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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Terroir - my take on this often misunderstood term

If you participate in social circles that throw out a lot of wine speak, terroir ,pronounced tear-war (rhymes with car), often comes up as either an insignificant contribution to wine making or a major influence on how the wine is going to turn out. How can both opposing viewpoints be correct? Strange as it may seem they both may have validity, but an awful lot of which side you choose depends on where your wine grapes start, and who the winemaker is.

So lets start with what the actual word means. It is a "catch all", in as much as it lumps together the influences of soil, climate, and terrain on the growing vine. It is often said that the quality of the wine starts in the vineyard. Certainly there is a lot of truth to that. Garbage fruit almost always leads to crappy tasting wine. The wine maker can be a genius but there is just so much that can be done if the fruit isn't of an acceptable quality. But lets go a little further with each of these elements.

Soil has 3 purposes. First, it is there to support the vine. It holds the roots in place and provides some capability to vertically hold the vine up. Second, it is a skeletal network of particles that holds water, from which the roots are able to soak up the water which is a major carrier for nutrients. And lastly, due to its make-up, in time mineral and elements are released by the solids that eventually make their way to the plant via the water. Now some soils are better at water and nutrient transfer than others, and much like what we say about humans, i.e. you are what you eat, some of this is true for grapevines too. Some variance in soils can be addressed by choosing rootstocks that perform better in particular soils. Soils that provide adequate water drainage are better for vines than those that hold water in high amounts. There is an "old" saying that grape vines don't like wet feet. The fact is, that most plants don't like unduly wet soils because the water replaces the oxygen normally caught in the nooks and crannies found in granular soils, hence drowning the plant from the bottom up. But another downside occurs from too much water just prior to harvest, where it then will be pulled up into the vine and eventually get its way into the fruit, which dilutes the sugars.

Climate may seem like an easily understood term, and for the most part it is. A longer growing season is good for the grapes to accumulate the sugars required. Seasonal average rains provide the waters needed for nutrient transfer and healthy growth. Winds dry off leaves to reduce fungus growth or promote transpiration. Sometimes choosing a particular cold hearty vine is a way to counter the occasional late season frost, but to second guess those once every hundred years occurrences may be a futile effort if it counters with the desire to make specific wines from specific grapes.

Thirdly, it is of common agreement that planting on the southerly side of a hill allows greater sun exposure, and a slightly sloping plot provides the water drainage from severe rains or snow accumulation.

If one studies France regarding their declaring certain regions to be of Grand Cru or Premier Cru quality, vs. Village, they are taking these three aspects of terroir into consideration. Of course there may have been some politics involved a few hundred years ago, since one theoretically can charge more for their wines from a defined better piece of land, but through the years the quality of the wines from specific plots support the regional classifications.  This brings us back to the contribution the winemaker has in making the wine.

Let's face it, if you are a fifth or sixth (or more) generation winemaker in Burgundy France, which covers about 1/4 the size of Virginia, you pretty much know how to make wine as good as the next guy. Given exactly the same soils and climate and terrain, your wines should be every bit as good as your neighbors. For the every day wine drinker, they probably couldn't tell much quality difference between these various Chateau wines. It's like being able to describe in fine detail the sound quality differences between Harman Kardon speakers and those from Radio Shack if you're a casual every day listener. But certainly minute differences in these terroir features, and maybe a little bit better wine making skills may lead one to achieve a slightly better wine.

Why have I gone in great length to discuss terroir? Because I have finally recognized how difficult it is to make good wines in Surry, Virginia. The soils are adequate at best, having been beaten up by decades upon decades of row crops that have depleted the soils of organic matter and nutrients, and have experienced erosion leaving soils empty of nutrients with acid imbalances.  The weather is a major challenge, with its very hot and humid summers, either too little or too much rain, late season frosts or season-ending hurricanes. And lets not overlook the terrain. Lands that are flat as a pancake that promote standing water and high water tables.

So I find it amazing in retrospect that our 1st generation wine maker here can do as well as she is doing under less than ideal circumstances.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

This has been a very tough year

As the title suggests, 2018 will go down as the year where our willpower has been tested, and whether our backup plans were solid enough to carry us through the tough times. Now that our harvest is officially over, I can look back at how the year started, which wasn't good.

I remember Rich telling me in the late Winter months how he didn't like what he was seeing in the vineyard regarding vine death. Instead of getting really bummed or excited, I just decided that I was going to wait for Spring to come around and then see what buds popped up and that alone will determine how devastating the winter had been.

