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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Tracy posing for her Winemaker Smackdown photo. What’s a Winemaker Smackdown you ask? Well, it’s what happens when you get a really creative media and marketing guy from Roanoke Vineyards and you set him loose on the local wine talent. Scott Sandell began as (and still is) an artist, but he has more recently combined his love of art with his love of wine by creating wine labels for Roanoke Vineyards. Scott has now created the Winemaker Smackdown series simply as a way to engage local wine lovers and add a bit of levity to the concept of a blind tasting.
In this second picture you can see Tracy responding to that levity. I’m not sure what precisely was said, but clearly it was funny. And as the night progressed, there were many, more public, funny comments made.
The Smackdown concept works like this: Scott selects seven world-class wines, everyone tastes them blind, and the panel tries to guess the grape variety (or varieties), location, vintage and, if daring, producer. Sounds like pretty much any professional blind tasting, right? Well, the similarities end there. Panelists are encouraged to wear boxing gloves, dress in things like a robe or a snuggie, and to interrupt the event at any time to break out in random poetry.
Kudos to Scott for being inventive and getting the local community together. For this, the third, Smackdown, there was a sold out audience which included representatives of at least a half dozen other local wineries. And additional kudos to Keith Luce of Luce & Hawkins for both the optional Bento Box food pairing to the audience and the wonderful after-party he hosted in the speakeasy. Just a wonderful night all around!
It’s been a long winter here in Long Island. And all around New York. And, frankly, around the world (but I guess that’s always true). Here are a few points of emphasis:
New York had the third snowiest season on record. And there’s a chance of accumulation in some areas later this week.
After a three week hiatus from visiting Long Island we returned to a flooded basement from a frozen pipe in February. Repairs are going well but, wow, what a mess!
We were personally on our way to Chistchurch while vacationing in New Zealand when the February earthquake struck.
After experiencing all of this first hand and, now, the Japanese disaster (that we are watching from afar) I am personally looking forward to putting this winter behind us. There was a taste of spring this week as we peaked in the 70′s and I’m looking forward to a little more of that. Soon, I hope.
The vineyard is doing fine, appearing to have slept comfortably under a nice blanket of snow for most of the winter. Due to the weather, I didn’t do any deep-winter pruning and only really got started last week. So far, so good – and the signs of spring are there as the pruning cuts bleed fresh sap down the vines. I should complete the pruning effort next week and will probably post a few comments and photos at that time.
This headline may be hyperbole, but, depending on your view, perhaps not so much…
A few weeks ago Tracy and I were vacationing in New Zealand. Our trip was split between four wine regions filling about half the trip and the other half focusing on New Zealand cultural and adventure activities. It was a totally fabulous trip and I can honestly say that the Kiwi’s are the most hospitable people I have ever met. Genuinely friendly, welcoming and taking even thr toughest curve balls in stride, these are some amazing people! Little did we know that we know that we’d be experiencing how tight-knit this country can be during a disaster – until we found ourselves in the middle of one.
During the second week of our trip we were departing the wine region of Marlborough and heading to Christchurch for a short visit before taking the scenic TranzAlpine Train to the west coast of the south island. As we began that day, we could either drive about four hours straight into Christchurch and enjoy the city for half a day, or make stops along the way to enjoy food, wine and scenery. We were told that Christchurch was a beautiful city, but basically just a modern city. And since we wanted to experience more of the country, we opted for the leisurely approach.
Around 12:30 that afternoon we stopped in the Waipara region, about 30-minutes outside of Christchurch. We were told that Pegasus Bay Winery (pictured here) had nice wines and a spectacular restaurant. So we stopped and went in for a tasting, hoping to follow with lunch.The tasting was going well and we were enjoying the beauty of the tasting room when the building started to move. We were told that Christchurch had over 4,000 aftershocks from a 7.1 earthquake only six months earlier, so I immediately just assumed this was a “typical” aftershock (if there can be such a thing.)
Well, I was quite wrong. Tracy immediately asked if we should be leaving the building, but seeing nothing falling off the walls and no panic around us, I assumed we were fine. Also, neither of us ever experienced an actual earthquake, so we had no point of reference. After a few confusing moments the woman pouring our tasting reappeared and she did seem a bit panicked as she began evacuating the building.
