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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wine Country Fires

I was contacted yesterday by ABC - Channel 13 out of Richmond to get my opinion about how the fires out in California's wine country will affect the Virginia wine industry. To be frank, I hadn't really given it a lot of thought until asked, at least not from a business / economic angle. My mind and heart had been directed towards the losses out there, and the lives, and it was more of recognizing the years and years it had taken them to get to producing thriving vineyards, and how many more it will take them to recover, if that is the choice that is made.

I had personally experienced a devastating fire before when I had my plastics experience. But luck have it the fire which absolutely destroyed the mill complex I was in managed to allow my business to be the hole in the donut, the only business not burned to the ground. For me it was a 6 beer night, as I returned home near midnight after I saw the fire advance through the mill complex from afar. There was a sense of hopelessness, and I recognized I needed to let it play out and return the next day to see what was left. For me I was one of the lucky ones....I just had to "pack my bags" and take the next 3 months to run my business out of the garage, relocate, and restart the machines in a new location. For these vineyards that weren't so fortunate, they must go through soil recovery, replanting, nurturing vines for 5 or so years, and then finally getting to harvest. It may be 2025 before things seem to get back to normal, assuming that is the choice they have made. An awful lot of sweat equity is used up in building up a vineyard-winery business, and some people don't have much left to try again.

As for how it will trickle down towards Virginia, I don't see it being visible very soon. For the wineries that sold their wine via distributors to Virginia stores, personally I didn't see that many I recognized as I reviewed the list of those affected by the fires. I am assuming the wineries that had major damage sold more locally. For the vineyards however that is another story. Virginia has nearly 280 wineries now, and the local vineyards do not produce enough grapes to supply them. Virginia wineries have needed to go outside the state to obtain the grapes and grape juices they need to maintain output. California, along with Oregon, Washington, New York, and a few other places have provided the boatload of these grapes. Though the current year has been taken care of, future years might be influenced by the reduction in producing vineyards. We'll just have to wait and see.

                                           (Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle)

As I write this the fires are still burning. Emergency crews are working from pure adrenaline; exhaustion is commonplace. Lives have been lost. Dreams chattered. If you are religious by nature, it is never too late to offer a prayer. If you want to provide some sense of comfort, trade buying a bottle of California wine for a contribution to the charities and services that are in the midst of the chaos and could use your continued support.

Monday, October 16, 2017

CAUTION: Don't try this at home

The title of this post is a bit of a stretch. Most people don't have a bull at home, and I doubt if my experience can be applied to an oncoming doberman who has your neck as a target. But let me explain.

October is the month where everything seems to come to a close, at least as far as the vineyard is concerned. Our French grapes are all picked by now, and our American grapes traditionally take the better part of October to be brought in. This year, with the growing season beginning a couple of weeks early, our picking has tended to be pulled up also. We just finished harvesting our Scuppernongs just this past Friday (October 13th) and that pretty much wraps it up. Our minds now are focused already on 2018, where we are putting down 16 tons of lime, followed by some fertilizer, and eventually working ourselves back into weed control and pruning.

However, when it comes to the animals Fall is a time for babies to be born. Our 3 female goats were introduced to a buck back on Memorial Day, and for those that entered our contest at the winery to guess the birthdays for our new arrivals the gestation period was probably the most Googled question prior to jotting down one's name on the calendars we have put up on the wall. As of today (10/16) we still haven't any new kids on the block, and there are still some dates without guesses.  Come to the winery and place your bets....prizes to be awarded to the winners. And I will say, Adrienne is HUGE.
Nigerian dwarf goats tend to have twins, so we'll see how many we get when they have all come to term.

We have also been expecting many of our cows to have some offspring too. A40X which was born on our farm back on October 24, 2013, was the first to have a calf this year on September 25th. It is her 2nd here at White Oak Farm. A sprightly little thing....big ears, long legs and the facial expressions of her mother. It will be dubbed E40A.
Even though this is the only cow that'll let me scratch her head and ears, I give her plenty of room. Maternal instincts far outweigh prior friendliness. When the calf is curious enough, and confident enough in her escape capabilities she will approach me. Until then I am fine with the distance between us. However, my keeping a distance doesn't seem to apply to the other cows. 

