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Concrete and Suckers and Stairs, Oh My!

The soon-to-be Wine Sipping Porch getting its first batch of concrete.
The soon-to-be Wine Sipping Porch.

I apologize for the extended radio silence of late. For a while there, there wasn’t much going on (translation, it wouldn’t stop raining) and so there wasn’t much to blog about.  And then, all of a sudden, everything was happening all at once (translation, it finally stopped raining) and I didn’t have time to write. A sorry excuse, I know. But it’s hard to sit inside in front of the computer when you’re seeing the sun for the first time since Christmas.

The Frost Curtain billowing outside of the vineyard fence in a warm breeze.
The Frost Curtain billowing outside of the vineyard fence in a warm breeze. With the frost worries behind us, it has since been taken down.

Hopefully you will find this blog post was worth the wait because I have three huge updates to report.  First, there is now a staircase to the top of The Tower. Also, the concrete work is underway on the new Wine Sipping Porch. And, perhaps best of all, the vineyard has made it through the spring frost season without any damage to the new green shoots!

Bob on the landing between the first and second flight of stairs.
Bob on the second flight of stairs.

I’ll start with everyone’s favorite subject, The Tower. Bob has engineered a three-flight staircase to the top that actually is a pretty easy climb (as long as you don’t look down too much).  The first flight begins in the cow pasture behind the Donkey Barn and goes up about a dozen steps to the bottom of the corrugated steel on the barn roof.  The second flight takes a sharp turn to the left and scrambles up the steel roof to its peak. And the third flight takes a sharp turn back to the right and goes all the way to the top of the silo. You can see all three flights, as they appears from the ground up, in the title photo of this post.

Nick takes in the view from the landing between the second and third flight of stairs.
Nick takes in the view from the landing between the second and third flight of stairs.

There are no railings on the stairs just yet, so it’s still a scary climb to the top. The first two flights aren’t bad, but on the third one, I kind of had to crawl up them on my hands and knees rather than walk. As you can see from the picture of Nick on the landing, it’s way up there!

The completed Observation Deck/Sound Tower.  The speakers are powerful enough to fill the entire vineyard with music.
The completed Observation Deck/Sound Tower. The speakers are powerful enough to fill the entire vineyard with music.

Once at the top of the stairs, it’s an easy hop onto the Observation Deck. The concrete work is complete so there is a nice flat surface to stand on, and as you can see, Bob moved a couple of P.A. speakers up there to turn the silo into a Sound Tower.  On this particular day, it was blasting Pearl Jam loud enough for the crew working in the vineyard to hear it. They had asked Bob to borrow a Boom Box.  Bob put this together instead. (As I sit here typing, I can hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Voodoo Child rockin’ the farm from the top of The Tower. I think Stevie, and Jimi, would approve).

Spin Master Bob Rockin' The Vineyard from atop his tower.
Spin Master Bob Rockin’ The Vineyard from atop his tower.
Oh, you want to go back down? Better watch your step.
Oh, you want to go back down? Better watch your step.

Since I don’t recommend sipping wine on top of The Tower, I am glad to report that Bob and the crew are also making good progress on The Wine Sipping Porch.  Bob dug up the old porch and most of the front lawn with it back in February. Then, it started raining and the whole yard turned into a sea of mud.  As much fun as that’s been, it’s nice to finally get some concrete in front of the house!

Bob digging up the front porch in February, thereby guaranteeing three months of endless rain.
Bob digging up the front porch in February, thereby guaranteeing three months of endless rain.

They’re pouring the new porch in sections, and so far, five of the ten sections are in (told you we’ve been busy).  To get the concrete to the porch area, Bob made a chute out of a piece of plastic sewer pipe and then he welded a disc onto the end of a steel pipe to make a ram rod to ram the concrete down the chute.

Blue supervises the concrete crew, George on the shovel, Bob on the ran rod, and Nick is operating the mixer attached to the Bobcat.
Blue supervises the concrete crew, George on the shovel, Bob on the ram rod, and Nick is operating the mixer attached to the Bobcat.

Bob invented another tool to smooth the wet concrete after it’s poured. And for lack of better words to describe it, it’s a giant vibrator. He took a skill saw minus the blade and mounted it to a board. When he turns on the saw, the motor on it that would ordinarily turn the saw blade vibrates, and the vibrations move through the board to smooth out the concrete.

Another of Bob's inventions. The saw motor mounted to the board causes it to vibrate, and the vibrations smooth the concrete.
Another of Bob’s inventions. The saw motor mounted to the board causes it to vibrate, and the vibrations smooth the concrete.

You can see the effect of the tool in the photo below. Behind the board is the concrete that has already been smoothed and in front of the board is what the concrete looks like before the vibrating board travels over it. Bob and Nick guide the board as it vibrates and it takes a couple of passes to get everything smoothed out.

The smooth concrete is behind the board and the lumpy aggregate is in front.
The smooth concrete is behind the board and the lumpy aggregate is in front.

If this were an ordinary porch, that would be it, just smooth out the concrete and let it dry. But this isn’t an ordinary porch. It’s a Wine Sipping Porch. So to make it a little bit special, Bob is tinting the concrete and stamping it with texture.

Bob's shadow as he sprinkles the tint powder onto the concrete.
Bob’s shadow as he sprinkles the tint powder onto the concrete.

The tint is created by sprinkling colored powders over the wet concrete.  The first powder is sort of buff-yellow-orange in color, and the other is more of a buff-orangy-orange.  Together, when dry, they look a little like the red clay of our soil accented with sandstone.

Bob and Nick center the stamp in an area of concrete.
Bob and Nick center the stamp in an area of concrete.

After the powder is on, the texture is added with a giant rubber stamp that imprints the concrete with the texture of natural stone slate.

Nick hurries to tamp down the stamp with a heavy weight while Bob and George cover the new pour with plastic. Because, of course, it is starting to rain.
Nick hurries to tamp down the stamp with a heavy weight while Bob and George cover the new pour with plastic. Because, of course, it is starting to rain.
The stamp, after it has been peeled up from the concrete. You can sort of see the texture on the stamp. It's subtle, and is meant to make the concrete look like a slate floor.
The stamp, after it has been peeled up from the concrete. You can sort of see the texture on the stamp. It’s subtle, and is meant to make the concrete look like a slate floor.

I don’t have any good pictures yet of the result because all of the finished sections of concrete are being kept covered so they aren’t damaged by work on the remaining sections. But if our good weather holds, I should be able to post some pics of the finished concrete later this week. Better yet, we’ll be able to sit out there and sip a little wine!

Healthy vines reaching skyward in the vineyard. The shoot in the foreground is almost a foot long.
Healthy vines reaching skyward in the vineyard. The shoot in the foreground is almost a foot long.

Which brings us to the vineyard, where for the most part, the vines are thriving. Mother’s Day is, unofficially, the official end of the spring frost season in our part of Oregon, so we seem to have made it through with only one night of burning stumps.

Blue helping out in the vineyard to identify suckers on the vines that need to be removed.
Blue helping out in the vineyard by identifying suckers on the vines that need to be removed.

With the frost worries behind us, the frost curtain has come down from the vineyard fence and our attention is now turning to the suckers.  Suckers are unwanted shoots that grow low on the trunks of the vines. They’re called suckers because they’re not going to produce any usable fruit for us, so they’re just sucking energy away from the vine that could go towards producing and ripening grapes.