We left the building and gathered near the parking lot with others for about 15-20 minutes as the staff assessed the situation. We were also told that the building was built with modern earthquake engineering (perhaps on rollers) and that’s way the movement felt “gentle” (if obvious and extreme in scope). Eventually, we reentered the building and continued our tasting, still having no idea of the magnitude of what just occurred. During the second half of our tasting there was a notable aftershock and we eventually departed the winery as our confusion mounted (and they couldn’t seat us for lunch). How bad was this tremor? And where are we getting lunch?
After being turned away from another winery restaurant and now starting to get word that the situation in Christchurch was “serious,” we found a small deli where there was a TV playing the news and we were able to get sandwiches for lunch. As we observed the news and began to see the helicopter footage of the city, the magnitude of the earthquake began to take shape. It wasn’t until that evening that we began to learn the accurate earthquake facts as communication is the city was completely crippled. In fact, one of the collapsed buildings with the most casualties was the national television station. Some reporters on the ground found themselves reporting about their lost colleagues the next day.
Something I learned about being in a disaster area? Your mind plays strange tricks on you when facts are missing or you are scared. Tracy and I found ourselves wondering about our hotel reservation and whether we’d be charged for the night if we didn’t arrive. (This while officials were pleading for people outside the city to stay outside the city.) We also learned that several people were killed on two city buses when buildings collapsed on those buses. And we wondered “what if” when we realized this was the bus line we’d have been on had we made it to the city earlier. I think this is a simple response to fear and uncertainty. As we calmed down and assessed our options rationally, things start taking shape and personal resolve sets in. For us this meant giving up on a long awaited portion of our trip, and resolving to drive another 3-4 hours through a difficult mountain range after already driving 4 hours that day.
Eventually we found ourselves eating and drinking in an Irish bar along with lots of folks that were lucky enough to have not made the train ride into Christchurch that morning. It was a somber scene as we all watched the continuing news on TV. But it was also celebratory as we all recognized how close we may have come to this tragedy. And, for us, it was a matter of inconvenience during and otherwise fabulous trip, so we were quite lucky.
And, of course, I fall back on how wine saved my life since I would have been in the city had we not stopped for wine tastings on the way there. How many people can say that?
Today was the day for application of organic soil amendments. In addition to the drought this season, it turns out that my vines have quite a nutrient imbalance. Even though my soil tested rather well, the uptake into the vines can be impacted by lots of other factors – including water (or lack thereof).
Earlier in the season I sent in leaf petiole samples for testing and found that the vines were low in the following:
The calcium and zinc especially can be a result of the drought conditions; but the others need to be supplemented to assure continued vine health. And while foliar applications for some nutrients are available (and sometimes advised) I want to be sure that my soil can support the needs of the vines over time.
After quite a bit of research I found organic amendments available for all of the above (except zinc). And today I took out the spreader and slowly applied each of these, one at a time. I’ll probably do another application in the spring, since fall isn’t the ideal time to do this. And, over time, I’d expect to add items like this through my “fertigator” (drip irrigation supplements) once installed.
Of course, over time, the expectation is that I’ll get my land well balanced and only compost tea and other natural feedings will be needed. But until then…
Well, I thought I might get my first harvest this year (year 4) but, alas, it is not to be. While “hot and dry” are great conditions for grape growing, “drought” is quite another story. And an experienced vineyard manager with irrigation options can manage through a drought, but an amateur like me still has a lot to learn. Because I was late in responding to the drought conditions, my vines experienced drought stress right at the time they needed to be focused on ripening the fruit. The result is that the fruit becomes highly susceptible to disease and/or simply doesn’t ripen properly.
Below are photos of the clusters, but most are already completely shriveled and dead. Well, there’s always next year! And that’s OK – this is why I’m doing this for education and as a hobby, and not as my livelihood.
Chardonnay – likely with Black Rot
Cabernet Franc – the best looking bunches at this stage, but still not good – and not going to survive long enough to fully ripen.
