A Riesling Thanksgiving

We opened ten bottles of Riesling with our Thanksgiving dinner – ranging from dry to sweet. It was fun to taste so many styles over the course of one meal and see what went well with the food. Overall, the off-dry styles with high acid were the best food pairings.

What did you drink this year?

Autumn in the Vineyards: A Sporting Season

Driving through wine country in September and October, the vineyards will be lush with foliage and pregnant with nearly ripe fruit. After looking green all summer, white grape varieties have finally turned golden, while red varieties have shifted to deep red. As you pass by, the best way to think about these autumnal vineyards is to imagine the final seconds of a sporting event where your team has a narrow lead. All they need to do is hold on to that lead and the outcome will be a victory. But as the seconds tick down, every play, every decision and every movement could lead to disaster. Finally, the buzzer sounds; your team is victorious!

Now alter the play clock to count down in not in seconds, but in days or weeks. Consider that the coach makes decisions that don’t impact the moment, but impact the wine that will be created and bottled several months later. Thus, those final seconds of a sporting event are in fact stretched out over an entire growing season, culminating in the fall.

Moreover, unlike the sporting coach who can make game-time decisions to change players or try something new, vineyard managers don’t have that luxury. While they make adjustments early on, such as treating the vineyard to fend off pests and disease, as harvest approaches, interventionist activities become more limited. And, of course, some threats to the vineyard are beyond anyone’s control.

Although it’s rare to experience a terrific year and have it all ruined in the final days, it is not impossible. After all, winemaking is, at its core, farming; and farming always involves a delicate dance with Mother Nature. Extreme weather, be it hot or cold; wind or hail; or dry or wet, can change the outcome of the entire growing season overnight.

Yet, despite this anxiety, the harvest season is spectacular as winemakers and other vineyard workers prepare to bring in another year’s bounty of grapes. There’s a tremendous energy that simply doesn’t exist in winter, spring or summer.

The earlier seasons have been spent preparing the vineyards for this crucial time of year. After emerging from buds in the spring, the vines have grown, flowered and produced grapes. All summer, the grapes have slowly become riper and are now approaching perfection. In the vineyards, it’s a laborious and meticulous time as workers examine individual berries for preferred levels of sugar, acidity and tannins, and look for consistency in ripening from bunch to bunch. Damaged fruit is removed and even healthy bunches may be discarded to permit the vine to more fully ripen remaining grapes. Such measures require a careful balance between higher yields (harvesting more grapes means more bottles of wine to sell) and higher quality (better grapes means better wine and the potential to earn higher prices).

Fall is truly an exciting time in the vineyards, but it is an anxious one as well. As harvest draws closer, growers will often share their positive observations about the vintage. But, deep down, they worry every day that something could still go wrong. Only once the grapes have been harvested and made it safely to the cellars do the growers hear the virtual buzzer sound, indicating the end of another successful season.

Vine Views: Time for a Change

While I intended to be more frequent in posting this year, a sudden change in plans means that I no longer have a vineyard to write about. We made the decision to sell the property and make some changes in our lifestyle. We’re doing this for all the right reasons, but leaving my weekend farm is definitely bittersweet.

I felt that I learned all I could on my own and hope that I can get my hands dirty with some experienced vineyards over the next few years. We’ll see what happens as the next season comes upon us. In the meantime, I may post occasionally on related topics, but no more hands on updates from my little backyard vineyard.

To the future! Cheers!


Another Strange Spring

Spring on Long Island is nothing if not different every year. We’ve had budbreak as early as the second week of April and as late as right before Memorial Day. We’ve had frost and hailstorms in May, droughts for all of spring, and record rainfall – like the 4″ we’ve seen in only the first half of May so far this year.

This year we had a warm winter and an early onset of spring resulting in very early budbreak. April shattered all records for Growing Degree Days (GDD) with 211, breaking the record recently set in 2007. This is also highly irregular since the average is barely over 100, so we definitely got an early, and fast, start.

But now, as we work into the final week of May, growth has slowed, most days have been cool, gray and rainy, and we really do need to find some sun – and some heat. This past weekend was perfect with two days near 80-degrees and full of sunshine. But now we’re entering another week of cool, wet weather, with some hope of sunshine coming in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

What does this mean? Well, it’s hardly dire straights and the vines are still progressing forward, if slowly. But this highlights the difficulty of vineyards on Long Island. While a region like Napa is nearly guaranteed warmth and sunshine this time of year, we never know what to expect. And the current conditions are ripe for lots of fungal disease – some of which are difficult to contain organically. One predominantly organic producer I spoke to said that, after the difficulties of last year and the heavy pruning into this one to compensate, he’ll certainly use non-organic means early this season to assure the disease pressure is kept down.

Two years in a row of reduced crop takes its toll on the vines, but also on the wallet.

So Much for Spring

It’s been a chilly and occasionally wet week, so after an early budbreak, things are progressing slowly now. There doesn’t appear to be a chance of freeze or frost in the next week, so that’s good – just means that the mild winter isn’t ready to completely relent to spring. At least not just yet.

I won’t have any work to do in the vineyard this week, but once the shoots get going, I’ll need to go through and remove and rogue buds or shoots – especially the ones from further down the trunk. Good grape growing is all about balance and my vines still need a bit of help to achieve that balance, so that’s my focus in the early growing season.

Budswell & Budbreak

On April 7th I found significant budswell in my vineyard – predominately in the Chardonnay rows. The photo here shows a few swollen buds with a fuzzy dog in the background. Over the 7th and 8th I rushed to complete my vine training (I was hoping for at least another week to do this). I was able to accomplish my goal.

When I returned to the vineyard on April 14th, budbreak was well underway – I’m putting my “official” budbreak as April 10th. My vineyard is quite inconsistent with some vines showing clear budbreak and others in various states of swell.

On April 21st, the Chardonnay was showing “flat leaf” with the Merlot not far behind. The Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, was just showing clear budbreak. I mowed the vineyard for the first time this year and put down some soil amendments and organic weed block. I won’t make it to the vineyard next weekend, but the weekend after will leave me with a challenging amount of under vine weeds to deal with as they were already getting thick this week. I will likely use a weed-whacker and then spray some acetic acid (agriculture strength vinegar) to knock them back.

What Happened to 2011?

Anyone who knows me or follows this blog couldn’t help but notice that I took 2011 off. It wasn’t deliberate (well, sort of) but I am going to pick back up in 2012.

So what did happen to 2011?

Well, in Long Island, 2011 was quite a challenging year. It was cooler and wetter than most, especially in the spring. We had wind storms, one hail storm, and a tropical storm (Irene) all during growing season. And while all of this happened, I was “growing” quite disenchanted about my backyard vineyard. I had so many problems that I really began to question if managing this vineyard was even worth it. Going into the 2011 season, I was hoping to get my first harvest. But coming out, I’ll be lucky to get a harvest this year as the vines ended 2011 so stressed.

My biggest mistake of 2011? Not talking to the local vineyard folks. During the off-season, I did a lot of that and I discovered that even the most seasoned farmer had trouble in 2011. I learned that some vineyards had crops around 30%-50% their normal yields and some of those will see similar results this year due to the need for heavy pruning and, like my vines, ending 2011 under such stress.

Upon learning all of this, I began to realize that I didn’t fail in 2011, I simply struggled like everyone else – and that’s part of farming. So, I’m re-energized, even if I do no better in 2012, I will do it with my eyes wide open.

Here’s to 2012!