Saturday, August 4, 2018

Second Year Vineyard

Well here we are again with another year half finished...    

Many of us experienced an unusually harsh and long winter for 2017-2018; which seems to be a growing trend in our little part of the world.  I worried as March turned into April and the snows continued with no signs of life in the vines.   By this time the previous year, the vines, still in buckets, were greening up with new growth.   However, when the last of the snow finally melted, all but three of our vines burst into green.  Three vines lost to winter kill were less than 5% of the total.  Not bad by most standards.   

April moved into May, which remained colder than normal and with a lot of rain.   The vines continued to produce leaves and flowers…and so did the weeds.    Our soils retain water well and the rootstock is growing strong (as evidenced by the difficulty we had removing the dead vines!) so we made the decision to allow cover crops to remain between and around the vines to keep them from putting on too much growth.   We are now rethinking that decision and may place a stone mulch along the rows this autumn.  In spite of the scorching heat, endless rains, and weed competition, the vines didn’t show any signs of stress.  

As the growth continued and we moved into the beginning of June, we prepared for the onslaught of Japanese beetles.   Sprays worked until the rain washed them away.  The beetles returned and we sprayed again.   And again…and again.   It was getting ridiculous.   Then we noticed that the beetles choose the newest leaves at the tops of the developing canopy.   Maybe we can use this to our advantage when the vines are fully mature and flush with growth in the next year or two and avoid spraying so much.  While we don’t like using pesticides that can harm our bees and other beneficials, we also don’t want to have a population explosion of beetles every year to munch our vines and retarding their growth.  They also take a toll on our orchard and crepe myrtles.  The solution we’ve settled on will be to plant roses, most likely a climbing variety such as ‘New Dawn’ that will also shade the peafowl aviary near the vineyard.    

Roses have been used for centuries in many wine growing regions of the world as a bellwether for the vines.   Their cultural requirements are similar to grapes and they share pests and diseases.   The appearance of something like downy mildew on the roses is an early warning to take the necessary precautions with the vines.   Not to mention the additional benefits of beauty, fragrance, and their attraction to pollinators and other beneficial bugs.   We are also installing purple martin housing to lure these voracious bug eaters to our farm.

This year, the second year for our vines, we also set up our trellis system.   Most of the varieties we planted do well with the vertical shoot positioning, or VSP, system so that is the method we are using.  With row lengths at or below 100 feet we chose to use steel end posts with earth anchors and aluminum line posts.   We selected 12.5 gauge hard wire with Gripples® for tensioning.   I can’t say enough good things about gripple tensioners and the gripple tool.  They are so easy to use.  

We set the first wire at 40 inches so that our Livestock Guardian Dog can pass beneath without disturbing vines or grapes.   The typical height for the first wire, or cordon height, ranges from 36 inches to 48 inches.  Once the wires were in place and the vines actively growing again, it was time to select and train the cordons.  The Cabernet and Syrah vines took to this quickly and easily, starting into the second, and in some cases, third wires by mid-July.   Approximately half of the Albariño and Norton vines also started into the second wire.  The Semillion and Traminette vines are lagging behind and a few have yet to grow tall enough to reach the first wire.   I suspect they aren’t well suited to our microclimate but we will give them another year or two before we replace them with more suitable vines.   This is the reason we started with a small test plot before investing in larger blocks of vines.

In January and February we will begin our first spur pruning in preparation for our first grape crop in 2019!  

And lest I forget, tickets are already on sale for Powhatan’s Sweet 16th Festival of the Grape on Saturday, October 6th!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The First Months - April through June 2017

When we first began exploring the possibility of growing grapes for winemaking, I was disappointed to find there weren’t many blogs or videos out there.  So I decided to start one to document our experiences.  Once we decided to go forward with our little venture, there really wasn’t much to report.  We selected the site on our property, did soil tests and attended as many vineyard related functions as we could find in our corner of the world.    Descriptions of those events are documented in earlier postings.

Then the BIG day finally arrived – the UPS man delivered our tender little bundles of joy – and we discovered exactly WHY there aren’t many blogs out there.   No one who is actually growing grapes has the time!   I now understand that this vineyard will require more time and effort of us than raising two children.

Our vines arrived on a rainy day at the beginning of April.  They were bundled by variety, covered in mud and wrapped in plastic with wet cloth to keep them from drying out.    I gleefully dragged the huge box out to the designated location only to realize the soils were much too wet to plant.    So back into the barn and out of reach of the livestock dog the vines went, while I went to the garden center for bags of unfertilized soil.   