I was maybe 100' away from all of them, just standing minding my own business, just watching the herd, anticipating the next newborn to be soon on the way, when the cows slowly started approaching me to see what I was looking at. This is not uncommon. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised when I offer them some sweet corn. But most times I am doing nothing other than watching their behavior to observe if they are healthy, or if an expectant mother is slowing working her way over to an adjacent field to be left alone.

On this particular day though I was surrounded by 4 cows, 2 heifers, and a calf, when all of a sudden the bull came racing towards me in full gallop (do cows gallop, or is that just horses?) and force. This is not the "baby" bull I added to the herd back last December. This has become one mammoth bull made up of nothing but muscle.

Not having time to reflect on life as I knew it, and recognizing that there was no way the cows would block for me or that I could out run it, I did the only thing instinctively that I could think of.

I put my right arm out, with my hand at 90 degrees and with fingers stretched to the sky. I yelled as loud as I could STOP!!!!!!  Well, it's a good thing(for me) the bull's front brakes worked, because it stiffened it's 2 front legs skidding to a halt not 5' from going right through me.

With that brush with death, I slowly backed out of the crowd, and walked away thankful to see another day. 2000 pound animals are not pets; I must never forget that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Harvest Is Upon Us, It Has Been A Tough Year

Struggling. That is how I define the grapevines this year. From an operator's perspective, there isn't a lot we can do other than play clean up and cross our fingers that we don't lose too much crop.  This year has been a 3 - banger.

In the late Winter, or was it early Spring, we had a nice warming period. During this time we ordinarily think about bud break, and we all have certain rules of thumb regarding when the buds will pop. Ours is the 10-day rule.....10 days of 50 degree average temperature and we can see the buds swell, and then open up into a sea of little pink "flowers". We can even have a skip day and it'll still create the budding effect, assuming we had some decent sap flow and mild Spring rains.

But with early winter thawing also comes the possibility of a quick freeze, which may or may not directly damage the buds. This year however the sap began to flow too soon, and a freeze caused the cells to expand and rupture. We saw many of our thinner cordons and shoots die immediately. All one has to do is look at our Petit Verdot, which is growing on a hill with the rows facing North-South, where the southern ends are on the uphill. About half way down the hill the vines show a distinct loss of fervor or life. Protective warm air flows uphill you see.  It is sad.

The Spring brought on plenty of rain. Normally a good thing for a farmer. The corn around here shot up to the skies. Grapes though, at least established grapes, have fairly deep roots so heavy rains really don't help much, especially when you have a high water table as we do. Rains bring on the potential for fungus, and as our summer came upon us, we started seeing black rot spread throughout the vineyard. We spray for this possibility as part of our normal operating procedure, but entrenched spores take advantage of our off days and grab the leaves with a vengeance. At first you get little rust spots, but then these expand to destroying the entire leaf. The grapes, still too hard for black rot to attack, seem to go untouched, but the reality is that as soon as the grapes go through veraison when the skins soften, the grapes swell, and the sugars accumulate, the black rot finds a new food source and starts to do it's damage. Right now we have little black spots on the grapes that could develop into a pretty sad situation. We are at least aware of this and hopefully harvest will come before the rot becomes a major factor.

Right about now Rich should be pulling leaves to maximize sun exposure of the grape bunches. With the severe leaf damage from the fungus, and a late season heat spell, prudence was exercised, recognizing an even further leaf loss would substantially effect the grapes from maturing and getting the sugar level we need.  New growth, which seemed at least temporarily to escape the fungus onslaught, began to show severe leaf curl as the edges dried out from the heat and lack of rain. You can't win.