A member of the vineyard crew out suckering vines.
A member of the vineyard crew out suckering vines.

Suckering is easy, if you don’t mind bending over or crouching down all day long. All you need to do is snap the suckers off of the vines with your fingers. Anyone can do it. And the good news is, it goes on all summer long. Because no matter how well you sucker, more suckers grow back. So when people stop by and want to help out in the vineyard, we can always send them out to do some suckering. (Some people might feel like a sucker if sent out to sucker. But no need. Suckering can be a very Zen. There is no beginning and no end. You just keep on suckering).

Look Mom, no more suckers!
Look Mom, no more suckers!

Despite our stretch of warm weather, and even getting into the 80s for a few days, I am very sad to report that many of the vines in the low part of the vineyard are still without leaves. And at this stage of the growing season, we have to assume that any vine without leaves  is dead. I did a count the other day and came up with 227 dead vines and at least that many more that are struggling to get by with just a leaf or two.  I doubt very many of those vines will make it in the long run. So we could be looking at 500-600 dead vines, or about a half-acre total across the affected area.

A section of dead and dying vines, with just one leaf visible.
A section of dead and dying vines, with just one leaf the second row back.

This is a heartbreaking loss. We have invested so much time and love and care into those vines it hurts to lose even one of them. The most likely explanation for The Dead Zone (as I now call it) remains Winter Bud Kill during our week-long cold snap in December. There wasn’t much we could have done about it then, and very little we can do now, other than decide whether to abandon the ground or re-plant. We’re going to watch how the living vines develop and likely decide what to do when we see what we have left in this section of the vineyard next spring.

Waiting for the inflorescence, or little grape cluster, to flower.
Waiting for the inflorescence, or little grape cluster, to flower.

But, the good news is, the lost vines are just a fraction of the other 13,000 or so vines that are reaching evermore skyward to soak up the sun. We’re watching closely now for flowering. That’s when the inflorescence, or the little clusters on the shoots drop their caps to reveal tiny, white flowers.

Another look at the inflorescence with The Donkey Barn in the background.
Another look at the inflorescence with The Donkey Barn in the background.

Flowering is an important time in the vineyard. The flowers, once open, are self-pollinating. Once pollinated, each little flower will turn into a grape. And every 100 or so grapes, or every good-sized cluster, is a future glass of wine! (Sing with me; “One Hundred Clusters of Wine on the Vines, One Hundred Clusters of Wine….”)

A look at The Tower and its new staircase from across the vineyard.
A look at The Tower and its new staircase from across the vineyard.

So, that’s what’s been happening here on the farm for the past few weeks. Right now, the sun is shining, the music is playing, and I am sure there are plenty of new suckers to be suckered. So I’m going to quit blogging now and round up the dogs and head outside.

A current view of the vineyard from the top of The Tower.
A current view of the vineyard from the top of The Tower.

We should be in the mid 80s by Wednesday, so I plan a full week of horse washing and dog baths and I might even try to give Luigi and Jenny D. their summer haircuts. I’ll be sure to get pictures if I do because you haven’t really experienced life on the farm until you’ve tried to shave a miniature donkey.

Luigi, one overgrown donkey in need of a haircut.
Luigi, one overgrown donkey in need of a haircut.

Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and most especially to my Mom, Eileen, who became a Mom when she gave birth to me on Mother’s Day back in 19-something-and-something.  Thank you for bringing me into such a great life! I love you!

Dodger and Brutus are very pleased with the progress in the vineyard.
Dodger and Brutus are very pleased with the progress in the vineyard.

 

 

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Mystery in The Vineyard

Murphy enjoys a good scratch during our morning walk in the vineyard. As you can see behind him, the vines are leafing out nicely.
Murphy enjoys a good scratch during our morning walk in the vineyard. As you can see behind him, shoot growth is well underway.

Walking through the vineyard with the dogs last week, I noticed something alarming. While most of the vineyard is leafing out nicely, there is about a half an acre in the lowest part of the vineyard where the vines are still struggling through bud break. Overall, we had bud break in the rest of the vineyard between March 25th and April 1st. So these vines are lagging almost a month behind.

By contrast, this is one of the vines in The Dead Zone. It has just one green shoot and a few buds that are still trying to open. Other buds on this vine are showing no signs of life.
By contrast, this is one of the vines in The Dead Zone. It has just one green shoot and a few buds that are still trying to open. Other buds on this vine are showing no signs of life.

Some of the lagging vines have a leaf or two on them. But others have no green leaves at all. On those vines, some of the buds are trying to open and others are not.  A few dozen vines just look dead. The question, of course, is why. Why are these vines lagging behind, and will their buds ever open? Everything was fine with them at the end of the last growing season. And the grass growing around them is growing the same as the rest of the grass in the vineyard. What happened to hold back and possibly kill these vines?

In this picture (taken from the top of the silo), you can see the topography of the affected block.
In this picture (taken from the top of the silo), you can see how the topography slopes downward the further back it goes. The lagging vines are concentrated in the low ground, at the far end of the eight long rows in the center of the photo.

Bob, Nathan and I have explored several theories.  All of the affected vines are in the lowest ground in the vineyard, where water pools during the winter. One explanation could be that all that water leached critical nutrients out of the soil, leaving the vines malnourished. The problem with that theory, though, is that the vines use stored nutrients from the previous year to open their buds and only rely upon soil nutrients once their roots are awake and their leaves are taking in sunlight. If the water had washed away the nutrients, the buds would still have been able to open and it would be the shoots that would be struggling now to survive.

This bud has not yet started to open and does not appear as though it is going to.
This bud has not yet started to open nearly a month after bud break.

Another possibility is a disease or a pest.  So we did a careful inspection. We didn’t see anything of concern above ground. Below ground, vines can be damaged by phylloxera, a tiny insect that feeds on their roots. But we planted grafted vines made up of a French grapevine grafted to an American rootstock that is resistant to phylloxera. And phylloxera doesn’t prevent bud break, it weakens the vine over time. So that can’t be it.

We also thought about bud damage during pruning. But assuming a careless pruner (unlikely given our crew), the damage would have been scattered throughout the vineyard, not concentrated in one spot. Pruning is a social time in the vineyard and we all work together. Nobody goes off and prunes their own section.

The vineyard during our cold snap last December. The vines were covered in feather-like crystals of ice.
The vineyard during our cold snap last December. The vines were covered in feather-like crystals of ice.

The the theory that made the most sense to us was that maybe the cold snap last December killed the unopened buds. I learned in my viticulture classes about winter bud kill. It’s extremely rare here in southern Oregon. But in places like upstate New York and Michigan, where the winters are brutal, it often gets cold enough to kill dormant buds. We dropped down to about 10F for a few days last December and that’s about as low as the temperature can go without killing buds. Is it possible the low part of the vineyard got even colder during that cold snap, cold enough to kill off the buds?

Monja, Bob, Nathan and Monja’s young son, Louie, inspecting the vines

Time to call in an expert. Luckily for us, our neighbor Monja grew up in France and she holds a degree in viticulture from a French University. She’s also worked in vineyards and made wine all over the world in all kinds of climates. Now, she and her husband have picked  Elkton of all places to settle down and raise their kids and start their own vineyard.  Elkton is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, but when it comes to vineyard expertise, the resources here are literally world-class.

Monja using a magnifying glass to inspect the buds.
Monja using a magnifying glass to inspect the lone green leaf on an otherwise dormant vine.

