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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Pestilence

This entry has been a long time coming. July was a rather dull month as far as vineyard activity was concerned. There was this sort of prep work in anticipation of the September harvest, and an attempt to try to handle the problems that arose last year. There were days and days of taking the weedwacker to the persistant weed problem. There were actually moments when I was gaining on them, and planning to spray an herbicide on them just before I left to go north to keep them in check. And then the Bird Gard came in, and I spent some time mounting it above the rows of vines. It was a trip to listen to.......alternating recorded sounds of crows & grackles in distress with red tailed hawk sounds. Was it really working, or was it just entertainment ? Only time would tell.

I took a couple of BRIX readings during the two weeks, and they showed a decent climb in sugar levels that pointed towards an early harvest for two of our varieties. And then there were the early signs of rot that occur when it is just too humid to prevent such an encroachment.

Like many other times when I visited the vineyard and took great strides getting things done, in about the middle of the 2nd week things began to unfurl. These problems, generally mechanical in nature, seem to require a time span or special attention to resolve. There usually is neither to address these issues quickly.

The Bird Gard operated flawlessly using a motorcycle battery as a current source, but the plan was always to tie this in with a solar paneled charger so we wouldn't need to be swapping batteries. Here in was the problem.......you have no idea how lousy the delivery service is in rural America. Items coming in via UPS and Fed. Ex. Ground sometimes get passed off to the Postal Service once they realize that to make a truck delivery would cost them money. It is cheaper for them to just get the USPS involved, but that is worse than mailing a book 3rd Class. It takes forever, you lose all sense of timeliness, and forget about the tracking. Someday you'll get your package; don't plan on it any time soon.

As for getting the weeds sprayed, that was a lost cause too. I was just about ready to do the spraying when the ATV decided it would only go in reverse. The spray apparatus didn't adapt well to spraying backwards, and though in time I am sure I would have figured out what fell off, was disconnected or just plain stubburn, I decided to hand the ATV off to the local farm equipment guy to assure it would be fixed on my return.

This was a lonely time for me. I don't look at myself as a social animal. For the most part working alone works well for me. Fewer arguments I guess. But in time it does wear thin, and I think it is a combination of being physically beat and mentally fatigued. I felt like Tom Hanks who made a friendship with a volley ball. My Wilson was the Bird Gard, where I could just walk down to Block One and expect a noise from a make-believe bird.

This past month was an odd one to say the least. Diane came down this time, and the harvest season was about to get into full swing. We had gone on a spending spree and purchased a slew of winemaking equipment. There was the crusher / destemmer, the bladder press, the filter pump, and 4 stainless steel tanks. We set up a makeshift winery next to our house to get us throught this trial season. To see it unfold, even on this small scale, was exciting. It was now time to get serious.....prior to this it was just all talk. But the years of planting, weeding, spraying, pruning and all the other necessary things we did in the vineyard were now coming to a head.

Hurricane Irene was fastly approaching us. The weather service was spot on regarding its estimated landfall, and though we were 30 miles west of the forecasted center of the storm, that in itself meant we needed to consider the fierce winds that would be coming our way.

The Seyval Blancs and the Cabernet Francs both had high BRIX readings, and we knew that if we kept them on the vine that we would lose most of them in the storm. Grapes ready to be picked do not stay on the vine when 60 mile per hour plus winds hit them broadside.

So we went out to pick them, all by hand. This year was really a precursor to next year when we expect over 5 times as many grapes. We knew we had a light harvest to be expected this year, just by the way we pruned them, but still we were able to pull nearly 700 pounds of grapes from these 10 rows. It took almost all of two days to do it, and with those picked we put them right into the destemmer / crusher to start the winemaking process. What no one tells you while describing the romantic pursuit of grape harvesting is that you're not alone. Word gets out quickly to every wasp and bee in the area that fresh grapes, with their sugars, are available for the asking. Only an occassional hand gets in their way as they buzz, and land, and suck up some of these juices. And there are always some greedy yellow jackets that take exception to you wanting the grapes they have targeted for extraction. You would think that with a vineyard full of grapes they would just move on, but then you'd be giving them human characteristics with that assumption. So, if you are sensitive to bee bites, pick another way to spend your afternoon; my 6 stings are proof of that bit of wisdom !