For me I was pruning the Scuppernongs right in front of the winery. For this native American variety, it takes 10 plus minutes to prune each one, so to go through them all meant I was pruning right into March. A cut here and a cut there saw sap flowing like no tomorrow. If it was a maple tree I'd be collecting buckets upon buckets of sap for syrup processing. I eventually finished the pruning and then it was wait and see time for the buds to begin swelling and eventually open up.

February is way too soon to think the harsh winter temperatures are behind us, and wouldn't you know it we had a couple of freezing nights in March that caused major winter kill. It didn't matter  if the vines were well established and 5 years old, or were small vines going into their 2nd or 3rd year. Once sap flows, the plant cells expand and bloat, and with a quick freeze all of these cells explode. Two inch thick trunks split, cordons and canes immediately died. All of our French varieties got slammed, and even our Scuppernongs were severely affected. Very few of our French survived, with just a handful getting some kind of renewal growth above the graft. The Scuppernongs managed to go through major recovery by developing new shoots originating from the root area where grafting isn't an issue and therefore they were on their way back to becoming fruitful vines, albeit 3 years before we see any positive results.

All in all we probably lost 60% of our vines, and even those that managed to survive, such as our Nortons (another American grapevine) and our Seyval Blanc (a French-American hybrid) gave us reduced yields when we finally came to picking. Such is farming I guess. Unlike row crop farmers, we are dealing with perennials here that take years to get to a commercial harvest level.

So we started picking our Seyval Blanc grapes back in mid-August and waited a few weeks for the Nortons to get ready, which primarily means letting them hang as long as possible to accumulate sugars. Those we started picking on September 8th, which was about the same time they began tracking Hurricane Florence in the Atlantic. Just 2 years ago we had left some Norton grapes on the vines to ride out another hurricane and ended up losing them all. We weren't going to risk it this year, especially with the weak harvest we were going to get. All hands were on deck to make sure the grapes were completely pulled before the winds and the rains came through. On Wednesday September 12th the last of the Nortons were collected, and less than 2 days later Florence hit. Not as hard as we were expecting (the Carolinas got hammered), but we were just glad the harvest was behind us.

Thank God for "Plan B's" It seems like Plan A never comes into being, so I might as well just make sure Plan B can be managed and executed as efficiently as possible. In our case we knew that we wouldn't be getting all the grapes we needed to meet our winery demand. Our wholesale business is doing fairly well and we needed not only to provide wine for our tasting room but for our outside merchant customers as well. So months ago I began searching for vineyards with excess grape output and put my bids in to purchase grapes from them. I took one trip up to the Winchester area (about a 3 1/2 hour drive northeast of here) to pick up 2 tons of grapes. And just this past week, one day before the Hurricane hit, I drove 5 1/2 hours west of here to pick up 3 tons of grapes from North Carolina.

All of these grapes are now being processed, along with our own, to begin the journey towards making the wines we need for Spring (or slightly later) release.

Based on what I just wrote, it seems like there was a strart, and an end, with nothing in between. Couldn't be further from the truth, but those stories will be continued in my next post.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Today I learned about Brett

For those that know my summer schedule, I can usually be found at Farmers Markets on Saturday mornings. Other than a great motivation to get up and load a vehicle at 5 or 6 in the morning, it is an opportunity to interact with customers and get their opinions, and sometimes funny faces, as they try our wines. My experience is that they are more than willing to share their thoughts as they try four different wines for a dollar. And I do say they are more likely to say something here than in a restaurant where there is a certain behavior and persona is required, not to mention not wanting to start a debate with a sommelier.

I feel like I am the bartender at Cheers. People stand in front of me at the  makeshift bar, listen to my description of each wine and where I think it is best served and give it a sip. We are more generous than many other wineries.....we offer nearly an ounce of a wine so it isn't just a lip wetter. Customers can taste the wine a couple of times, or let their partner try some too. We don't get bent out of shape by this sharing......for god's sake it is just a dollar. It is Saturday too. Time to chill out and relax.

The majority of our customers I would define as casual wine drinkers. They have a good idea what to reach for when they want a bottle of wine. Some favor whites, others reds, and some only want to drink sweets. Of course there are those that will drink anything, and are proud to tell you that if it has alcohol in it they'll pound it down. We rarely get the person who says that they know what they like after they taste may be how we are trying to direct their decision when choosing 4 out of the 8 wines we offer.