Nathan invited Monja over to take a look. She very methodically went through the affected block, looking at both the green vines and the dormant ones. She inspected leaves and buds through a magnifying glass to check for tiny mites. She even took a few leaves into the lab to view them under the microscope. Nothing explained the lagging vines. Which was good in a way. At least we don’t have mites!

Monja using the pruners to slice open a dormant bud. Bob is standing by with the magnifying glass.
Monja using the pruners to slice open a dormant bud. Bob is standing by with the magnifying glass.

So back to the vineyard we went. Monja collected a few of the still dormant buds and carefully used the pruners to slice one open. And sure enough, it was dead. I have read about dead buds and looked at pictures. But living here, I had never seen one for real. Frozen buds are pretty rare in The Napa Valley as well, where Nathan is from. But Monja has seen them, most recently when she was working for a cold climate vineyard in Russia.

A cross section of a wine grape bud, showing the primary (P), secondary (S) and tertiary (T) buds within. This image lifted with gratitude from http://plant-pest-advisory.rutgers.edu/?p=8311
A cross section of a wine grape bud, showing the primary (P), secondary (S) and tertiary (T) buds within. This image lifted with gratitude from http://plant-pest-advisory.rutgers.edu/?p=8311

I don’t have the lens or the skill necessary to photograph what she saw when she sliced open the bud. So I found this image on a Rutgers University website. I hope they won’t mind that I’ve borrowed it (with credit). The image shows a cross section of a wine grape bud, which you might recall from a previous post, is actually a compound bud that contains three separate buds. The primary bud (P) opens first, and if all goes well the other two may not open. But if the primary bud dies, the secondary bud will grow. And if the secondary bud dies, the tertiary bud is the final back up. This is a survival strategy for the vine. While the secondary and tertiary buds don’t produce the quality fruit necessary for wine making, they do give the vines multiple options for producing green shoots.

Looking at the photo again, you can see that the secondary and tertiary buds are green. So they are alive. But the primary bud is necrotic, or dead. The brown color is the telltale sign. And that’s what Monja saw in all three buds when she cut open the compound bud from our vineyard.

A lone green shoot grows in a row of otherwise dead buds.
A lone green shoot grows in a row of otherwise dead buds.

Like us, Monja believes it did get cold enough in this part of the vineyard last December to kill the buds. Some of the buds died off completely, while other may still have viable secondary or tertiary buds that are trying to open even now. All it takes is just one green shoot to keep the vine alive. Over the summer, that shoot will produce more buds that hopefully will open next spring.

Feather-like ice crystals on the vineyard fence during the cold snap. I've never seen ice crystals like this before.
Feather-like ice crystals on the vineyard fence during the cold snap. I’ve never seen ice crystals like this before.

So we are going to watch and wait and hope that at least some of the still dormant buds will open in time. We’re also going to collect leaf samples at bloom and send them to a lab for nutritional analysis. If the soil in that part of the vineyard is deficient, the leaf analysis should tell us. And, we will test a soil sample for pH, or acidity, which can change over time.

The horses running through the pasture on one of the coldest days last December.
The horses running through the pasture on one of the coldest days last December.

The cold snap in December was an extremely unusual event. Marty Tomaselli, who has lived here long enough to know, says the last time it got that cold in Elkton was back in the 1970s! Nothing here is set up to endure that kind of cold. Our water lines froze, our electric meter caught fire, the roads were encased in ice, and without enough snowplows to clear them, the schools were closed for most of a week. Heck, most of Oregon shut down that week. There was nothing we could have done back then to protect the vines. Single digits are far too cold to mitigate with a bonfire and a vineyard fan.

A rare sight, snow falling in the vineyard.
A rare sight, snow falling in the vineyard.

Winter bud kill is just one of those things that can happen in a vineyard. We are fortunate that the impact has been minimal and most of our vines still have a chance to survive. And we are extremely grateful to our neighbor, Monja, for sharing her expertise with us. People like her are why people like us can start vineyards and learn as we go.

Dodger, the Siberian Husky, really enjoyed the snow.
Dodger, the Siberian Husky, really enjoyed the snow.

 

So did Brutus.
So did Brutus.

 

 

 

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How We Got Concrete (and Me) to The Top of Our 24-Foot Tower

The first load of concrete heading for the top of the silo next to the barn that Bob is converting into an Observation Tower.
The first load of concrete heading for the top of the silo that Bob is converting into an Observation Tower.

No, that’s not me in the bag. That’s about one-thousand pounds of concrete hanging off of the arm of the bucket truck. And it’s just one of seven sacks of concrete Bob and Nick hoisted 24-feet up to the top of the silo/tower, to pour the foundation for the new observation deck overlooking the farm.

The silo as seen from inside the donkey barn. The opening was once used to shovel grain or other silage out of the silo. Now, it's the portal to the top of the tower.
The silo as seen from inside the donkey barn. The opening was once used to shovel grain or other silage out of the silo. Now, it’s the portal to the top of the tower.

But before I get to the big pour, I want to share with you my own harrowing climb to the top. As I mentioned in my earlier post about the tower, I am terrified of heights.  So before anything changed up there, I tried to hand off my camera to Bob so he could take some “before” pictures of the silo top. But he wouldn’t to it. He said he’d carry the camera up for me but if I wanted pictures I’d have to go up there and take them myself. I know Bob was anxious for me to see the view and I think he used my commitment to the pictures to get me to punch through my fear and make the climb. (And I suppose this is why I love him, because he gets me out of my comfort zones).

The ladder to the top. Just go to the light.....
The ladder to the top. Just go to the light…..

I agreed to try. But I wasn’t sure I’d make it. To start, I had to shimmy my way through an opening in the silo to get inside of it and climb onto the ladder. You can see the opening in the above photo. What you can’t see is that the ladder extends downward another six feet before it touches the ground. So just getting on the ladder requires stepping out over a pit. Once on the ladder, you’re already six feet up with another twenty-four or so feet to go.

The ladder sticking out of the top of the silo, which is cone-shaped and slopes downward towards the edges.

Did I mention the ladder is wobbly?  With every step up, I could feel it shaking. Bob said the ladder is designed to do that. Something about needing the flexibility so it doesn’t break under a lot of weight or pressure. But it didn’t feel like a safety feature to me. The closer I got to the top, the more it shook. Soon my knees were shaking, too. That made it hard to keep climbing. But I did. Bob braced the bottom of the ladder, mostly to make me stop worrying about it tipping backwards, and I found it helped to look straight ahead at the wall of the silo and not look up or down.

The top of the silo before the pour, prepared with hog wire to hold the concrete.
The top of the silo before the pour, prepared with hog wire and a wooden form to hold the concrete.

The scariest part of the climb came at the end, when I emerged out of the opening at the top and had to get off of the ladder and onto the silo .  If I weren’t such a chicken, I could have just stepped up and stood there. But I was far too scared to stand up, especially with all of the hog wire laid out on the roof of the silo to hold the coming concrete. So I sort of dragged myself out onto the silo on my belly and then flopped my legs off of the ladder like the tail of a fish. And there I was, 24-feet up, clinging to the hog wire! Lying on my belly, I snapped the above “before” photo of the pour area I had made the climb to get. Looking at the photo, I hope you can see how the concrete will fill in to the top of the wooden form to cover the sloping cone and create a flat observation deck.

