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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.

More growth

When you look back just two weeks you can find an incredible difference in the development of the canopy in these Norton vines. Now we have a full double curtain when two weeks ago we had two-foot shoots. The 6.5-foot curtain walls are established, if still a bit sparse. I'll soon need to hedge at the bottom to keep air flowing underneath. This split canopy, downward-hanging trellis...know as the Geneva Double Curtain (GDC) still uncommon outside of the Midwest and Eastern U.S. It requires more management work and isn't ideal for mechanical harvesting. It's also used mostly for American and hybrid varietals. But Richard Smart, author of the canopy management bible Sunlight into Wine, advocates such divided trellis systems for all varietals, even vinifera.

To irrigate or not to irrigate

Here's an interesting article in the SF Chronicle on dry farming. I'm weighing options on the question of watering. Should I install irrigation?

In Europe, dry farming is the general practice. They believe that the variation in weather from year to year and from region to region is one quality that makes different wines and vintages unique. In California, where it can be drier than many parts of Europe, irrigation is much more common: it creates reliable quality and profit in the wildly variegated practice of growing grapes.

This is a key decision that I will eventually have to make. We have enough rainfall in our region that I could forsake irrigation in favor of allowing the terroir to do its work. But I could place myself at an advantage over other growers in quality and consistency if I wisely use irrigation. If I approach the question as a winemaker, I may embrace the romantic notion of variability, of distinct vintages that are flavored by the weather patterns of our terrior. If I approach it as a grower, I'd sure like to have a regular harvest and predictable income. As I'm something of an impractical romantic of limited funds, I'm leaning toward dry farming. I know this goes against the best recommendations of the helpful and knowledgable folks over at the ICCVE.

Big Vidal

This is a giant Vidal Blanc vine we've got trained along our deck. The twin trunk is 15-feet tall, and if I sprayed this vine more (it's too close to where we eat dinner in the summer to spray too aggressively) I could probably harvest 60+ lbs of fruit off of it. It's seven years old. It often makes me wonder about the possibility of of a vineyard of giant vines spaced at 25-foot intervals. Something interesting to note about this is the fact that the primary shoots on this huge vine were undamaged by the Easter Freeze while other Vidal vines of a similar age but pruned to a 6-foot VSP trellis received heavy frost damage. One would think that the 15-foot trunk would be a liability, not an asset.

Vidal Blanc is probably best known as the basis for some excellent Ontario ice wines and late harvest wines. It's genetic roots trace back to Trebbiano, and it is a versatile and cold hearty hybrid. In this case, this is a decorative vine, and I leave the crop to rot or for the birds. The growing shoots are aromatic this time of year, and they wall off a cozy corner of our deck.

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