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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 !

Friday, March 24, 2017

All Politics Is Local

Nothing better describes the priorities and values of rural life than a newspaper headline in the latest issue of the Smithfield Times. In bold letters, the headline reads "IW will allow chickens, but they must be 'documented' " Granted, this headline is below the fold, but that doesn't make it any less important than the other articles on the front page.

Documenting chickens is the result of some passionate pleas by local citizens to keep chickens in their backyards. Certainly there is a bit of tongue in cheek sarcasm in choosing this description, but the locals take it very seriously. As towns try to figure out how to expand their tax base, whether it be by pushing new industry in a corner of the county, or trying to add hundreds of high rise or low rent housing units in available space, there is the competing desire to maintain some resemblance of rural / agricultural life that the area has been known for during the last 300 years. The tussle over keeping chickens in something other than a farm setting has become the battle cry of these normally quiet citizens.

"Cried like a baby" when a hawk wiped out his chicken flock, said one chicken owner. "They are my companions. I do talk to them." was a comment made by another. "A stress-reliever" was a positive tribute given to these 2-legged creatures.

Just to have to discuss having "illegal" chickens in one's yard brought on stress, not to mention having to explain to the children how their favorite pets might have to be removed from their property.

And now if you want to use politically charged rhetoric and characterize chicken lovers as gun-totting vigilantes who would protect their flocks at all costs, it would bring the discussion to a new low.

I don't know if sanity eventually took over, but the Isle of Wight (IW) Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allow up to 6 chickens in certain residential backyards, no roosters allowed however. This rooster exclusion is not without merit (and let's not make it a sexist thing). Roosters are noisy, and would gladly poke your eye out given a chance, and basically do nothing to help the egg-laying benefits of chickens. There is a problem here though, and that is Tractor Supply or Farmers Service do not guarantee the sex of the chickens they sell. So if a rooster develops, an axing in the dark (so PETA doesn't get uptight) may be the only solution, but a good coq au vin recipe might be the way to arrive at some benefit for the slaughter.

The good news: one can now obtain a zoning permit to have chickens (permit fee is waived.....hoorah!)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Temperature Variations and How They Affect the Grapes

                                                             (bud break - 2016)

One of the more popular questions I get from customers is: "Are the grapes affected by the fluctuation in temperature we see in the early Spring?" I wish the answer could be provided with a simple yes or no, but the fact is that only a long-winded answer provides the detail needed to fully understand what happens.

To begin we have to go back to October or November. It is after harvest now, and the grapevines have been collecting the needed carbohydrates to get them through the winter and jump start their growth the following Spring. As the temperatures start to drop, there is something called "cold weather hardening" where the shoots begin to change from their green color over to brown, and as time goes on a covering of bark will develop. The buds, as small as they appear to be, begin going through a dehydrating process that will provide a kind of protection from the icing conditions that are apt to follow during the winter months.

I am not sure when we arrived at our "rule of thumb", but what we have found is that when temperatures begin to warm up, we forecast our bud break (or bud burst) when we have 10 straight days of 50 degree average temperatures.During these warmer days, the air and the soil begin their climb, which influences the flow of water and nutrients from the soil up into the trunk, and eventually to the buds. To put it in more scientific terms, the warming of the soil is associated with the increased osmotic pressures in the xylem, with the upward movement of the water containing various cellular signaling molecules, hormones, and nutrients. The buds become re-hydrated and they become deacclimated (i.e they get re-introduced to warmer temperatures and less resistant to cold spells). You know all this is in high gear when you go into the field and find that the vines are bleeding from all the pruning cuts made during the winter.

If the vines have started to wean themselves out from their winter mode, there is apt to be plenty of water now in the trunks and buds. A reduction in temperature in and of itself is not really a problem here.A mild short term cold front is likely to just calm them down a bit, but a freeze has the potential of causing severe frost damage by killing the newly formed buds or splitting the trunks. A prolonged cold period can also cause problems, because once a vine has decided to come out of dormancy, it is very difficult to return to it's resting phase.

So what can be done? Prayer is on the list of viable options. There are other choices however, and one has to consider the cost vs. the potential losses. For a consistent year to year problem, wind mills have been set up to keep air flowing through the vines. Having a helicopter hover over the vineyard is a variation of this. Burning tires(certainly not preferred)  or having other small fires may raise the temperature in the vineyard. I have heard of spraying oil on the buds, which may delay bud break by 2 to 20 days. And yet another option might be to spray water on the vines, thinking that a thin layer of ice might protect the buds from even colder damage.

What we did last year was to "long prune", which recognizes that we will loose some buds but hopefully we have enough good ones left to achieve the harvest levels we need. Delayed pruning was not really an option for us because we have a lot of vines but not a lot of hands to perform all the pruning required in a limited time before bud break.

Now let me add two other variables to this. Grape types come into play. Our Seyval Blanc has already seen some bud swell, which puts it on the teetering edge of popping open. Our other varieties show bud formation by their hard knobby presence, but they haven't shown signs of increasing in size due to tissue wetting. Some say that younger vines have bud break sooner than older vines; I have not seen any consistent example of this. Lastly, how much water is in the soil has an influence too. Wet Falls, melting snows, or Spring rains all add water to the root absorption zones, and it this water that finds it's way up to the trunks, buds, and shoots via capillary action or transpiration.

I have looked at last year's temperature charts which confirm my 10-day hypothesis (a sample of one year I might note). In this month of March 2017, even though we have had fond memories of warm spells, the fact is that the longest period of 50+ average daily temperatures has been only 3 days (March 7th through 9th). What I do see down the pike in the last week of March is a forecast of a week long string of very warm 80+ days but sub-freezing temperatures at night. These all satisfy our 50+ rule. All I can say is: "Pray".