The NY Times has a great write up about a current ad campaign for natural cork. The article titled “Ads Urge Wineries to Stick a Cork in It” really appeals to me since my day job is in advertising and, well, you all know about my crazy vineyard hobby.
Basically, the Portuguese cork industry is going on the offensive against alternative closures. Their strategy? Saying that cork is natural and sustainable. I think the ad campaign is quite brilliant, but I question its validity. Is it genuine to say that cork forests are always harvested sustainably? Has this always been the case? What about fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides?
I hope that I am just being a cynic and the truth is that cork has always been sustainable. But to me this smells of yet another product jumping on the “green” bandwagon. I personally use cork in my (very limited) production, but that is because there are no reasonably priced closures for use at small scale – other than cork. I’m interested in some new glass stoppers that will make both the stopper and the bottle completely reusable, but that’s still distant for my small production.
Read the article, take a look at the ad campaign, and let me know what you think.
After seeing the storm forecast this morning, I began to get mildly concerned about Hurricane Earl. But before I could post my feelings on this, I saw that New York Cork Report covered this topic – including a few winemaker interviews from the region. This pretty much covers the concerns locally, but how about my little backyard vineyard?
Unless we took a direct hit from a major storm, I should be OK, primarily since I don’t expect to harvest this year. And if we were to take a direct hit, my vines might be lower on my priority list than my house and safety for myself and those around me. But that is, currently, an unlikely scenario. Then again, these storms don’t always “do what they are told” in terms of storm track. And there are already predictions of Earl strengthening to a Category 5 as soon as tonight.
While I should be OK, even a glancing blow from a significant storm like this can really have an impact on this year’s harvest. And with the otherwise fantastic year we’re having, it would really be a shame for the locals to not harvest a spectacular crop this year.
So here’s to Earl continuing to parade offshore. FAR offshore.
Foodies: if you are in or around midtown NYC, try to get yourself a preview meal @4foodnyc. 4food is a new restaurant opening in about a week with the tag line “dejunking fast food” and the place is decked out in technology and social media to make you Twitter-heads feel right at home.
First, there is the digital menu board looming over the cashiers at the counter. It’s rather beautiful, but considering the complexity of the menu, I see all sorts of ordering debacles with the menu. The problem is that 4food is based around a build-your-own burger concept. Great idea, tough to execute on a menu – especially with dozens of options. The step by step instructions span five (count ‘em, five) flat screens. I happened to be under the first one while ordering, so selecting a side and a drink, listed on the last one, was quite a challenge. Granted, once you have an online profile you can build your burger online and just go pick it up. Definitely the way I’ll be ordering in the future!
After placing your order you’ll need to wait just a bit as everything is made to order. While waiting you can entertain yourself with the media wall on the far end of the joint. Among other things, all @4foodnyc mentions on Twitter will pop up for the world to see. Yep, that’s Grand Cru Classes tossing in his two cents to the Twitterdom on his first impressions at 4food.
I thought I had read earlier that this media wall would be playing videos, but in the preview, it was just various still images and messages, such as the Twitter feed and messages about 4food and its philosophies.
And, of course, don’t forget to check in on Foursquare! Yep, they’ve got that feed on the media wall as well. Notice that, unlike the Twitter feed, I came up first this time. Social media is quite competitive when all the folks at the preview meal got their invite over, you guessed it, Twitter! At the same time, I think I need someone to explain how 248 people have checked in 431 times when the place isn’t even open yet. And Otto is the Mayor with 12 visits – and he’s not listed as being on the venue’s staff! C’est la vie in honor based location services, I guess.
So, on to the food…
Overall impression – the food is really good and not at all unreasonably priced. A basic burger is $5 and some of the toppings are a $0.50 upcharge. A $12 meal comes with a burger, a side, a drink and a dessert. Although my meal was free, I opted out of the dessert – just wasn’t in the mood. And the Hibiscus Berry Soda was deliciously sweet, so dessert was not needed. My burger was lamb on multigrain bun with an avocado/mango scoop and Dijon mustard. It really was tasty and, while seemingly small, very filling. Add coconut rice as my side and I was quite the happy camper.