Did you know that very few garden centers sell anything other than pre-fertilized soils?   Two more days passed until I located plain garden soil that wasn’t actually fine chopped mulch or chemically enhanced.  The weather had been nice and the soils were ready to plant. 

Here’s a little bit of friendly advice for anyone in central Virginia thinking about growing grapes.  Even if you prepare the soil in advance, prepare it again on the first nice day before you expect to receive your vines.   All the rain we received early this year made our late winter soil preparation virtually useless.  After four hours of digging and heavy lifting, only ten Cabernet vines and ten Syrah vines made it into the ground before it started raining.  Again. 

Out came the buckets and potting soil as temporary housing for those poor patient vines.    Between weather delays and my work schedule, it took three weeks to get them all in the ground.   One hundred vines, 21 days of labor.  And that was just the beginning. 

While I was busy spending all of my weeknights and weekends trying to get the last of the vines in the ground, the well-watered grasses and weeds were busy overtaking my fledgling grapes.  Did I mention how much I hate that creeping ryegrass we inadvertently imported as hay for our sheep and goats?  It is almost impossible to kill and I swear I can see it grow.  It rapidly overtook the bare ground around the vines.   It also had to be hand pulled from the base of every single vine…all one hundred of them.   Another thing you can expect after lots of rain is a lot of mosquitos.   I must have gone through a case of Deet while out there pulling those weeds.   At least the weather was finally cooperating.

Once the vines had been weeded it was time to bring out the garden tractor to beat back the jungle threatening to overtake my little vineyard.   By this time there was so much green mass the tractor stalled every six feet or so.   The solution was to raise the blades as high as they would go for the first pass, make a second pass to gather up the clippings, then make a third pass with the blades set to normal.  I think we’re going to invest in a bush hog or flail mower for next year.

Finally, at the end of May, I could sit back and contemplate my beautiful little vineyard.  I proudly walked the rows, inspecting the thriving vines, glass in hand, listening to the cicadas and drone of the bees.  And then I found something weird on one of the leaves.  These odd little spots cropped up on one leaf, only one.  I snipped it off, took these photographs and sent them off to the Extension office where I think they fell into the spam bin.  I never did hear back, but that’s okay.  I walked those vines every day and never saw another leaf like it.   But I did find aphids.  And the nasty mean ants that come with them.  Back to Stranges for more horticultural soap to blast those suckers off. 


Then the heat came and life got in the way so I didn’t get out to inspect those vines for two whole weeks.   And that was a big mistake.   While I wasn’t looking, Japanese Beetles moved in.  Normally our chickens maintain the bug populations, but this Spring we were hit by a fox raising kits.   Now I can accept – even if I’m not happy about – the loss of a chicken or two.  After all it is Nature’s cycle of life, but after losing several birds a day for over the course of three weeks, it was time to shut down the all you can eat buffet and lock them up.   Unfortunately the end result was a beetle population explosion.

Japanese Beetle Damage

I wish I could say the crisis ended there.  Oh no, the some of the Cabernet, Syrah and Albarino vines had produced grape clusters! (How did I miss the flowering???)  Mid-June is already getting behind with pruning the vines back to one stalk so they could harden off for winter and set up for next year’s trellis training.  And here we were with multi stalked vines with roughly half of their leaves skeletonized.  I felt positively evil clipping them back and tying them off to their support stakes.  Worse, I had to take drastic action to save them…it was time for Sevan.  

Tiny grape clusters 

As a beekeeper, I HATE to use Sevan dust.  My preference would have been the liquid form, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.   Fortunately bees aren’t interested in grape leaves and none of the weeds around the vines were in flower.  But it still felt like Nature herself was ready to punish us for such a transgression.   I would take an entomologist to identify every critter that occupied those vines as I toiled under the brutal summer sun.   Most were probably benign to grapevines, even beneficial, but spiders aren’t my favorite insect and those damn horse flies…where did they even come from?  We haven’t had horses in ten years, and none of our neighbors have horses or cows.  Hard to believe, but the mosquitos after dusk were much less annoying, particularly when one is coated with Deep Woods OFF!®   So I committed my crime last night, out in the vineyard, flashlight in hand, delicately dusting the remaining leaves of my precious vines.

What Japanese beetles can do to a vine in no time at all.

Now as I sit here typing away to share with you some of the tribulations the first year can bring, glass of vino in hand, I no longer question the cost of the bottle it came from.   Growing wine grapes won’t be all fun and games, forget those plans of sipping vino in a shady pergola, enjoying the sun setting over your vines – at least not yet.  It is going to be work…lots of hard, physically demanding work.  And sometimes you have to make hard choices.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

It is Official !!!