All of this equipment was new to us, so just "throwing" grapes into a hopper required figuring out adjustments and operating methods. The crusher did a remarkable job, and when you figure it is capable of crushing 3 tons an hour we were able to crush as fast as we could pour in the grapes. Once crushed we moved the must to a holding tank for 24 hours as Diane added certain sulfides to halt any airborn yeasts from affecting the wine.

While we were doing all this the UPS guy made a delivery and asked if we felt the earhquake . What earthquake ? Though it was centered about 100 miles to our northwest, closer to D.C., we hadn't felt a thing. Maybe we were busy, or maybe the thickness of our crushpad prevented us from feeling any vibration. Who knows. It was not a problem we had to deal with.

The Cabernet Franc came next and these I mostly picked. I was a little faster with the snips than Diane was, and with these we didn't need to be as careful picking around those that had fungus issues as the Seyval Blancs had. It was a much quicker process, but we were playing against diminishing time as Irene was blowing up the east coast. By late day we had picked all the grapes and we went right ahead and put them through the destemmer/crusher. We were now pros at it, and as fast as we could dump our lugs into the hopper the machine crushed the grapes, sending the juice and skins in one direction and the stems in another. Following this it was off to the MagnaCube for overnight resting just like what we had done with the Seyval Blancs. However, this was the night we were to be hit hard by the hurricane so all we could do was cross our fingers and hope our mini-winery stayed in one piece as we tried to sleep.

I generally can sleep through most things as long as I know what the noise is in the background. Sudden bangs and creaks wake me instantly though and that night was full of them. I awakened the next morning at 5, and with Diane steadfastly asleep I felt the need to explore and check on the damage.

I got dressed and walked around the house, looking out the windows as I moved around. This is my normal trek as I wait for the coffee machine to perk my first cup, but usually I am looking for turkeys or deer feeding off my pecans and apples. And this is when I saw our worst loss of the storm. One of our biggest trees was a 100 year old pecan tree. It had been uprooted and pushed over by the winds that had taken advantage of the soft soils created by 12 inches of rain. The tree lay on its side, seemingly still alive but knowing it would be dieing a slow death as it eventually lost all of its internal moisture. It was very sad to know that we wouldn't be sharing its shade in the coming years, and that its partner, another huge pecan tree, would be standing alone where once two had stood. The next shock came shortly thereafter when I realized I would probably be spending a day cutting it up to clean up the mess. Oh well.

I threw on my shoes and started the walk down the road to see what else happened in my sleepless absence. The wind was still blowing some, and the grass was completely dry. Humidity levels had fallen quite rapidly behind the storm, and that was the pleasant result of the hurricane heading north at 16 mph. As I approached the vineyard all seemed OK until I started going up and down the rows. Two rows of Nortons had completely fallen over, having their steel posts snapped at the ground line like they were twigs. They weren't even bent; they were broken in two all the way down the row. The weight of the canopys was too great for the top wires to hold them up from each end; they lay as lifeless as the pecan tree had. The good news here though was that the grapes, though sideways, were still rooted and had just bent over. Still too heavy to move, or even put back on replacement posts, I decided to leave them down until the season ended and the leaves fell off. Without all the weight of the leaves, and with some minor pruning, I should at that time be able to reconstruct their positioning on the trellis.

I walked back to the house thinking how lucky we were to have only lost 2 rows of Nortons in this Class 3 hurricane. Others lost their lives; I just lost 100 pounds of grapes. Hardly comparable.

By now Diane had smelled the coffee brewing and was awake as I re-entered the house. It didn't take alot of convincing to have her get dressed so we could both do the walk again. She was as dismayed by the loss of the pecan as I was. I tried to keep the damage to the Nortons a secret as we walked down to their location, but we were welcomed by our resident turkeys as they had already found the fallen grapes and decided to take advantage of this easily accessable bounty. Once again my mind raced to my next task.....seeing if I could "pop" one for Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey will be as well fed or taste as good as one feeding on my own grapes.

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