So, with August now in full swing, we are planning on harvesting our Seyval Blanc on August 19th. Our current Brix level is around 15+, but we're gaining ground rapidly as the sun persists to shine. A major rain is due in today which may dilute our sugars some, but like everything else, we'll see how it has affected the grapes tomorrow. I suspect we will be picking the rest of grapes in rapid succession
since their Brix levels are not too far behind, all except our Scuppernongs which regardless seem to take forever to get ready.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Our Goats are in the Entertainment Industry

I don't know if I represent everyone else out there, but on my cell phone I have managed to sign up for a few news apps to keep me "up to date" on the latest happenings. I have Flipboard, and Play Newsstand (my personal favorite), and I used to have FoxNews but I just couldn't take it anymore. Even I have my limits on being flooded with conservative-leaning rhetoric.

And in signing up for these, they think they are helping out by asking us what some of our news preferences are, so they can appropriately feed us "the news we want to know". I didn't check nuclear war so I hope they feel they can interrupt whatever I am reading to fill me in on some other important stuff.

Well, it appears that I signed up somewhere for "farm animals", because at least weekly I get a story about some innocent passer-by who was killed or trampled (generally that leads to a similar end) by a cow. Having 7 of them myself, ranging from 500 to 2000 pounds, I can attest to the fact that getting on the wrong side of one is not a welcome sight. I have had mother cows charge me because I was tagging their newborn calf, and have been head-butted more times than I can count. It takes an idiot to think they can out maneuver or out run a cow. Better to back off and retreat and be able to talk about it than hold one's ground and find out you'll be 6' under after the wake. But this isn't a conversation about cows, though I tend to use stories about the dangers of huge livestock as a way to convince people that farming is one of the world's most dangerous occupation.
That's me with a paintball gun, shooting insecticide at close range.

Momma, one eye on her calf, one eye on me.

This blog is about goats. I have been inundated with stories lately about how goats are taking work away from union workers, and that formal grievances have been filed to stop goats from union busting. If you think I'm kidding (no pun intended), here are the stories:

Now some of these stories go into quite some detail. One writer, Christopher Ingraham of the Chicago Tribune, even did a very thorough, back of the napkin analysis about the number of goats that would be required to remove the weeds from a plot of land when compared to a union worker (the answer was figured to be 3600 goats over a month's time equaled one worker  - construction machinery required, to clear 360 acres). Now the fact is that there are very few temp. businesses who manage that many goats, so if there is any real time issue in wanting to get the job done, goats are probably not the answer. But like nearly everything else, if you want to find goats to clear land, Google "Rent A Goat", or, for Pete's sake, go on Amazon under home services. I'm not making this stuff up.

And then one has to remember that what goes in needs to come out. So if weeds were the problem before, 3600 pooping goats might create an unforeseen consequence. In fact, according to the Town of Salem, Oregon, they fired their goats because they were (1) non-selective in what they ate, (2) cost too much, and (3) left behind too much fertilizer. Duh.

Not your typical Union Buster

One of the writers went so far as to imply that the union didn't mind a little competition, what they objected to were the goats working through lunch. Oh, I meant to say that the goats took an extra-long lunch and don't do any real work themselves anyway.......hmmmm sounds like an otherwise familiar problem.

So anyway, in the interest of preserving the status quo and assigning all weed-wacking duties to humans, I have kept my goats fenced in and prevented them from wandering around in the vineyard where they would cause nothing but mischief anyway. They are, after all, really entertainers for those that come to the winery and want to see goats climb up and down the goat tower, do funny jumps, and beg for food nuggets (they are well fed regardless).

Oh no....maybe I have to worry about the Actor's Guild getting all pissed off now?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Achieving Spiritual Enlightenment in Wine Tasting

This really isn't a blog entry that is intended to get too deep. I wanted to share some experiences I've had, dealing with customers.....the normal folk that come to the winery, and the wholesalers that purchase our wine for their stores or restaurants (which I will cover in another blog). They are quite a different breed you know, and both have their unique set of dispositions regarding wine in general.

To begin. I have seen a progression in regard to learning and enjoying wine. Those brought up as the "Coke Generation" are used to their sweets and this tends to reflect how people begin to drink wine. They may start with muscats, or muscadine wines, which are really really sweet. Some are downright syrupy, while others, like our Hog Island Sweet White, have been blended to bring out the best of these grapes without having the experience of swallowing a teaspoon of sugar. For those from up north, maybe an introduction to Rieslings or Mosels provide the same sweetness fix.