On rare occasion we get the guy (it is usually a guy) who promotes himself as sort of an expert. And we get those that say they have been brought up on Napa wines so that is the high standard they have, or so they say. I find a question or two sent their way that helps define their wine knowledge gets them off this high horse they are riding.

But then this past Saturday I had this lady approach our table for a tasting. She seemed a little reserved, not the normal outgoing personality of those wanting to taste wines at 9 in the morning. She indicated she wanted to try all of our reds, and so I began with our Cabernet Franc. This is when the curtain came down and her friend said she was a wine judge and "knew her stuff". I think what that announcement did was at least allow her to make some succinct comments with some resemblance of authority.

I do not pretend to know everything about wine. I am not even the winemaker, so the particulars of wine making, including yeast selection, acid and sugar balancing, etc. are only something I am faintly aware of. I think she knew this based on my presentation, and was able to provide some input without the need to peg me down a notch. She was confident in her observations, provided just enough detail so I wouldn't be overwhelmed,  and all this without coming across like a pompous ass. I was impressed.....and I am hard to impress.

The last wine she tried was our Bacon's Castle Win. It is a red blend using the Norton grape mixed with two of our Bordeaux grapes. If you know the Norton grape, it has a very distinctive flavor.....gamey and musky are the words I use to describe it. The wine judge then introduced me to the term "Brett". It is short for brettanomyces, a yeast some people call a spoilage yeast because it tends to add off flavors in to the wine. But she proceeded to say that in small doses it can actually contribute to the flavor of the wine and be a positive thing. These lower  concentrations may give the wine spicy or leather notes....something I had recognized but never knew how they came about. These yeasts are very hard to control, since they can be found on the grapes, in the winery, or in the fermenting vessels, and regardless of how well you clean, clean, clean one may never be able to eradicate them.

All very interesting. Something I learned from a customer who was willing to share and teach. I hope some day she'll come back. She judges up in the Finger Lakes region.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hopefully 3rd time's a charm

When I give people some advice about pruning, I generally start with telling them that one must understand the natural growing habits of the grape being considered, and from there choose a  training method that best works with this tendency. And then there is me,  not practicing what I preach and a strong advocate of do as I say, not as I do (or did).

When I first planted our Scuppernongs (a cultivated muscadine), I was right in the middle of getting my Masters in Agriculture and Life Sciences. Here is a case of trying to use my new found learning in a practical way. Though anyone in the commercial side of this particular grape knows, it has "trailing" tendencies, which means it runs along the ground in a wild state. Growers however use a high single wire to train these grapes, which makes them look more like they are drooping as opposed to trailing.

Me on the other hand decided I could boost yields and go against the industry norm and try to train these grapes using a 4-arm Kniffin method. So instead of one wire, I could use two, doubling the number of cordons (aka arms or canes), hence increasing my output significantly. I was so proud.

The good news is that Scuppernongs grow like weeds, and inside of two years the vines grew up to both wires and created these cordons just as I planned. A major problem was seen at this point however, and that was that the upper set of arms appeared to be stunted, with the lower set seemingly getting all the nutrients. Comparatively it was like the size of one's finger versus one's arm. So not wanting to give it another year to see if the upper arms would eventually balance out, I scrapped this training method and went over to another method called Smart-Dyson by clipping off the arms on the very top wire.  This was more in line with the natural growing tendency of this grape. Returning to a single wire support system, it recognized the desire of the Scuppernong to grow both up, and down from it's cordon.
This worked rather well, almost too well. The Scuppernongs grew, and grew, and grew. Many of them filled out the 24' of wire space I had given them, and expanded out into the middle between the rows. Mowing the grass meant getting wacked in the face by grapevines. To thin these out, along with everything else we had to do on the farm, kept getting downloaded in priority. 

Harvest came in October as it had in the past. To pull off the grapes meant weaving through all the growth to find the hidden fruit. It was a hard-fought but banner year. We brought in over 2 tons of grapes; 1000 pounds more than the previous year. The additional labor, not to mention the time and the complaints, meant something had to be done. Was it really worth bucking the industry norm for these extra grapes?