The order has been placed, the deposit paid and on April 6, 2017 GSF&V will take delivery of our first vinifera grape vines.   This first test block planting will include Albariño, Syrah (Clone 100), Syrah (Clone 877), Sémillion, Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon (Clone 337), and Traminette.

Why did we select these particular varieties?   The reasons are complex and simple.  Most vignerons prefer to grow the grapes that the wineries want to buy.  While we also wish to have a market for our grapes (we hate waste!), we also want grapes that make wines we enjoy, which should grow well in our vineyard and that are not commonly available to home vintners (boxed juice base.)   If you are a small home-vintner and want to try something fresh and different, give one of these varieties a try!

Albariño is a green-skinned grape variety native to the north Atlantic coast of Spain where it is that county’s version of Chardonnay -- the primary grape grown.   It is high in acidity, and can produce a range of types from light white wine, to oaked, treated sur-lie or processed batonnage for a fuller, richer style.  Albariño grapes make a perfect drink-it-now wine for seafood, with characteristic peach, citrus and mineral traits.  It grows well in Virginia and is increasing in popularity.

Syrah (or Shiraz) is a thick-skinned red grape variety that is also great with seafood, especially grilled or spicy fish, shellfish or mussels and other bold flavors from black and blue burgers to barbeque.  It also compliments roasted vegetables.   As a varietal, it has pronounced up front flavors of dark fruits - from sweet blueberry to savory black olive - with a spicy or peppery note in the aftertaste. Syrah is often blended with grapes that add more mid-palate, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.  In France it is one of the grapes found in the classic wines of the Côtes du Rhône.  Because Syrah wines have such thick skins with high tannin, winemakers commonly cold soak (aka extended maceration) the grapes for days (or weeks) to increase color and fruit while decreasing tannin and herbaceous flavors . Cold soaking (aka extended maceration) increases color and fruitiness in a wine while also reducing harsh tannin and herbaceous flavor. 

Sémillion is one of those grapes like Riesling which tends to be much more appreciated by wine insiders than by the average wine drinker, who, with nose in the air declares, “I do not drink sweet wine!”   Once one of the most commonly planted white varieties and responsible for some of the most famous, expensive Bordeaux in the world – Sauternes, Châteaux d’Yquem anyone? – Sémillon is now practically endangered and we can’t let that happen!   It may or may not grow well in Virginia or in our vineyard, but we have to give it a try.  At the very least it should make an amazing preserve.

A bright golden-green, thick skinned grape, Sémillon is characterized by its autumnal colors in the vineyard.   It is vigorous and easy to cultivate, and buds later (but ripens earlier) than its most common blending partner, Sauvignon Blanc. It is also not uncommon to find pink- and copper-colored berries around harvest time.  And when affected by the noble rot, botrytis cinerea, it can produce Nectar of the Gods.

Sémillon can have a multitude of flavors, particularly stonefruit such as apricot, peach, nectarine and mango, with secondary notes of citrus, nut and honey.  It is also known for its silken texture, caused by the concentration of sugar and glycerol.   It needs a partner, typically Sauvignon Blanc, to balance these traits with sufficient acidity. Intensely structured Sémillon wines may be barrel-aged, while fresher examples are typically fermented in stainless steel.   It is not a shy white, pairing well with grilled white fish with hollandaise sauce (dry variety) or bold desserts such as citrus cheesecake, or pear tarts with Roquefort crumble (sweet variety.)

Australia makes a phenomenal dry white wine from this grape due to a certain amount of rain that is beneficial to the production of unoaked Sémillon.  This brings out an acidity not yet found elsewhere.  In its home of Bordeaux France, it excels as the great, dry, oaked whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan – indeed some would say wines such as Châteaux Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (both containing substantial proportions of Semillon) express the grape at its very finest in a dry wine. These wines are immensely rich yet dry and can last for decades, taking on an extraordinary depth, density and creamy smoothness with wonderfully lemony acidity, with age. But sweet or dry, Sémillon makes some of best aging white wines in the world. Châteaux Haut-Brion Blanc.

Norton is a Virginia grape of small berries, blue-black and covered with a slight bloom.  The Norton grape was hybridized in the gardens of Dr. Daniel N. Norton whose home in 1821, Magnolia Farm, was located "north of the Richmond Turnpike" (Broad Street) in the area now bounded by Bowe, Lombardy, Harrison and Broad Streets in Richmond, Virginia.