My first glimpse of the view of the vineyard from the top of the tower.
My first glimpse of the view of the vineyard from the top of the tower.

I never did work up the nerve to stand but I did press myself up like a sphinx to peek out over the wooden form to see the vineyard. Wow, what a view! Ever since moving here, I have wanted to get a picture that shows the vineyard in the foreground and the horses grazing in the pasture in the background. I wasn’t going to get that picture this time, not without standing up. But I could see that once the flat platform is finished and I feel more comfortable moving around up there, I can go back up and get it.

The arm of the bucket truck intrudes upon my view.
Just as I mustered the courage to take more pictures, the arm of the bucket truck intruded upon my view.

I was inspired to sit up a bit more so I could take more pictures, but just then, the arm of the bucket truck appeared. Nick was ready to start mixing and hoisting concrete. And that was my cue to get down. There was no way I wanted to be up there dodging a 1,000 pound sack of wet concrete!

Back into the hole for the climb down.
Back into the hole for the climb down.

So I had to flop my legs back into the silo and onto the ladder and then shimmy on my belly backwards as I stepped down the rungs until I was back on the ladder and climbing down. Bob went first and was just below me on the ladder and Nick steadied it from ground. The ladder still wobbled, but going down was much easier than going up. Having survived the climb once, I know I will go back up there when the observation deck is finished. It will be yet another interesting vantage point from which to photograph and share the vineyard.

Now, with me safely on the ground, and without further adieu, here are the pictures of The Big Pour, or, how Bob and Nick got 7,000 pounds of concrete to the top of the tower:

Nick got things started by mixing up a batch of concrete in a mixer attached to the Bobcat,
Nick got things started by breaking open several sacks of concrete mix to load them into a mixer attached to the Bobcat.
Once the concrete mix was in,
Then, he added water to about the consistency of pancake batter.
The hydraulics on the Bobcat power the paddles in the mixer to mix the concrete.
The hydraulics on the Bobcat power the paddles in the mixer to mix the concrete.
Bob up top, watching the concrete mix.
Bob up top, watching the concrete mix (I took this picture before I went down.)
When the concrete was ready, Nick loaded it into a huge, sturdy sack made of tarp material.
When the concrete was ready, Nick released it into a huge, sturdy sack made of tarp material.
The concrete flowing into the sack.
The concrete flowing into the sack.
When the sack was full, Nick connected it to the hook on the end of the bucket truck arm for liftoff.
When the sack was full, Nick connected it to the hook on the end of the bucket truck arm. He and Bob figure that a full sack of concrete weighs 800-1,000 pounds.
Then, he jumped into the bucket truck to hoist the sack to Bob, who was waiting up top.
With the sack on the hook, Nick jumped into the bucket truck to hoist the sack to Bob, who was waiting up top.
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The heavy sack as it leaves the ground. There is a drawstring on the bottom of the sack that Bob will open to release the concrete.
Almost there....
Nick has to lift the sack all the way over the hog wire on top of the tower, and then swing towards Bob so he can reach it.
Bob guiding the sack into place.
Bob guiding the sack into place.
Nick keeping a close watch on the sack so it doesn't bump anything, especially Bob!
Nick keeping a close watch on the sack so it doesn’t bump anything, especially Bob!
Just a few more inches....
The sack as it is just about to clear the hog wire….
Bob grabs the sack and gets ready to release the concrete.
Bob grabs the sack and gets ready to release the concrete.
Nick's view of the arm reaching over the top of the silo.
Nick’s view of the arm reaching over the top of the silo.
Bob opens the drawstring to release the concrete.
Bob opens the drawstring to release the concrete.
The empty sack is sent away for another load.
The empty sack is sent away for another load.
Bob raking the wet concrete on top of the silo.
Bob raking the wet concrete on top of the silo.
Bob got seven sacks of concrete hoisted to the top. And that just filled up the first half of the form! It's going to take another pour to complete the platform.
Bob and Nick hoisted seven sacks of concrete to the top during this pour. And that just filled up the first half of the form! It’s going to take another pour to complete the platform. When it’s done, I’ll go back up and get some pictures of the farm and vineyard that reveal the lay of the land.
Meantime, Bob is working on several design ideas for a staircase to the top as well as for a gazebo to place up there.
Meantime, Bob is working on several design ideas for a staircase to the top as well as for a gazebo cover to place up there. That way, visitors won’t have to go through what I did to go up and see the view.
And even though all of this went on right next to the donkey barn, Luigi paid it no mind. He was more interested in the greener grass on the other side of the fence.
And even though all of this went on right next to the donkey barn, Luigi paid it no mind. He was more interested in the greener grass on the other side of the fence.

 

 

 

Nathan and Bob atop The Observation Tower

Bob’s Next Big Idea; The Observation Tower

The Silo next to the Donkey Barn, as seen from the vineyard.
The Silo next to the Donkey Barn, as seen from the vineyard.

Most people see an old silo sitting next to the donkey barn. But not Bob. Bob sees a tower. He has ever since he and his Dad first looked at the property back in February of 2010.

Bob on top of the tower this past February.
Bob on top of the tower this past February.

But it wasn’t until this past February that he finally got to the top of the silo to check out the view.

The Way Up; an extension ladder inside the silo.
The Way Up; an extension ladder inside the silo.

He got up there by putting an extension ladder inside of the silo and bravely climbing it to the top. I wanted no part of it. I am terrified of heights and the inside of the silo reminds me of the ship’s smokestack where Roddy McDowall fell to his death in the 70s Disaster Movie, The Poseidon Adventure. (I can still hear the Ernest Borgnine character yelling “Linda. You killed my Linda!” But I digress).

Bob in Moss
Bob after he emerged from inside of the silo, taking in the view for the first time. Notice the slanted top on the silo and all of the slippery moss.

Bob scampered up the ladder like the experienced rock climber he is and popped out of the top of the silo. But that’s as far as he could go. The top of the silo is shaped like an inverted cone and it was covered in wet, slippery moss. Not the ideal platform for an observation deck. So while he sat up there, Bob hatched a plan.

The Form
The wooden form for the concrete pour on top of the silo.

He built a wooden form in the exact circumference of the top of the silo so he could pour a new concrete top over the inverted cone. He had Nathan use the power washer to blast the moss off of the silo. Then, they guys hoisted the wooden form to the top of the silo.

Bob standing by to attach the hook on the bucket truck to the wooden form.
Bob standing by to attach the hook on the bucket truck to the wooden form.

I suppose I should say a few words now about our bucket truck. Bob bought it a few years ago in Colorado because “you never know when you are going to need a bucket truck.” The truck didn’t run when we bought it, and it didn’t have a bucket. We had to load it on a semi and have it trucked out to Oregon when we moved to the farm.

Nick uses the controls on the bucket truck to maneuver the hook closer to the wooden form.
Nick uses the controls on the bucket truck to maneuver the hook closer to the wooden form.

Bob and Nick spent the winter getting the bucket truck running and the hydraulics working again, and now I know why. It still doesn’t have a bucket. But for this project, we don’t need a bucket. We just need a hook.

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The wooden form hooked to the truck and ready to fly.

