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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Me and Nicolas (part 3)

 I may have been alone going up in to the pasture to check on the newborn, but back in the winery Diane was doing her thing while Laurie was waiting for a report from the back field. They didn't expect me to walk in, calf in arms.

Laurie had experience with horses and colts, so she came right over to check out what I had brought into the winery. She touched the calf and realized right away that its legs were frozen stiff. The calf was shivering too, but with significantly reduced energy the shivering was subdued, though very real. Laurie jumped right to it as I lay the calf down on some old blankets. She proceeded to do most of the washing with warm towels, and somewhere we managed to get our hands on an electric warming pad to place on the legs. Colostrum replacement was the next item of concern; the calf hadn't had any of its mother's milk all day, and it needed to have some to provide the antibodies that help prevent disease.

I raced down to our local feed store while Laurie took control of warming up the calf. This is like a first-time father being asked to get baby formula, but I also needed a bottle feeder, and anything else I could grab to meet the needs of this latest adventure. I read the instructions on the packet, and asked Susan at the counter if this is all I needed. It was one of those questions I just asked; every country girl knows these answers, right?

I sped back home and put together a small bottle of formula for the calf, and while Laurie held its head up we pried its lips apart to force the nipple in. Fortunately some natural instinct took over, and the calf proceeded to down the warm fluids. Up to now it hadn't really moved much, but with the colostrum you could see it awakening and realizing we were there to help it along.

Evening was approaching, and we made a small bunk, and we also believed that we needed some sort of crib or structure to keep it in place should it decide to pop up. We tilted 3 tables over on their sides and made a 3-walled fence of sorts around the calf as it lay bundled in all the blankets that had been gathered up. It was Laurie that came up with a name: Nicolas. It seemed proper, since it was December 14th after all (and it was a boy). Without objection and with no great alternatives,  Nicolas it was then. 

One of the things "they" tell you is to never name your farm animals, at least those that some day you might want to eat. Little did Nicolas know that naming it may probably prevented it from being prime rib some day.

Being new to this type of parenting, I went home for dinner only to return to stay the night, sleeping on the couch in the function room, being ready for anything that might be unexpected. I watched a little t.v., checked on Nicolas easily a half dozen times, and went back to the couch. Oh my, the noises you hear in a big new structure !  (TBC)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Me and Nicolas (part 2)

 It was the end of the day and the sky was overcast. Still fairly cold; the sun never really came out to warm the air or the soils. As a new "Father" I eagerly opened the gate to the pasture and started my trek up to the new calf. I was on the watch for all the other cows; when there is a newborn they tend to follow me closely as I approach the new addition. They also spot where the mother is, and if she is near the calf guarding it they tend to lay back and let her do her protective thing.

And that is where I found D44A, standing over the calf. Well, not exactly. She was easily 15 or 20 feet away, but quite aware of my approaching, moving her eyes from me to the calf, back to me and then the calf.  I stopped short to try to make sure the mother didn't consider me a threat. I stood and watched. Mom did nothing.

But something was seriously wrong. The calf had not really moved from where I saw it this morning. It had been born in a pool of mud, with its head barely above the muck. By now the calf should have at least been on its wobbly legs to get some warm cow's milk, and I didn't see where that might have happened. The new mother didn't seem to have a clue as to what to do.....that is, nose the calf out of the mud and coerce it into grabbing a tit full of milk.

Just a month before I had an incident where I blamed myself for not acting fast enough to save an animal. It was a goat then that seemed out of sorts, and by the time I brought it to the vet it had passed. It was a sad day then and I took it personally. I wasn't going to let it happen this time. I knew if I walked away the calf would sink further into the mud and perish overnight. I had to take action even at the risk of the cow charging me.

So here I was, wearing my western barn jacket and a lined pair of work gloves, I slowly walked towards the calf. Mom watched me but didn't make a move. When a cow is pissed it may make a head drop, or maybe a hoof stomp. Sometimes they just charge. Ugh.  But she didn't even step towards me.

I try to understand this in human behavior terms. It was very cold that day, and up until then eating hay was the primary decision to be made; store up some carbos to get through the night. Licking off mud just didn't seem like a better alternative. As a new mom she didn't have any past experiences to rely on for the proper procedure for nurturing a baby. The calf was an inconvenience, and I was there to resolve this indifference.

I reached in the glob of mud, put my arms around the calf who was too tired and too cold to even whine. I brought it up to my chest, not caring about how my jacket would look. I just wanted this calf to survive; it wasn't going to die on my watch.

I slowly walked down to the gate, opened it up, went on the other side and locked it back up. Mom never followed and the other cows basically said "if she doesn't care, neither do we". Back to eating hay......there is another cold night ahead of us. (TBC)

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Me and Nicolas

For those that have followed our vineyard, and winery, on this blog, they know that there is more to this blog than just grapes. It is a working farm too. It wasn't something we just happened to fall upon when we bought the property. It was a conscious decision to return White Oak Farm to being an operating farm (within reason). The original farm, run by Harry Spratley, had raised carriage horses. Opting not to fall completely in his footsteps, primarily because taking care of a horse is much like a sailboat with its never ending desire to suck money out of your pocket, we (meaning me, since Diane says all the animals are my doing) decided to go for cattle and goats.

Many of my hair-raising tales include these ruminants, and so it continues as we approached the end of the 2018 year.

Wow! Back up the clock 20 months (from August 2020). I started this blog in December 2018 and never finished it. A lot has happened since then.....2019 being one thing, and this COVID19 pandemic being another. The Winery did well in 2019, and like most businesses who are in the tourism industry, not so well in 2020. But this and many of the upcoming blogs will be about Nicolas. "Who's Nicolas?" you might ask.

Here is is.


As the story begins I do my walk up to the cattle pasture generally twice a day. Only out of habit do I count the cattle; I primarily visit to make sure they haven't escaped or somehow broken the water hydrant which can lead to flooding. So on this morning of December 14th, 2018, I went up and walked through the herd, only to find D44A hovering over a newborn calf. It was her first calf, the one one that "graduates" her from being a heifer to a cow. It was cold that day, and as a new mom she was a bit perplexed. The calf was dropped in a pool of mud, and it was the coldest day of the year so far.

I knew enough to give it some space. New mothers tend to be a little testy when someone  is around their new calves. Doesn't really matter how well they know you; you come across as a threat regardless. After seeing this new arrival I went back to the house and made the birth announcement and went on with my daily chores. It wasn't until late afternoon when the newborn's future was to be determined.  (TBC)

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 it....it 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.