Criticism – the web site (and the venue) promote natural foods, no chemicals and low waste products. I applaud this and was pleased to see the Greenwave biodegradable utensils in use. However, as my order was to stay, I found the amount of paperboard packaging to be excessive. The individual items I can understand – the packaging keeps everything in its place and is part of the branding. But the paperboard, disposable serving tray? Really bad call there. Why not the more typical cafeteria style trays? A sanitary wipe down and they are clean and ready to reuse. And the trash cans agreed with me – they were the only unsightly thing in the place – each one completely overflowing with waste.
I’ll definitely be back, but I advise to order wisely. And maybe I’ll bring my own tray.
Throughout the growing season, the vines need to be trimmed back to assure balanced growth and kept vegetative vigor under control. Hedging also promotes good air circulation and sunlight penetration. Finally, it also allows for the best spray coverage. Here are some photos of my hedging efforts:
The full vineyard before hedging.
The full vineyard after hedging.
All of the vine "remains" (the shoots that I trimmed off while hedging).
John first gave a little background on an annual event in February called Premiere Napa Valley (PNV). (John also invited us to attend noting that, “no matter where you are our weather is probably better in February.”) PNV is a trade and press event by invitation only with attendance capped at 400 people. At the event, there are 200 one-of-a-kind wine lots available at auction. The lots are either 5, 10 or 20 cases, and can only be purchased at this event, so they are truly “the rarest” wines Napa has to offer. Many of them are collaborations between multiple producers – all of them are produced exclusively for the event.
There were six wines to taste through from the 2007 and 2008 vintages. The least “valuable” of them sold for $425/case at auction and the highest priced lot was $2,800/case. All of them were fine examples of what Napa has to offer, and all were very “bold” wines in their categories. (It was noted in a video and by John that the “big” wines are the ones that command the highest auction prices.) I certainly enjoyed these wines, although most did not match my personal flavor profile. The Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc were my personal favorites. But, again, this is my preference – all of these were spectacularly crafted wines that any lover of the Napa style would be thrilled to find in their Christmas stocking.
The full list of wines tasted:
Saintsbury Pinot Noir – Brown Ranch – 2007
Lang & Reed Wine Co. – Cabernet Franc – Expression 214 – 2007
Long Meadow Ranch – Petite Sirah – Spice Box – 2008
New York state is one of many that sits on the Marcellus Shale, a huge underground resource for the extraction of natural gas. And since natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, it seems to make sense that the state, like others, would want to mine that resource. Pennsylvania is already deep in the thick of such natural gas extraction.
However, the method being used to extract the gas is “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” as it is commonly known, and there is great debate about the safety of this process. While reading Wines & Vines magazine, I came across the article Drilling Concerns in the Finger Lakes and I became concerned myself. The article seemed pretty clear on the risks of this process, and I simply cannot support any process that introduces these risks.
At the very least, the government needs to understand the risks before allowing this to continue. However, I’d say that, no matter the volume or value of that natural gas, fracking is not worth it. To me, just the idea of using millions of gallons of water, an already scarce natural resource, to extract another makes no sense. Especially when solar, wind and hydro-electric are so under explored.
The NY Times article notes accurately that the public is thinking about the BP oil disaster and being tough on other similar ideas. I just hope we don’t conveniently forget the pain and impact of that disaster in a few years and cause another disaster like it as a result of fracking.
PBS has a great documentary online you can watch called Gasland.
I just received my first leaf tissue analysis from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. If you click the thumbnail image you can see the full analysis. Several of my key nutrients are out of whack. The interesting part is that there seems to be a chain reaction of problems. Basically, if I can assure better water intake and increase Magnesium, things may balance off a bit. That’s not the whole story, but it is a big part of the puzzle. And it confirms much of what I’ve observed or others have helped me conclude anecdotally.
It seems I’ll be dropping much of my fruit this year and letting the remaining months of this season focus on vine maturity. The Chardonnay is likely a total loss, anyway, so no big deal there. And I didn’t expect to get full yields from the Merlot and Cabernet Franc anyway. So this is all just part of the learning experience.
If anyone has organic tips for increasing calcium intake, I’m all ears.