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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Global Warming and the Wine Industry

Things are changing as the temperature creeps up even a tiny bit. What does that mean for Oregon's premium Pinot Noir?

In France, the rise in temperatures may render the Champagne region too hot to produce fine champagne. The same is true for the legendary reds of Ch√Ęteauneuf du Pape, where the stony white soil's ability to retain heat, once considered a virtue, may now become a curse. The world's other major wine-producing regions—California, Italy, Spain, Australia—are also at risk.

I think it's all about altitude. Moving up higher in the Coast Range of Oregon, for example, might be the solution over the long term. Or up into the Cascades.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


This past weekend we screened our short film, "A Country Wedding," at the Da Vinci Film Festival in Corvallis. While this marks what I hope will be the beginning of a strong festival run, it also marks the official end of a project. The short film has reached a sort of terminus. While I'd love to pull the cast and crew together again someday to make the feature version, Killing Crows, that would be a different project.

So now it's time to think of the next film, which is our wine documentary. The idea is still coalescing. Wine is such a massive topic, that we're going to need to find a narrative thread to follow. I imagine the first year will be spent seeking out the characters we want to follow in order to tell our story.

On the technical side, I'm beginning to have thoughts about how we want to proceed. This will be a very minimalist documentary from a production standpoint. I'm assembling a small bag of gear, and my goal is to shoot the entire film only using the equipment that fits in this kit. At the same time, I want it to look amazing, as if it was filmed on high-end gear with a full crew.

I think the technology has arrived that will allow us to accomplish this feat. I'm envisioning a crew of one or two people, a tiny bag of gear, and an attitude of humility and interest that will allow us to have frank, intimate and far ranging discussions with our subjects, as well as sit in the background and shadows and capture real, authentic moments that make up the labors of people who've traded everything in their lives to work in this industry. I'm anxious to get started. I'll be detailing the full process as we move forward.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A new endeavor

Can it be a year and a half since I last posted? Amazing. Time slides past on rocketsled. There've been two harvests. Not a few bottles of vino. A few personal accomplishments, including selling my first screenplay option and making my first film with friends. An award-winning marketing campaign at work. A fifth and a sixth birthday for my assistant vigneron.

I still haven't engaged in my Oregon wine endeavor. After packing up in Missouri short of planting my commercial vineyard, I still haven't sold the property and had the resources to get involved in the wine biz.

But I've figured out a new angle. You have to narrow your focus. Hobbies like making movies and making wine tend to compete for what little free time you have as a working stiff. And I don't exactly have a 40 hour job. Not by a long shot.

So I need to economize. Collapse. My next film project is going to be a documentary about wine. We're going to launch a Kickstarter campaign this summer. We have a few ideas about the focus of the film, though it'll take a few years to truly coalesce. We know the style of filming we're going to do.

My new Canon 7D arrived today. It's an amazing little device that shoots footage that is indistinguishable from a Red Camera (unless your a technophile), and over the next three years I'm going to put it to good use. I hope to interview some famous and some not-so-famous winemakers who have followed their passions, leaving both successful careers and dead-end jobs to pursue their obsession with fermented fruit.

I'll be using this blog to document the process of making the film. It's been a long time since I uprooted my family from our country idyll in Missouri where we grew hybrid grapes and made some damn good wine in a harsh continental climate. I'm about to climb back into the vine rows, and I hope I'll have some good info to share along the way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Oregon vineyard education

I need to restart my vine education. I can tell by my lonely little Golden Muscat vine that things grow differently here in Oregon. No more twelve-foot shoots like back in Missouri. No more six or seven tons of fruit hanging on every acre. A lot less rain during the growing season. It all sounds ideal. Growing grapes should be a snap here compared to the Midwest, right? But I'm sure there is plenty I need to learn about the quirks and challenges a cooler region with fewer heat units during the growing season.

So I'm starting with Oregon Viticulture, a collection of articles and academic papers edited by Edward Hellman and published by the OSU press. The opening chapter is by Susan Sokol Blosser, a pioneer of the local industry who also penned what will likely be my next book on Oregon winegrowing.

Beyond books, there are other educational options. OSU offers four year degrees. They also have a number of workshops, programs and newsletters keyed on this region. If you don't have the time to go back to school, the Northwest Viticulture Center in Salem offers associate degrees, certificate programs and very specific enology and viticulture courses. Washington State also offers what is reputedly one of the best low residency certificate programs in the country.