From here wine drinkers tend to try the semi-sweets or the fruitier dry white wines. Chablis used to be a big hit, but Chardonnay seemed to take over. A stainless steel Chardonnay isn't over-oaked, and can show you how well a particular grape can taste if you just leave it alone.

Now the big step: going from whites to reds. There are what I would call "gentle reds", and then there are the reds with much more personality, if I am allowed to describe a wine with those traits.

I would include in these gentle reds wines like Shiraz (or Sirah....same grape) and Merlot. Both are French, originating from different regions. They tend to be easy to swallow, have some character without jumping right out at you. They are a nice way to ease into the Bordeaux wines that I describe as being able to stand up for themselves. These more robust reds, as far as French wines are concerned, include those that can be used in a Meritage blend, a blend legally defined as requiring a minimum of 3 Bordeaux grapes. These include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet                                           Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.    

Lastly, if you want to "graduate" to the heartier, bolder reds, take a short trip eastward on the Mediterranean and land on the shores of Italy. Whether it be a Tuscan Red, or a Barolo or a Montepuciano, all of these wines provide a punch.  These tend to be higher in tannins, appear drier, and have strong fruity aromas.

Now purists might say I've forgotten quite a few grapes in this quick summary, and they're right. I didn't slot in any of the Spanish wines, and wines such as Beaujolais, Sauternes, Pinot Noir, along with hundreds of others all have their place in the world of wine enjoyment.

And of course even within the specific wine types themselves there can be significant variations in how they are presented and hence how they are received. I have poured plenty of wines to people who declare they hate reds, only to find our medium bodied, light on tannens Cabernet Franc gets us at least to 2nd base for many (some we hit triples!). Terroir and the wine maker can have a major influence on how these wines turn out, year to year.

All of this gets me to understanding our customers. They may be anywhere along this path to wine enjoyment and experience. Some never gravitate to anything other than the sweets. Others are willing to try our lineup of wines recognizing that they are still in the everlasting journey of broadening their wine knowledge. (And others will proclaim they are willing to try, make ugly faces when we provide tastings of dry wines, and only smile when we finally get to the sweet wines which we pour last.....oh well).

But on rare occasion I find the consequent wine drinker. They have run the list I've described. Yes, they have their favorites, but they also recognize the flavors within each of these levels and have an appreciation on when and where each of these wines fit into their daily lives, and daily meals. It is the dry red wine drinker who can still sip a sweet wine with dessert. The white wine drinker who can enjoy a Port after dinner. They judge the wine not on their preferred selection, but against it's peers or how it will fit in the overall scheme of wine drinking.  They tend to be rather humble in their wine knowledge, though they are really at the top of the pack. They are continually learning and realize they will never learn it all.

I met one this past weekend.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Google Has Everything You Need To Know

On most nights Diane and I retreat to the tv room, plop on the couch, and veg out watching a few hours of junk programming. There are nights of little interest, but we force ourselves through Wheel of Fortune (why don't they allow the viewer to see the puzzle board all the time instead of sending the camera off to the contestant?; seems unfair to me), or Jeopardy, a show designed to show you how stupid you are compared to everyone but the High School kids they occasionally have on. And when you work on a farm/winery with a schedule that goes 7 days a week, sometimes knowing that Castle was on Monday nights helped put you in a new week. Of course with Castle now gone I am having trouble on knowing exactly where I am in the week.

So here I am, at around 8 o'clock in the evening getting an email  message originating from our website. Normally they are pretty good but I cringe never the less on what could be pressing at that moment to ask a question or make a statement. The last one came from Joel and he said he had some solids in the bottle he just drank from. He said they were like grains or clumps of sand. He went so far as to define them as solid and crunchy. He asked: "What could it be?"

We try to get back to these customers as soon as we can. Everyone has a to do list, and quick responses resolve most issues. This was handled promptly by my grabbing my Samsung and finger spelling a precise but, in my case, always a long winded answer. "It occurs primarily on the reds where we don't ultra-filter the wine like the big box wineries." I said.