Being a Virginia native, Norton thrives in our area and produces a robust red wine with big fruit flavors that ages beautifully.  In dry years, it can be high in tannins.   In Missouri it is known as Cynthiana and is sometimes referred to as "The Cabernet of the Ozarks."  At the Vienna World Exposition of 1873, a Norton wine won the title "Best Wine of All the Nations."   

Like other robust reds, it pairs well with foods rich in umami - beef tenderloin, venison, lamb or shitake mushrooms.  Horton and Chrysalis Wineries make lovely wines from the Norton grape.

In Virginia, Cabernet Sauvignon shines as the major component of Meritage along with its blending partners Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and/or Tannat.  Meritage, pronounced like heritage, is a registered trademark held by The Meritage Alliance which defines the American version of France's famed - and appellation controlled - Bordeaux.  Clone 337 from the French ENTAV, is a unique clone appreciated for its small berries and moderate yield.  The wines it produces are typically complex with highly aromatic, floral, varietal characteristics, well balanced with the tannins needed for aging, but much more fruit forward and less herbaceous than older clones.  Red berry fruits in a lush international style are typical of this clone.

Unlike the other varieties we will be planting, Traminette is a modern hybrid first released in 1996.  A cross of Gewurztraminer and Joannes Syeve 23-416, it produces an excellent quality wine suited to several wine styles including dry and sweet versions with the former displaying good viscosity.  With two to five years on it, Traminette will develop rich apricot and honey flavors.  The grape also has high acidity and low pH which harmonizes with the fresh fruit aromas and floral-spicy flavors typical of its parent, Gewurztraminer.  It does not do well sur-lie and in warm areas, bitterness and high pH can be a risk.   It is outstanding paired with spicy seasonings such as chili, curry and ginger. 

It is a cold hardy vine bearing large clusters with good yields and excellent fruit quality.  It also has good disease resistance to powdery mildew, black rot and botrytis.  A wine on the rise, Traminette is considered to be one of the higher quality hybrid grapes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 Virginia Wine Summit

As is always the case, the growing season hits hard and fast, leaving little time for posting.

On October 23rd John and I attended the Virginia Wine Summit at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.   The Summit, as stated on the website, "is a celebration of Virginia’s wine and food culture."  We weren't sure what to expect, but we were so glad we attended.  The event brought together many of Virginia's best winemakers, restaurateurs & sommeliers from up and down the east coast, national beverage professionals and wine writers.  We met many wonderful folks in the wine and hospitality professions and look forward to working with some of them down the road.  Here is a link to the website -- Virginia Wine Summit

The morning started off with a blind tasting of Virginia Meritage blends against California and Bordeaux wines.   A Virginia wine -- the 2010 Barboursville's Octagon, was the most preferred and for good reason!  My other favorite was the 2009 Barren Ridge Meritage while John loved the 2010 Jefferson Meritage.  We also enjoyed the 2009 Michael Shapps Meritage.  The other four wines in the tasting:  2011 Stagg's Leap Merlot, 2009 Chateau La Croix de Casse, 2010 L'Ecole No. 41 Seven Hills and 2010 Glennelly Lady My Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa.

Our distinguished Panel

The Wines Ready to Taste
 From the Grand Tasting we went into breakout sessions.   John headed for the food and wine pairings while I went to learn about the Dark Horses, varietals that are uncommon and beginning to make a statement on the wine scene:  Albarino, Petit Manseng, Petit Verdot and Tannat.  Albarino is almost like a riesling and may not be suited for our microclimate though it was delicious.  The manseng was very nice as well and more suited to our vineyard.  The verdot was okay and the Tannat was surprisingly good.  It has been showing up in a good number of our Meritage blends.  We'll definitely look at planting this one.   The wines in this session were:
2013 Crysalis Albarino, 2013 Michael Shapps Petit Manseng, DuCard Petit Verdot, and 2010 Fabbiolo Tannat.

 At a delicious lunch prepared by Chef Jeremiah Langhorne, we met two young winemakers, Lee Hartman of Bluestone Vineyard and Seth Chambers of Naked Mountain Winery.   They had served their wines at the Meet Virginia Whites session.  Can't wait to taste their wines!

We also met up again with Jane Kincheloe, Owner, and Richard Carlson, Manager, of Paradise Springs Winery.   The story of Paradise Springs is pretty amazing, from a rocky start battling the local planning board in 2008 to taking the Governor's Cup with their 2009 Chardonnay!  We're planning a trip to Clifton for a visit and tasting soon!

