start looking to the '08 crop. It'll be a long wait.

More info on the cold snap.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Early budbreak

The buds are already breaking in my test vineyard. It's a full two weeks earlier than last year. The budbreak has been creeping up over the last six years in my little lab vineyard: a day here, a day there depending on variety. But this is two weeks. And it's not just my vines: commercial growers all over the region have been reporting similar circumstances. In Arkansas, shoots are already six inches. In St. James, Missouri, two.

The budbreak also seems less even, with some buds breaking and others barely beginning to swell.

A global warming pattern is undeniable, and all growers I know embrace it as a fact. They see evidence every year when they record the activity of their vines. But two weeks is a huge jump. And this makes growers extremely worried. In our region, we can get a frost as late as May 1. Buds normally break mid-April giving wine growers two weeks of frost-worry. But this year it's an entire month. It's as if the vines are playing an April Fools Day trick. Vineyard managers aren't laughing, though.

A patch of ground that wants to be a vineyard when it grows up

I spent a couple hours at our vineyard site this afternoon with my daughter. She's only three and a half, but I'm already starting to groom her for her career in viticulture. The grass is a surreal emerald green, ankle high fescue. Whenever I stand somewhere in the center of this empty pasture, I can picture vines all around. Nobody else can see them, but I do. Is it vision or hubris? We'll find out which.

Our property is a southeast to southwest-facing bowl of roughly 21 acres that wraps around a 3.5 acre lake. All of it is ridge top or slope. I believe I can squeeze 6-7 acres in premium vineyard blocks.

Today we ran a pair of unscientific percolation tests. We dug 12" post holes, filled them with water, stuck a yardstick in and recorded the levels every 10 minutes. We're getting approximately 1 inch of drainage every twenty minutes. That seems decent, though we'll know a lot more after more tests and after we dig and inspect several soil pits to get a look at the subsoil.

We also transplanted a few one-year-old red cedars along the west side of the lake. With prevailing winds out of the west, I want a screen to help collect any drifting fungicides and keep them from building up in the water in the event we ever want to use the lake for recreation.

Right now I plan to plant in Spring '09. Until then I'll try to learn as much as possible by taking courses, reading and helping other growers in their vineyards.

Best cellar

Here's a basic overview on how to start a wine cellar.

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