As it turns out, we do have a hook, which the guys dangled off the end of the truck’s bucket arm with a long strap. Then, Bob hooked the hook to some other straps he had wrapped around the wooden form. And from here, I think I will let the pictures tell the story:

Ready for liftoff! Notice Bob is still inside the wooden form (you can see his head almost sticking out).
Ready for liftoff! Notice Bob is still inside the wooden form (you can see his head almost sticking out).
Nick uses the controls on the truck to lift the form.
Nick uses the hydraulics on the truck to lift the form. Bob and Nathan are inside the silo, climbing the ladder to the top.
Higher and higher it goes. The top of the silo is about 24-feet up!
Higher and higher it goes. The top of the silo is about 24-feet up!
Nick shields his eyes against the sun as he maneuvers the form into place over the top of the silo.
Nick shields his eyes against the sun as he maneuvers the form.
Almost there.....
Almost there…..
We have the height, now the form has to be centered over the silo.
We have the height, now the form has to be centered over the silo.
Bob and Nathan are on top of the silo now, ready to guide the form into place.
Bob and Nathan are on top of the silo now, ready to guide the form into place.
Bob carefully lines up the edges of the form with the perimeter of the silo.
Bob carefully lines up the edges of the form with the perimeter of the silo.
Nick lowers the form every so slowly into place.
Nick lowers the form every so slowly into place.
Touchdown!
Touchdown!
Nathan gives the Thumbs Up! Mission Accomplished!
Nathan gives the Thumbs Up! Mission Accomplished!

Over the weekend, Bob and Nick started pouring the concrete, but not before I sucked it up and climbed to the top to snap off a few pictures. So what did I see when I got up there? And how did they get thousands of pounds of concrete 24-feet up in the air?

Here’s a peek at the view, if only to prove that I actually made it to the top of the silo despite my Roddy McDowall phobias:

The view from the top, looking out over the NE corner of the vineyard and to the horse pasture beyond.
The view from the top, looking out over the N/NE end of the vineyard. You can see the roof of the horse barns in the distance.

As for the concrete pour, it’s getting late and I think I still have vertigo from being on top of the tower. It was a fascinating process and I want to do it justice. So that will have to be a blog for another day.

Bob up top, ready for concrete.
Bob up top, ready for concrete.

More soon……..

 

Frost Wall

Victory (For Now)

A picture of the first bonfire of the season in the vineyard, taken by Bob with his cell phone.
A picture of the first bonfire of the season in the vineyard, taken by Bob with his cell phone early Friday morning.

While I was on the 5:30am flight out of Eugene, Oregon Friday morning, Bob and Nathan were in the vineyard stoking our first Frost Fire of the season. I had known when I left for the airport a few hours earlier that it was going to be a frosty morning and I hoped the guys would be ready to do battle and that all of our preparations would pay off.

The frost curtain going up while Nick (foreground) and Nathan (background) mow the vineyard. Sunny, clear days like this one are usually followed by a clear, cold night and the potential for frost.
The Frost curtain going up while Nick (foreground) and Nathan (background) mow the vineyard.

Thursday had been devoted to frost preps. Bob hung the plastic curtain on the deer fence along the upper perimeter of the vineyard while Nathan and Nick mowed down the grass within the fence, all thirteen acres of it. We cut the grass to maximize as much as possible the distance between any frost that would form on the ground and the green shoots on the vines. It’s a proven strategy for minimizing frost damage in vineyards.

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Bob hanging the frost curtain along the fence to create a barrier to hold warmer air within the vineyard.

The plastic curtain is an experiment, an idea Bob had to prevent the warmer air we circulate through the vines by burning fires and running a fan from escaping out of the vineyard. The vines in the ten or so rows along the fence are furthest from the fires and have suffered frost damage in past years, even on nights when we were up burning.

The Remains of The Burn: charred, smouldering stumps from the season's first fire.
The Remains of The Burn, charred, smouldering stumps from the season’s first fire.

I am very excited to report that based on the results Friday morning, the frost curtain appears to be working! Bob and Nathan started the stump fire and the fan at 4:30am, about the time I was going through security at the airport. The outside temperature was down to 34F and had been dropping by about one degree per hour throughout the night. By dawn, it was just 30F outside of the curtain. But on the other side of the curtain in the vineyard, the temperature never dipped below 32F. And in the warmer parts of the vineyard, closer to the fire and fan, the temperature held at 34F.

Happy vines within the protection of the frost curtain, where temps were two degrees warmer during the frost than on the other side of the curtain.
Happy vines within the protection of the frost curtain, where temps were two degrees warmer during the frost than on the other side of the curtain.

This is the first empirical evidence we have that our frost fighting strategies are making a difference! The fire and the fan are definitely warming the air not just in the immediate vicinity of the fire, but throughout the vineyard. And the frost curtain is holding that warmer air in the vineyard to protect the vines.

On this shoot, you can see the inflorescence, or flower pod, emerging from its tip.
On this shoot, you can see the inflorescence, or flower pod, emerging from its tip.

This is a tremendous relief as our vines continue to leaf out. If you look closely at the above photo, you will see a bumpy nub starting to emerge from the top of the shoot. That’s the inflorescence, or flower pod that will produce the grapes. In the coming weeks the inflorescence will swell, and then little white flowers will appear. When the flowers fall off, little green berries will grow in their place to create a grape cluster. So there it is already in the tip of that shoot, our 2014 harvest and wine. That is, unless we let it freeze.

Ground Fog rolling into the vineyard this morning.
Ground Fog rolling into the vineyard this morning.

Of course, the best protection against frost in the vineyard is fog. When an overnight fog rolls in, it forms an insulating blanket over the entire vineyard that slows the temperature drop from the daytime highs.  The past two mornings have been foggy and haven’t dropped below 34F, so no fires since Friday. But as I sit here now, the sun is out and there’s not a cloud in the sky. So we’ll be getting up throughout the night tonight to check the temperatures and look for fog.

We could warm up to 75F today, which means it could be a chilly night.
The Great Wall of Plastic as seen from the horse pasture. We could warm up to 75F today, which means it could be a chilly night.

Meantime, the dogs say it’s a beautiful day for a romp in the vineyard. And, I have horses to groom. But not until after this DET STL hockey game. If St. Louis loses, and it looks like they will, The Colorado Avalanche will finish the season as the top team in the Central Division! Woot!! (Little known fact, the five blocks of vines in the vineyard are named for the five former Avalanche players whose numbers have been retired. It was an idea we had while planting, as an homage to the team we had to leave behind in Denver).

Blue gnawing on a pruned cane with the frost curtain behind her.
Blue gnawing on a pruned cane with the frost curtain behind her.

 

 

Frosty Ground

Scary Morning!

Look what we awoke to this morning. Frost. In the vineyard!

This caught us completely off guard. Every forecast we look at, and there are many, predicted an overnight low of 40F. But at 7am, our vineyard thermometer said 31F. Yikes.

April 10th, 2014, daybreak over the frosty vineyard.
April 10th, 2014, daybreak over the frosty vineyard.

Nathan and I have toured the vineyard, and it looks like we dodged the bullet.  There was frost on the ground before daybreak, but none on the vines. This tells me it was below freezing ever so briefly in the darkest moments before dawn, and so wasn’t cold enough for long enough to hurt the vines. Whew. It was a very close call.

What's at stake, a leafed-out fine yesterday afternoon.
What’s at stake, our little green shoots as they appeared just yesterday.

We are in the same weather pattern through at least Tuesday, which means we could get early morning frost over the next several days.  Bob is heading out to unfurl the frost curtain along the vineyard fence and Nathan is going to mow the grass in the rows between the vines. The shorter the grass, the greater the distance between the frost on the ground and the leaves on our vines. It might not seem like much, but every inch counts when trying to buy a degree or two in the battle against frost.