The lunch itself was fantastic.  I really enjoyed the salad with the Foggy Ridge Cider, Autumn in Virginia.   And who knew how delicious sunchokes are!  Going to try growing those next year.

Following a key note speech by Ray Isle and chocolates from Gearharts , we moved onto the True to Our Roots session.   Vintners from the various regions in Virginia and Dr. Tony Wolf related their experiences growing in a variety of microclimates within the state.  We also had more wine to taste.

In February it is off to the Virginia Vineyards Association Winter Technical Meeting.  We'll be attending the Beginning Growers session on Thursday.  Looking forward to meeting other newbies and old friends!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Test Results Are In

The soil tests from VA Tech are in.  Looks like we are good to go once we have incorporated lime.  With a SOM (organic matter) of only 1.4% we will be adding more compost in our garden areas, but it this may work well for the vines; only time will tell.  P (phosphorus) and Ca (calcium) are low.  Wood ash added with the lime should take care of the P.   wood ash when we incorporate the lime.  Mg (magnesium) is high so we'll be careful of which limestone product we use.    All in all it's pretty much what I expected for unimproved pasture where woodland used to be.

We've also been researching grape varieties.   It seems a pretty good bet that Bordeaux grapes might do well here if we can keep the downy and powdery mildews under control.   So far the possibilities for our test plot planting are:  Sauvignon blanc, Semillion, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec, the Spanish Albarino, Tannat, Petit Manseng, Viognier, Muscato Ottonel, as well as the hybrids Traminette and Chardonnel.  We are also considering the Virginia native, Norton. Since we do not have plans to make or wine, we aren't as concerned with growing varieties we like to drink as much as we are focusing on what works on our particular terroir and what others need or want for their wine production.   The test plot will yield only enough for small batch home production.  Feel free to contact us if you are a home vintner interested in making wine from fresh grapes instead of 'kit juice.'  We look forward to the next step in the process - making our final variety selections, matching the proper rootstock and ordering! 

Here is to Grape Expectations!  Cin-cin!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Playing in the Dirt

We began the testing with a little assistance from our LGD.   His native curiosity is what will keep the four and two legged critters away from our vines.

Even in the small (0.08 acre - 3500 avg sf) area where we will be planting our first vines, the soils range in color.  

 The entire area we selected is supposed to be a type of soil known as Appling Sandy Loam which should be good for growing.  It is well drained, particularly on our 2-5% slope but it will also hold enough water to sustain the vines once they establish their root system.   Here is the description from the USGS Soils web site:
APPLING SERIES -The Appling series consists of very deep, well drained, moderately permeable soils on ridges and side slopes of the Piedmont uplands. They are deep to saprolite and very deep to bedrock. They formed in residuum weathered from felsic igneous and metamorphic rocks of the Piedmont uplands. Slopes range from 0 to 25 percent. Near the type location, mean annual precipitation is 45 inches and mean annual temperature is 60 degrees F.
TAXONOMIC CLASS: Fine, kaolinitic, thermic Typic Kanhapludults

The trick is going to be figuring out which root stock will work best with which varieties on the soils we have.  At 35 inches, the bottom of our test pit, we hit this yellow clay with white striations.  It may be kaolinitic clay.   We sent a sample to the Virginia Tech lab for identification.  Hopefully it is something our vines can work with.

As you can see, this soil is still holding moisture around two feet down.  Our last rain was almost a week ago.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Virginia Vineyards Association

Today we submitted our membership to the Virginia Vineyards Association  an organization of viticulturists and associated business entities dedicated to growing great wine in Virginia.  I wish we had found the organization sooner as they sponsor some great seminars.   The Summer Technical Seminar is to be held on June 5th at Barboursville Winery & Vineyards.   Unfortunately we are unable to attend, but the Winter Event will be a must do event!

Another recommended resource we have purchased is the Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America

We also marked out the location for our test plot.   It is roughly 0.08 acres that could fit 104 vines at 8 x 4 foot spacing.   The area is 60' x 64' x 80' x 40'   Tomorrow we'll take soil samples for testing. Once we receive that information we will have a better idea of the varieties we can grow.

Once the test soils are gathered, we begin the process of marking rows in the field.  Instead of using herbicides to kill off grasses/weeds in the vine rows, we will be using a leaf litter mulch i.e. clean chopped leaves.   This will kill the vegetation, add some organic compost and prevent weed seed germination all at the same time.