Of course the best crash course is to volunteer to perform menial labor in someone's vineyard. I learned a lot at Michael Amigoni's vinifera vineyard in Centerview, Missouri. Check out his blog and see how much fruit is currently hanging on his Mourvedre trellises.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Plan

Those of you who've been reading Vinestress know that this blog started when we purchased a vineyard property in Missouri with the intention of producing a commercial wine crop. I covered everything from amending the soil to hemming and hawing over what grape varietals to plant. I also documented successes and failures in my little test vineyard.

But now a job opportunity brought us to Oregon, and we live in a zero-lot-line house in a cozy little town on the edge of the Coast Range. We're landless. Our vineyard property is for sale (attention buyers who need a good vineyard site in central Missouri!) And we're surrounded by grapes, out there, shimmering in the late afternoon sun, teasing us, reminding us of what we left behind.

The job is good and the area is gorgeous. We're surrounded by great wine country. But we miss our vineyard and as harvest approaches here in the Willamette Valley, I'm realizing that there's no way I can remain on the sidelines.

So I've concocted a new plan.

This blog will no longer be about establishing a vineyard in Missouri, but instead will be about starting a wine label from scratch in the Pacific Northwest. As before, I'll document the whole process on this blog, from research to actual steps I take every step along the way. My goal will be to lease an acre or two of vineyard in production, manage it myself through the growing season, bring in the harvest and have it custom crushed to my specifications, and eventually bottle and sell the wine. Instead of growing on our own land, we'll outsource everything. But we'll do the work in the vineyards ourselves, as that's where I've been focusing my studies and experimentation over the past eight years.

I plan to be transparent with the whole process. I'll post the initial business plan for this wine label over the next couple weeks. I don't expect to make any money at this, at least not at first. I was bitten by the wine bug years ago. It's a strange condition. My good friend Michael Amigoni calls people with our affliction Grape Nuts. When someone has the bug, they can't be deterred. No amount of failure...badly made wine, disease ridden crops, killer freezes that wipe out your vines, hail, tractor breakdowns and so on...can dissuade someone from making wine once they've been overcome by the obsession.

So, after a cross-country move and a complete change of direction, I'm back. Wish me luck. And I'll see you in the vineyard.

Monday, August 11, 2008

About this blog (Chapter 2)

This blog is about everything it takes to start a wine label from scratch in Oregon. My goal is to crush in the fall of 2009 with a first release in 2010. I have only a vague idea of how to get there. You're welcome to watch me fail or succeed.

I'm not just some yahoo with a crazy notion. Okay, well maybe I am. But I do have some idea of what I'm doing. Read About this blog (Chapter 1) if you want to hear about my first foray into commercial winemaking in Missouri. I grew grapes in a test vineyard for eight years. I made wine (some of it actually pretty good) in the basement. I covered the Missouri wine industry as a journalist and public relations hack. I've taken courses in viticulture and spent plenty of volunteer hours in commercial vineyards.

I will be transparent in my efforts. I'll post the full business plan and document every step (and misstep). I don't expect that I'll make much money, but that's okay. It's not about money. It's about obsession. It's about catching the wine bug. And then doing something with it.

See you in the vineyard.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our Oregon vineyard

Okay, here it is, our Oregon vineyard. It consists of one lonely Golden Muscat vine. We actually don't have any yard, just a patio, but I removed some flagstones, chopped up the clay and amended the soil and I now have a single-vine vineyard. It even has three clusters , currently in post-bloom berry set. I miss our Missouri vineyard, but until I get back between the trellis rows I'll have to use this single vine as a benchmark.

But I'm getting a sense for the macro climate here, already. One thing I've never considered was the sheer volume of daylight available during the growing season in northern latitudes. We've all seen the giant Alaskan pumpkins, but you have to experience it to get a true sense of the implications. The sun is rising when I wake and sometimes it's still up when I hit the sack. My daughter experiences only daylight this time of year.

I'm mapping out a strategy to start blogging again. I imagine this Golden Muscat vine might make frequent cameos as I figure what direction I'm going to go now that I'm vineyard-less. But I'll keep involved in the business and have plenty to write about exploring this region.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Articles and blogs

_ Wines and Vines has an article on the Oregon wine industry. Especially interesting: 53% of the state's crop is Pinot Noir. I wonder what that means from a marketing standpoint, relying so heavily on a single varietal. I'm anxious to learn more about the industry once we're settled out there. I'll put a Web 2.0 spin on wine marketing in an upcoming post.

_ The Godfather now has his own blog. Missouri vinifera will still have an online reference after I'm gone.

_ UM's ICCVE launched its first issue of the Midwest Winegrower.

_ Oregon State's April wine research newsletter is also available. I'll look forward to learning more about the OSU Wine Institute.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

We have budbreak

Here it is at last, a full three weeks after last year. This is budbreak on a classic, #2 pencil-sized spur on a Traminette vine. We didn't have an ultra-mild February and March this year like we did last year, causing our early budbreak and subsequent disaster.