The stump fire and fan in action last spring.
The stump fire and fan in action last spring.

The guys will be on standby overnight for the next several nights to deploy the fan and fires if it gets this cold again in the wee hours of the morning. I won’t be here to see what happens tonight/tomorrow because I have to leave for the airport at 3:30 tomorrow morning for a quick, overnight trip. But I will fill you in on what happens, if anything, when I get back to the farm on Saturday. And lucky (sarcasm), we will have several nights of frost worries for me to document for the blog after that.

The fire as seen from across the vineyard.
The fire as seen from across the vineyard.

For now, fingers crossed.

 

 

 

 

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How It All Began; Our First Planting

Our first five acres in early April, 2011, all tilled up and ready for planting. I did a little photo editing on this picture and turned it into the label for our Hundredth Valley Pinot Noir.
Our first five acres in early April, 2011, all tilled up and ready for planting. I gave this picture an antique look with photo editing and turned it into the label for our Hundredth Valley Pinot Noir.

I am feeling a bit reflective again today, because it was three years ago this week that our farm became a vineyard.  We started planting our first vines on April 8th 2011 and finished on April 18th. 5,445 vines went into the ground that spring, followed by another 8,469 in 2012. Yep, we got a bit more ambitious with our second planting! By then, I guess we figured we knew what we were doing.

The delivery truck containing our vines backed up to the hay barn for unloading.
March 9th, 2011; The delivery truck containing our vines backed up to the hay barn for unloading.

That was not the case three years ago, when our vines arrived in early March. Until the day they were delivered, I had no clear picture in my mind of what they would look like.  Both Bob and I were taking viticulture classes online, and so I was familiar with the concept of a grafted vine.  But until I saw one, I didn’t get it.

Bob carrying a tray of 25 vines. That's George, our resident cattle rancher, taking the next tray off of the truck.
Bob carrying a tray of 25 vines. That’s George, our resident cattle rancher, taking the next tray off of the truck.

I got my first look at a grafted vine when the back of the delivery truck opened up, and out came the trays of vines. With 25 vines per tray, we had over 200 trays to unload.  As they kept coming and coming, I started to get a sense of what we had gotten ourselves into.

A close up look at the dormant vines.  The bulge near the top is the graft point between the French wine grape on top and the American root stock below.
A close up look at the dormant vines. The bulge near the top is the graft point between the French wine grape on top and the American root stock below.

To start with, the vines were dormant, so they were nothing more than brittle little sticks about four inches tall.  It was easier than I thought it would be to spot the graft point on each vine, where the French wine grape-vine is grafted to an American rootstock, which is more resistant to disease. Looking closely at the vines, I could see that some of the grafts still had greenhouse tape around them! I was worried the whole time we’d snap a graft.

Unloading the vines was a slow and careful process.
Unloading the vines was a slow and careful process.

We also had to be very careful so that we didn’t damage the dormant buds on all those little vines.  If we let two vines in a tray rub against each other while we carried them, or if we were careless when we set one tray down next to another, we could knock the buds off of the vines.  And as you know by now if you follow the blog, no buds, no green shoots.

Our future vineyard, 5,445 little vines.
Bob looking a little overwhelmed as he takes in all 5,445 vines.

Once the vines were safely in the barn, our mission was to keep them cool, moist and in the dark to discourage bud break until we were ready to plant, which we were not.  It was only early March, so it was really too early to plant them anyways. But we still had a lot of work to do.

Bob in the field installing the trellis posts.
Bob in the field installing the trellis posts.

Our deer fencing was in place, but we had more than 1,000 trellis posts left to install.  It is possible to install the trellis after planting, but it’s hard to operate heavy equipment in a planted vineyard and you could end up damaging the vines. Bob headed up the trellis crew, which used a Bobcat and a pile driver to pound all those posts into the ground.

Brent helped us out a lot during our first year on the farm, which was his senior year of high school.
Brent helped us out a lot during our first year on the farm, which was his senior year of high school.

At the Bobcat controls was Brent, a local cowboy who at the time was also the quarterback of Elkton High’s football team. (He has since graduated and is studying ranch management, but we still see him from time to time).

The black straws mark the spots where vines will go
The black straws mark the spots where vines will go

While Bob was working on the trellis infrastructure, Nathan, who we had just met, was shooting a straw into the ground every five feet in the spaces between the trellis posts.  Vine spacing is critical to a successful vineyard, and the straws marked the spot where each vine was to be planted. (This was an effective but time-consuming method of vine spacing.  For our planting in 2012, we spray painted some long metal pipes with the proper spacing and used those to position the vines as we planted them).

Trenching for the irrigation system. You can see the deer fencing that goes around the vineyard to the right.
Trenching for the irrigation system. You can see the deer fencing that goes around the vineyard to the right.

While all that was going on, we also had a crew installing the water mains for the irrigation system around the perimeter of the vineyard.  This involved a lot of deep trenching. If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see one of the crew members is standing in the trench, which is about shoulder deep on him.

April 3rd, 2011, we have bud break in the hay barn.
April 3rd, 2011, we have bud break in the hay barn.

And on April 3rd, we were out of time!  Despite being kept in the dark, our little vines started opening their buds.  We had wanted to get them into the ground before bud break so as not to risk damaging the delicate green shoots during planting. But as you can see below, the vineyard was not yet ready.

The vineyard on April 3rd, clearly we are not yet ready for planting.
The vineyard on April 3rd, clearly we are not yet ready for planting.

So while Bob and the crew finished the trellis work, I went up to the hay barn everyday and shuffled the trays of vines around to make sure all the open leaves had some exposure to sunlight.  Now that they were awake, they needed new energy to survive. Then, I’d close them back up in the barn overnight to keep them warm. On one very cold night, we worried the roots might freeze because they were not yet planted in the relatively warmer ground. So Bob had the idea to snake some heated hoses around the trays and run water through them to create a makeshift radiant heating system.

The morning of our first planting, April 8th, 2011.
The morning of our first planting, April 8th, 2011.

On the morning of April 8th, we were finally ready to go! All of the trellis posts, irrigation and straws were in place, and we had laid out a green plastic grow tube and a steel pencil rod for each vine. The grow tubes go around the vines after they are planted to shelter them during their first weeks in the ground, sort of like a private little green house for each vine.  The pencil rods are used after the tubes come off, to tie up the vines as they grow to keep them straight.

Nathan using a post hold digger to dig  holes for the vines.
Nathan using a post hold digger to dig holes for the vines.

We had about 8-10 people on our planting crew, depending upon the day. Nathan was there, as well as George and Brent. And on any given day, a rotating cast of local “kids” pitched in as well. Our biggest challenge as first time planters was digging the holes.  I feel silly saying it now, but it took us about four days to figure out how to do it. We started out using a post hole digger, but that takes a lot of strength and effort.  By the end of the first day, even the “young guns” said no more of that.

Plan B; The Hand Shovel.
Plan B; The Hand Shovel.

So Bob ran to the hardware store, and the next day we had a bunch of these hand shovels.  But those, too, were a lot of work.  Too many people saying “ug” and holding their backs.

Now we're talking! Gas powered augers!
Now we’re talking! Gas powered augers!