With Rich concentrating on the French grapes at the other vineyard, the decision lay squarely on my shoulders. It was really the realization that in 8 to 10 years or so, we are apt to be using mechanical pickers to strip the vines of their grapes, and the Smart-Dyson method of training, at least how it pertained to these muscadines, would have prevented this. So, I held my head down, not in shame for trying something new, but with the realization that the vines needed to be pruned heavily once again.

When the cordons were too thick to bend upwards, back to the top wire, there needed to be some major surgery. First I had to find adequate canes to retrain back to the upper single wire, and then cut off the oversized cordons which had now grown quite well on the lower wire. It has been a rather painful experience, both for the vines and me. I can easily spend 20 or 30 minutes on a vine getting it shaped the way it is needed. And in many cases, there are no canes that I can send up to the top wire, so the process would then be to set up some new ones in this growing season, prune the vine as it had been for the Smart-Dyson method, and put the major overhaul for a year from now.

All the while I hope I am not significantly hurting our yields in the Fall by doing all this extra cutting. There are no easy lessons in this business.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

What's Dave Doing Now?

I have decided that cows are only happy when you're feeding them. Other than that they are highly suspicious animals that look at you as if you are the carnivore you really are, though they have no evidence to back up their claim. And even with all the "good" you think you bring to them, they wouldn't hesitate a moment to head butt you into the next field or trample you if you force them to do something they don't want to do.

So here I am, driving into the pasture with a pickup truck full of picks and shovels so that I can spend the day trying to get them water. Obviously not having water is all my fault, and the look on the cows confirms they firmly believe that, as they stare at me wondering what I am planning to do, this time. The fact that the hydrant froze, splitting the cast iron head, meant at some point I needed to get up there to replace the unit. It still provided water so I could fill the troughs, and this alone allowed me, or so I thought, to postpone the repair until it got a little warmer. This however was not the cow's plan, as they used the hydrant to scratch their faces which eventually broke the hydrant off from the water line that was 2 feet under the ground.

Cows need water, especially those that are still feeding their calves. When you are a 2000 pound animal, water is pretty important. There was a day several years back when the water was frozen and I painstakingly carried up 5 gallon pails of water to meet this need. Two at a time I would trudge through the snow, place these down maybe 10' or so apart, step back and watch them slurp the water with about as much effort as a deep inhale.  And then I would go back to the house, fill the pails and repeat the process. The problem with this well-meaning endeavor was that once all the cows knew that the pails contained water, there was this fight to get to the pails first to have their thirst quenched. 50% of the time they pushed the pails over, with no consideration as to the effort it took to carry them there. So let's see.....8 cows = 8 pails of water. Spilled 50% of the time meant 16 pails were required. 8 trips then to get them enough water, at two times a day.

This time was different though. I gave the cows some tough love and said, "Screw the snow!" I wasn't going to go through that hassle and not be appreciated. So I waited a few days watching the snow melt, the ground to soften a bit (it never really did), before I ventured out there to dig a trench 25' long, 2' down, through frozen tundra.

Hydrants are a common thing out here in rural America. In theory they are designed to shut off the water below the frost line so when you need water in the winter you can still have it. But if water gets trapped in the hydrant at any point, it can still freeze and possibly expand and break. Hence what happened here with a hose attachment that didn't allow the water to drain as I thought it should.
Oh well, job completed....Dave's happy, even if the cows aren't.
Here is a hydrant similar to the one I replaced. The drip, drip, drip of this one has made a stalagmite at it's base.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Venison - On and off the hoof

One of the more frequent questions we get in the winery is if we are bothered by the deer in the vineyard. My quick answer is generally no, because we allow local hunters to use our land, free of charge, to keep the herds under control. It is a win-win for both of us. Yes, we do have problems with grackles, and lately turkeys have managed to increase in population for us to see where they were able to make great meals out of low-hanging fruit. But as far as deer go, we see them in the Spring when the new leaves present themselves on the vine, and the deer are just plain sick and tired of eating tree bark or whatever they can get their mouths on during the colder Winter months.

We have two vineyards here in Surry, and they are on opposite corners of the County. Up in the Bacon's Castle district, off of Route 10, we have 33 acres of mildly sloped land that is a combination of vineyard, thin forest, and row-crop land which alternates between corn and soybeans for the most part. Along one side is a meandering, shallow creek which provides some water to the land but also acts as a  pathway for wildlife that pass through from one side of Route 10 to the back of our field.