I don't know how I'm going to keep up a viticulture blog after we move to Oregon and I no longer have even a test vineyard to photograph, though I hear there are a few vines in the Willamette Valley. I'll have to do more interviews and spend some time in other folks' vineyards. I'll figure out my blogging niche once I get out there. Until then, I'll keep posting about grapes and wine with an emphasis on the vines.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Final pruning

I thought it would be demoralizing, pruning the vines of my test vineyard for the very last time. Pruning is an exciting time because, through the principles of spare parts viticulture, you can correct problems and redesign each vine with an eye on making it better this season and beyond. You can replace trunks, improve shoot distribution, train new cordons, eliminate long spurs. On every single vine you can strive for that elusive goal: perfection. Sometimes you get closer, especially as your skill and knowledge improve. Often you do not. But each vine you touch is an opportunity.

This year, however, I won't be able to view the fruits of my labor. I won't be able to see what affect my pruning has had on this year's crop and next year's winter survival. Last year was a weather disaster in our region, so I was really looking forward to this year to wipe the slate clean. Signs are good...this time last year we had four-inch shoots on the traminette. We're at least three weeks delayed this year on budbreak...a good thing.

So, for all these reasons, I thought I might be a little depressed pruning these vines that I've been watching over for seven years knowing that I won't be able to bring them to harvest, suspecting that whoever buys our house might even decide to rip them out and plant ornamentals.

But as I finished pruning this weekend, I looked back and realized that I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. I took a few risks, being more aggressive in trunk retraining, saving fewer spare buds knowing that whoever takes over the vineyard will not likely know enough to do any shoot thinning. When I was finished, the vines were tidy, the buds on the verge of swelling, the whole vineyard ready for what may very well be the most exciting time in the vineyard.

There is a Zen quality to pruning. You get in a zone and things become automatic. So instead of feeling disappointment over the fact that this was my last time pruning the vineyard, I instead experienced a sort of reprieve from the anxieties of wrapping up one job, starting another, packing up a house and moving a family 2,000 miles toward an uncharted future.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The next chapter

I haven't posted in over a month. Ordinarily this would not be excusable for anyone trying to retain traffic on a blog about any topic. But I've found myself subject to extenuating circumstances.

Readers of this blog, who have been increasing steadily over the past year, already know my story. I was bitten by the vine bug more than eight years ago, and after seasons of growing a backyard vineyard and working in other commercial vineyards on the weekends, I decided to buy property and plant a small commercial operation. I was due to plant this April. The site has been prepped and the vines have been ordered. I was about to become a member of the Missouri Vinifera Society, a stubborn group determined to make good wine in our challenging climate.

But life has a habit of changing plans. I happened across an opportunity for a fantastic job at Oregon State University in Corvallis. It was a position too good to turn down and now I find myself up to my elbows in bubble wrap as we pack up the house.

It kills me to halt this project when I was on the verge of taking it to the next level. I can't look at a bottle of wine without experiencing a spectrum of emotions. While this is a brilliant career opportunity for me, it is surely a setback to my grape growing plans. But it will only be a temporary setback. Many of you may have heard that Oregon also has a few vines in the ground.

And as for my vines...I've worked out a deal with someone locally who plans to get into the business. If this goes through, they'll still go in the ground soon and there will be a new vinifera grower on the charts in mid-Missouri.

In the meantime, my blog will be on hiatus while I move. After that, it may take on a definitively Oregon-centric tone. So check back in the future, and thanks for reading. Oh, and if anyone is interested in a lake house in the Columbia, Missouri area with a mature hybrid vineyard, or a twenty-one acre vineyard property with great building sites, views and also its own small lake, drop me a line!



Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Help choose a vineyard name

Now's your chance to participate in our little vineyard project. Since starting this process last year we've come a long way. We should put our grapes in the ground in April, barring any suprises, crises or opportunities that would throw a wrench into the works.

The next question is what to name our operation. At this point I don't have any plans to start a winery. I'd like to sell the grapes to a local grower, but I would also like to establish some marketing equity in the vineyard, especially if I manage to grow the premium grade of vinifera grapes that I'm shooting for. So one way to do this is to work with a winemaker willing to put the vineyard name on the bottle. From folks I've talked with, this seems like a fairly reasonable expectation, even given the small amount (1/2 acre) I'm starting with.

I'd like readers of this blog to vote on the poll on the right-hand side of the page. Let me know if any of these options have a ring. Some are pretty obvious, but they all relate to historic, geographical or geological features of the area.