So on the third day, Bob got serious and brought out the gas-powered augers! And boy, did those dig holes easy and fast. The trouble was, though, that the friction of the auger left the bottom of the hole hard packed and glazed over.  We started to worry  the roots wouldn’t be able to break through the glaze and would grow sideways or upwards instead of downward. Roots that grow upwards can end up strangling the vine.  So as much as we loved them, the augers had to go.

The obvious solution, the hand trowel.
The obvious solution, the hand trowel.

So finally, we settled on what might seem like the obvious solution,  the hand trowel.  It doesn’t take too much strength to dig a hole with a trowel, and you can use the tip to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole to give the roots a little head start. If you ever need to plant a small plant, or 5,000 small plants, this is the way to go. Learn from our experience and don’t over think it.  It’s just a hole.

Nathan, The Grape Cowboy, planting a vine
Nathan, The Grape Cowboy, planting a vine.

And so it went, days on our hands and knees digging holes and putting vines in the ground, one after the other, until all 5,445 vines were planted. It took us six planting days spread out over eleven days due to rain delays to finish the job.

Bob demonstrates how to thread the pencil rod through the slits in the grow tube.
Bob demonstrates how to thread the pencil rod through the slits in the grow tube.

We figured out that things went more quickly if we used a division of labor.  I was kept busy getting trays of vines out of the barn and laying them out within the rows. Then we had two people who placed a vine by each straw. The planters (who had the best job) dug the holes and put the vines in the ground. Then the clean up crew followed behind and threaded the pencil rods through the slits in the grow tubes and placed the tubes around the vines. Everyone pitched in to pick up the trays and vine pots at the end of each day.

Grow Tubes around the planted vines.
Grow Tubes around the planted vines.

Looking back on it three years later, there are two things that have stayed with me about planting vineyards. The first is that you will feel your hamstrings! No matter what job you are doing, you will knee down and stand up literally hundreds of times over the course of planting day.  On the first day or two, my legs were screaming in pain. But by the end of it, I thought wow, I’m in pretty good shape. It’s the best workout you will ever get.

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It’s work, but not. What better way to spend the day.

The other thing I can tell you is that there is nothing you will ever do that is quite as relaxing and satisfying and just plain wonderful as planting. True, we had our struggles. You are exhausted at the end of the day. And there is a lot on the line. But nothing beats digging around in the soil under the warm sun and the blue sky, listening to music while lost in casual conversation or in the zen of the row in front of you. Planting is a time when all things are possible. It is a new beginning. But also the payoff for all the hard work you’ve invested to get there. If you ever have the opportunity to help plant a vineyard, do it. Whether it’s your vineyard or someone else’s, you will always count yourself lucky to have been there and helped when it all began.

A peek inside the tube. You can see the little vine inside. The tubes are four feet tall. They are removed when the vine grows out of the top.
A peek inside the tube. You can see the little vine inside. The tubes are four feet tall. They are removed when the vine grows out of the top.

At the risk of being a bit too sentimental, I will close with a little poem-prayer I made up and said to each vine as I planted it.  It goes like this;

Little Vine

Please Be Fine

So We May Have

Some Very Fine Wine

Looking out over the vineyard after our second planting of eight additional acres in 2013.
Looking out over the vineyard after our second planting of eight additional acres in 2013.

I can think of little else in life that has inspired me to write a poem.

Our Hundredth Valley wine label, made from the first photograph in this post of the yet-to-be-planted vineyard.
Our Hundredth Valley wine label, made from the first photograph in this post of the yet-to-be-planted vineyard.
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We Have Leaf Separation!

Our buds seem to be over their "separation anxiety."
Our buds seem to be over their “separation anxiety.” (Thank you to one of our readers for that fun play on words).

Ten days after our official “bud break,” we are finally seeing our first fireworks!  The little green leaves that have been bound up tightly within the buds are finally starting to open.

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It’s hard to believe that less than two weeks ago, this little green shoot was just a pinkish-brown nub about the size of an eraser on a pencil.

I can walk around the vineyard for hours  just looking at these little green shoots.  They are so delicate and beautiful and no two are alike. With their pretty pastel colors of green and pink, they kind of remind me of decorated Easter eggs. I hope you will indulge me by looking at a few baby pictures:

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You have to catch the leaves just after they unfurl to see that pretty pink color along their edges. It disappears as the leaves grow and mature.
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The little pink bud under these leaves looks ready to open, too. When it does, it will be a secondary shoot and we will likely remove it to maintain air flow through the vines.
Eventually, each little cluster of leaves will grow into a green shoot that will produce grape clusters and tendrils.
Eventually, each little cluster of leaves will grow into a green shoot that will produce grape clusters and tendrils.

Along with the excitement of watching these little beauties leaf out, we are collecting some good data on growth patterns in our vineyard. All of the above pictures were taken in the north/northeast end of the vineyard where the vines are leafing out ahead of the rest of the vineyard. This surprised me at first, because this end of the vineyard is bordered by some tall trees that shade the vines for part of the day.  But I think the trees also provide a wind break that is warming and protecting the vines, thus convincing them it is safe to open their leaves.

Two buds in the south/southwest end of the vineyard.
Two buds in the south/southwest end of the vineyard.

As you move south/southwest through the vineyard, most of the buds look like the buds in the photo above. These buds are awake but their tender leaves are still bound together. Without the protection of the trees, it must be too chilly in this part of the vineyard for the vines to expose their leaves just yet.

The arm in the foreground is a cordon that was laid out prior to the last growing season.  The arm running into the background is a cane laid out a few months ago
The right arm of this vine is a cordon and the left arm is a cane. The cordon was laid out the winter before last, in early 2013, while the cane was laid out this past winter.

The most interesting thing  we’ve noticed so far is that the buds on our cane pruned vines are opening well ahead of the buds on the cordon pruned vines.  (If you are not sure of the difference between the two pruning methods, check out this earlier post on our cordon vs cane pruning experiment). At first we thought this was because most of the cordon vines are in a cooler part of the vineyard than the cane vines. But then we took a look at the vine in the above photo, which we pruned to have one cordon arm and one cane arm.

The buds on the cordon arm of the vine still have not shed all of their protective fibers.
The buds on the cordon arm of the vine still have not shed all of their protective fibers.

And sure enough, on the very same vine, the buds on the cordon are lagging behind the buds on the cane.  The two buds in the above photo are from the cordon arm of the vine.  As you can see, the leaves haven’t even begun to separate. The photo below is of a bud on the cane arm of the same vine.  It’s not as advanced as the buds along the tree line, but you can see its leaves are starting to separate.

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The leaves of this bud on the cane arm of the vine are starting to separate.

We won’t know until harvest whether the slower bud break on the cordon arms is a good thing or a bad thing.  For now, it means less exposed green tissue should we get a spring frost.  And that’s good.  But if the cordon vines continue to lag throughout the growing season, that could mean a later harvest for their grapes than for the grapes on the cane vines.  And if we are scrambling to pick our grapes before heavy rains or migrating birds ruin our crop, that delay could be very bad.

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A happy shoot with the protective trees in the background.

And so, it is a bit like The Tortoise and The Hare, but with grape vines.  Will slow and steady win the race? Or is a quick start the key to a strong finish? I predict more than a few sleepless nights before harvest as I ponder those questions.

 

 

 

 

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Chilly With a Touch of Fog, But No Frost!