I can never just say a few words, so I went on to say it occurs in processing where the juices sit on the skins a few days prior to pressing, and ultimately the solids make it past the filtering system and into the bottle. With settling and temperature changes, clumping takes some of these minute particles and makes the larger clumps. "No concerns here", I continued. "Solids can actually contribute to the flavor profile."

Normally I don't hear the customer's comments afterwards. I don't know if they think I'm a know-it-all or a jerk. But Joel was nice enough to get back to me the next day, quoting Google. "Normal, not a problem at all. Second, it will not harm you." Whew, I felt relief that Joel didn't think he was poisoned.  "Third, it does not indicate bad wine and often signals good wine". Another sign of acceptance.

Google did say that chewing the crystals might impart a bitter flavor. This is something Joel and Google have apparently done......I have never felt the need to chew the solids at the bottom of the glass or pour the last little bit out of a bottle that is more sediment than wine.

I'll have to trust them on this.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Serve Reds at room temperature: "Are you kidding me?"

There are generally 3 questions we hear at the tasting bar, time and time again. These are (1) Do you grow your own grapes?, (2) What is it in wine that causes headaches?, and (3) At what temperature should I serve my wines?

The answer to #1: We grow most of the grapes that are in our wine....there is one however that we don't and for that one we look high and low for one that the winemaker approves of. Surry County with it's hot humid (day and night) summers makes it uneconomical to grow thin skinned whites.

For #2: This is a blog subject in and of itself, so the quick answer here is it could range from over indulgence to sulfites (scientifically not likely, though one can be allergic to sulfites) to tannins and then some. Every body has different tolerance levels for different things, and to choose one thing to pin it on would be too easy.

Now, on to #3: At what temperature should I serve wines? This is really not that hard a question, but it compares to the easy answer one gets on what do you pair with chicken or fish and you constantly get White Wines, of course.

Serve whites chilled and reds at room temperature is the common understanding. Serving whites chilled is generally easy to agree on, since most people keep their refrigerators set at about the same temperature, i.e. around 40 degrees. There are those that set the frig. lower, say around 35 degrees or so. This as a basic setting is OK once you recognize there may be some colder spots on the shelf, and those items tucked in the back might get a little frozen. For wine this isn't much of an issue.....our wine never makes it back where it can get hidden.

As for room temperature, this is where it is very easy to "loosen up the crowd" by throwing the question back to them. "Well, room temperature is room temperature!" they proclaim. Unfortunately, as they are describing it, no it's not. The problem is that in their restaurant experiences this is what they're told, and that is how it's served, the temperature of that room. Yuch! I have been served reds that were stored under stairwells, or against the warmest wall in the restaurant which happened to have the kitchen on the back side. For someone who takes a fair amount of pride in raising the grapes, getting them into the wine making process, and eventually through bottling and sale to the customer, all I see here is the equivalent of torture. These grape juices are still considered young and impressionable and unable to defend themselves.

Room temperature is cellar temperature, not the 70 degree temperature the restaurant thermostat is set at.  According to Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson ( 1 of 23 female sommeliers in the world), she says room temperature was the case when wine was served in cottages and castles! Since people tend to want to deal in absolutes, I say this is about 55 degrees.

Now, how do you get there? What I did was put together a rather unscientific experiment by inserting a chef's thermometer in a bottle, and in a glass of chilled wine and counted the minutes it took to get up to 55 degrees. This was more a measure of pure discipline as I stared at my wine, determined not to cheat and start sipping it. Gosh it took so long.

Our refrigerator is set just below 40 degrees and our kitchen was around 72 degrees as Diane started to crank up the heat by cooking dinner (told you this wasn't very scientific, but it makes a point). The bottle took just shy of an hour and a half to get up to 55, while the glass of wine only took 30 minutes. Obviously this is way too long to wait to dive into a good Cab, and it might make you consider keeping your reds in the basement instead of the refrigerator to get them table ready sooner. But if you didn't finish that dry Bordeaux the night before, it is the best way to keep it another day or two with the least possible chance for mischief. I'd rather have a cold wine than a bad wine any day.

But then again, it is rare we put a partial bottle back in the refrigerator to live another day !