When I first starting making these hunting agreements I signed up with some recreational hunters. What this really came to mean was that they were "hunters in fashion" only, convincing their wives there is a reason for buying all the hunting gear, camo clothing and guns, not to mention an off-road 4-wheel drive truck as an accessory, but heavens forbid if they were going to wake up at 4 in the morning so they could approach a hunting blind in the cold to await passing deer. These are the guys that stopped for breakfast first, rendezvoused at the local 7-11, and then finally made it into the fields at 9:30 or 10. Needless to say, the herd wasn't thinned out by this approach.

But 3 years ago I came across 2 hunters that were serious. They act professionally regarding their sport, understand the privilege of hunting my land and have a respect for the animal they are hunting. Though when you talk to them they will always wish they had more successes than they do, especially with the time they put in setting up and waiting for game, they always walk away with a couple of deer during the season.
They are a nice bunch of guys to work with.

In our other field there is not quite the same opportunity for hunters, primarily because most of the acreage is either devoted to my cattle or the vineyard, leaving very little else to attend to wildlife. However, I do have a few acres that adjoins another neighbor's field, which provides the local Neighborhood Hunt Club (aptly named I might add) a place to hangout.  Hunting in Virginia also includes using dogs to flush out the deer from the wetlands, so these hunters make it a ritual to line up on one side of the trees while others send their dogs through, pushing the deer into the hands of those in waiting. Personally being from the north I don't grasp this type of hunting, but it does seem to work, especially for those hunters that want breakfast first. Chasing deer out of the swamps after they had decided to bed down during the day appears to go along with this type of daytime hunting.

I do not charge for the right to hunt my land. Some of the other farmers do lease the land to hunt clubs and individuals as a way to generate some income. As mentioned above, for me it is a no-lose proposition. All I ask in return is an occasional tenderloin (or roast) so that I can receive a little benefit from the deal.

This year I was brought a really nice piece of tenderloin, which Diane immediately delegated to me to cook. I put some time into it and the recipe can be seen on our website


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Baby, it's cold outside.

It's all about the animals.

Last night was our first snow of the season. Yea, I know. Compared to what has been happening up north, what we saw with maybe 5 inches of snow is nothing. But for us, it cripples the County and all the surrounding towns. With this amount of snow, and very few options as to how to handle it, we tend to hibernate and do the best we can. Hopefully it will melt and we can get back to normal in a few days.

The snow is one thing, but the winds are something else. We have been experiencing 15 - 20 mph winds which makes whatever snow is in the air propel itself horizontally. Need less to say, it puts a damper on our vineyard work. We can dress to stay warm if it is just the snow, but the winds make it impossible to stay out for long and brave the weather. It makes decision-making very easy though; we're going to stay indoors. Even going out to the unheated barn to work on projects doesn't sound very appealing.

But from sun up to later in the day, our minds are on the animals. This is a farm after all, and over the last couple of months our cattle herd has increased from 7 to 9, and our goat population has jumped from 3 to 7! Those following us on Facebook saw that we had 2 sets of twin kids around Halloween.
I am always concerned about babies being born in the late Fall; I suspect it is a human thing that makes me concerned about their adapting to the cold weather. It appears however that the young ones have taken the lousy weather in stride. All the goats have a fairly good fur coats on them, and the calves are running around like children seeing the snow for the first time. Let's face it, none are wondering where their next meal is coming from.....all the mothers have nice rounded udders to fill out their next meal.

Ice troughs freeze over every night, and it is my job to go out there with a sledge to break through 2 or 3 " of hard cap. I do my best to remove the big chunks of ice without getting soaked, thinking that the surface will freeze over faster if the icebergs remain. For the goats I provide extra feed daily, since the ground is covered, and I make sure there is  fresh hay for them to chew on. 

The cows on the other hand go straight to the round bales I have put out in the cribs. Their water has frozen over too, but they have access to some water inlets off the adjacent pond to meet their water needs. And they don't have a problem licking the snow. Goats on the other hand would just assume the snow didn't exist. It's funny how the dominant goat walks through the snow, from the Goat Tower to the feed shelter, while all the others try to walk in the same footsteps. I had been wondering where all 7 have been staying since every morning they have always met me at the feed bins at sun up. Well, I found out the answer this morning when it was still snowing. Adrian and her 2 are on the 2nd floor, Brittany and her 2 are on the top 4th level, and who knows where Charlene is (maybe with Brittany?). They came down later in the day only after the snow was blown off the steps.

Oh, the life of a farmer.