For those of you who may have worried through the night like we did that we’d get frost in the vineyard, I am happy and relieved to report that we did not. Temperatures were actually quite mild throughout most of the night, hovering around 40F.  But at daybreak, they dropped a bit. The warmest part of the vineyard dipped to 37F, and the coldest rows went down to 34F. That’s dangerously close to frost, but still in the safe zone.

You can see the start of leaf separation in this bud, which is the first bud in the whole vineyard to take this brave step.
You can see the start of leaf separation in this bud, which is the first bud in the whole vineyard to take this brave step.

Meantime, the little buds are awake, but they seem unwilling to open their leaves until the sun comes out.  The dogs and I found just one lone bud in the entire vineyard this morning that is starting to separate its leaves. Is this bud brave or foolish? Time will tell. I am further intrigued by this bud because it is in a part of the vineyard that is shaded at times by some nearby trees. I thought this would have delayed the opening of the buds there, but I guess sun exposure doesn’t mean very much on an overcast day.

The brave bud grows at the end of the row to the left, in the shade of the oak tree.
The brave bud grows at the end of the row just left of center, in the shade of the oak tree.

According to the forecast, today is supposed to be warm and sunny.  So far, it is not. We’re also supposed to be free of frost worries for the next week or so. Yet looking at all those reluctant buds, I have to wonder if they know more about forecasting the weather than we do.

Another bud from the shady spot in the vineyard that is very close to leaf separation.
This little bud, also in the shady part of the vineyard, is toying with the idea of leaf separation, but isn’t willing to go for it just yet.

 

 

 

Big Fan

A Mighty Wind (Machine)

The Mother of All Fans.
The Mother of All Fans. Dodger inserted himself into the photo so you can appreciate its large size. The fan sounds like a small prop plane when it starts up.

There stands in our vineyard a powerful fan that most people assume is there for cooling.  It’s not.  It’s there for warming.

Should we get an overnight frost now that our buds have broken open, our strategy is to build a huge bonfire out of the piles of stumps we’ve accumulated in the vineyard and power up the fan to mix the warm air from the fire with the cold night air to hopefully boost the temperature enough to prevent the vines from freezing.  A thirteen acre vineyard is a lot of ground to cover with just one bonfire and one fan, but our hope is it will be enough to keep the temperature from dropping to 29F, the point at which green tissue can be damaged.

Bob fans the flames with a leaf blower.
Bob fans the flames of the stump fire with a leaf blower.

We had to deploy our “stumps and fan” strategy twice last spring, on the nights of April 30th and May 1st. We were at least three weeks past bud break by that point and our vines were fully leafed out. We knew the forecast was calling for freezing temperatures overnight, so we set our alarm to go off every hour on the hour so we could check the weather.  At 2am on both  nights, the thermometer said 33, and we were out the door. The dogs had a blast.  They thought we were camping! But for us humans, these were very tense nights. The temperature dropped by a full degree or more per hour!  We knew we’d get dangerously close to the dreaded 29 degrees.

Nathan at dawn, taking the temperature in the vineyard.  But you can tell by looking at the ground that we didn't stop the frost.
A disheartened Nathan at dawn, taking the temperature in the top rows of the vineyard. As you can see. we didn’t stop the frost.

We took turns throughout the night driving the rows of the vineyard with a thermometer in hand to check the air temperature.  The upper ten rows of the vines consistently were the coldest by two to three degrees.  You always hear that it is darkest before dawn but in our vineyard I can tell you it’s always coldest right after dawn.  As the sun came up we literally watched the frost form on the ground and spread like an oil spill through the coldest rows of vines.

The affect of frostbite on the vines.  You can see the tips of the shoots are turning grey and dying.  This is very troubling because the shoots grow from the tip up.  If the tip gets damaged, the whole shoot will die.
The affect of frostbite on the vines. You can see the tips of the shoots are turning grey and dying. This is very troubling because the shoots grow from the tip up. If the tip gets damaged, the whole shoot will die.

It took two or three days for the damage to the vines to become apparent.  And when it did, it was heartbreaking.  The tips of all of our green shoots in the affected rows turned from green to grey and finally to black. Once the tip of a green shoot is damaged like that, the shoot can’t grow anymore and it will die along with the grapes it would have produced for our wine.  About 15% of our vines suffered damage during those two frost nights last spring.  But the rest of the vineyard did not frost.  We like to believe it’s because we were up all night burning those stumps.

Our stump piles at the ready.  We will light them one at a time.
Our stump piles at the ready. We will light them one at a time.

There are other strategies for fighting frost in the vineyard.   Some grape growers use smudge pots that burn heating oil.  They spread them throughout the vineyard and burn them like we do our bonfire to heat the night air.  The advantage is there are lots of them, so you can spread them out.  The disadvantage is there are lots of them, so you have to spread them out.  And, we don’t like the idea of pots of heating oil possibly tipping over and getting into our soil.  So we’re not doing that.

Nick and Bob lay out the plastic curtain we will hang along the vineyard fence if its frosts.
Nick and Bob demonstrate how the plastic frost curtain will hang along the vineyard fence. The horse pasture is across the road to the right and the vineyard is inside the fence to the left.

Some vineyards have an overhead sprinkler system for irrigation that can be turned on in cold weather to protect the vines by encasing them in ice.  I know that sounds crazy, but if you think about it, water freezes at 32F and vines are damaged at 29F.  So if the vines are inside a layer of ice, they are actually insulated from the colder air.  Our irrigation system is a drip system that is low to the ground, so that won’t work for us.

Right now, the curtain is on the ground so that it doesn't artificially warm the vineyard.  We will hang it if we think a frost is coming.
This is the reverse view with the vineyard on the right and the pasture on the left. Right now, the curtain is on the ground so that it doesn’t artificially warm the vineyard. We will hang it if we think a frost is coming.

But we do have one more trick we plan to try this year to protect the top rows in the vineyard.  We noticed on those frosty mornings last year that the frost would creep into the vineyard from the higher ground of the horse pasture across the farm road from the vineyard fence and down into the vines. That showed us that the air flow pattern on our farm goes from the high ground to the low ground.  So Bob had the idea to hang a plastic curtain along the vineyard fence when it frosts to stop the airflow.  The idea is to block the cold air from the horse pasture from spilling into the vineyard to hopefully save the top ten rows from frostbite.

Nathan and Bob warming themselves at daybreak.  Notice the bale of hay in the buggy.  We started tossing hay on the fire when we were running out of stumps to burn.
Nathan and Bob warming themselves at daybreak last spring. Notice the bale of hay in the buggy. We started tossing hay on the fire when we were running out of stumps to burn.

We don’t know if anyone has ever tried this before or if it will work but we could find out as soon as Tuesday night.  The forecast calls for 33F overnight, and that’s cold enough for us to light the fire, crank up the fan and hang the curtain. Then, we’ll all spend a long cold, night around the bonfire, taking turns stoking the flames and driving the rows to check temperatures.  We’ll also toast a few marshmallows and look at the stars. And I will spend at least some of the night in a huge dog pile on the ground with all of my dogs. Fighting frost is cold, exhausting work, but it’s also kind of fun. And it’s something fun to think about the next time you open a bottle of wine.

A bit of the magic, the sunrise is spectacular on a frosty, smoky morning in the vineyard.
A bit of the magic, the sunrise is spectacular on a frosty, smoky morning in the vineyard.

 

 

 

 

Dispatches From Our Farm and Vineyard in Southern Oregon

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