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.

 

 

 

 

And Just When I Was About to Snap a Picture of a Newly Opened Bud The Rainbow Appeared…..

One of the first buds in the vineyard showing leaf separation.  This is what we mean by Bud Break, the vine is awake and the buds are starting to open.
One of the first buds in the vineyard showing leaf separation. This is what we mean by Bud Break, the vine is awake and the buds are starting to open.

It’s official, we have Bud Break in the vineyard!  We started noticing isolated buds that were showing signs of opening a few days ago, but while the buds were awake, their leaves had not yet started to separate.  But as of this afternoon, March 29th, we have universal Bud Break throughout the vineyard. All of the tiny buds are awake and some are even starting to unfurl their first leaves.

This is the shot I was taking when the rainbow appeared.
This is the picture I was taking when the rainbow appeared.

Bud Break is the single most exciting day of the year for a wine grape grower. It’s the official start of the new growing season, and of the vintage you will harvest about 180 days hence in the fall. And if this year’s Bud Break is any indication, 2014 is going to be a spectacular vintage.  The dogs and I discovered our first open buds during a burst of sun that somehow managed to shine through our endless rain. And just as I was  framing up a shot of a cane full of vibrant buds with Murphy seated in the background, a rainbow appeared in my camera lens! I snapped away, not sure if I’d capture it or not.  But I did. I don’t know if I did it justice, but I hope there is enough there that you can appreciate the magic of a sudden rainbow on such an auspicious day.

Two skies over the vineyard, storm clouds to the left and clear blue to the right.
A Tale of Two Skies over the vineyard, storm clouds to the left and clear blue to the right.

The rainbow disappeared as quickly as it appeared.  The time stamps on my photos tell me it lasted less than 32 seconds.  Just that fast, another wave of storm clouds rolled in over the vineyard.  The dogs and I barely got inside before the next cloud burst. Quicker still, the excitement of Bud Break is starting to make way for anxiety.  The forecast calls for two nights next week in the low 30s, which is cold enough to damage our little green buds.

Let The Games Begin.

With over 13,000 vines in the vineyard and at least 16 buds per vine, we now have over 200,000 buds to protect.
With over 13,000 vines in the vineyard and at least 16 buds per vine, we now have over 200,000 buds to protect.

 

 

Mission Accomplished, We Slung A Horse!

Bob rigging the sling to the vetting stanchion.
Bob rigging Leah’s sling together with a hunk of leather and three cargo straps.

Many of you saw the post a few weeks ago about Floating a Horse.  Our vet, Dr. Gene Koo Kang, had come to the farm to float (file down) Buck’s teeth.  We had planned to float Leah’s  teeth that day as well but backed off when we became concerned her arthritic front legs wouldn’t be able to hold her up while she was under sedation.  In order to do the procedure, we decided, some kind of support system would have to be rigged.

Dr. Kang adjusts the sling around Leah for an even, comfortable fit while Blue looks on.
Dr. Kang adjusts the sling around Leah for an even, comfortable fit while Blue looks on.

So Bob, who loves rigging things, went to work.  He found an old piece of leather on the farm and cut slits into it so he could thread cargo straps through it to make a sling.  Then he hung the sling from the top bars of our vetting stanchion and cushioned the leather with a saddle pad.  Finally, he dragged the whole thing into the soft dirt of the arena to eliminate any risk of Leah slipping on the barn’s concrete floor.

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Bob ratchets down the straps to tighten the sling around Leah’s belly.

Everything was ready and waiting when Dr. Kang returned to the farm this weekend to vaccinate the herd and hopefully float Leah’s teeth. He thought the contraption looked good, so he and Bob carefully walked Leah into the stanchion and secured the sling under her belly. We had no idea how she would react to the sling, but Leah is a very good horse. She remained calm and cooperative the whole time, even while Bob ratcheted up the cargo straps to tighten the sling around her.

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Bob tries to distract Leah but she seems to know Dr. Kang is back there preparing to give her an injection.

Then came the moment of truth.  It was time to sedate Leah.  Now, I am sure slings of this nature have been used throughout the equine world before, but we had never seen one used or done it ourselves.  We wouldn’t know if the sling would work until Leah was sedated.  So Dr. Kang gave her the injection.  And we waited to see what would happen.

The reason for the sling.  Leah's knees collapsed as soon as the sedative took effect.
The reason for the sling. Leah’s front legs buckled as soon as she went to sleep.

And do you know what?  It worked!  As we expected, Leah’s arthritic front legs stopped working just as soon as the sedative hit her.  If not for the sling, she would have collapsed inside the vetting stanchion. Instead, she just slumped into the padded sling and seemed about as happy as a horse can seem when it’s hanging from a sling. We were all greatly relieved to see the sling working without causing Leah any worry or pain.

Dr. Kang inspects Leah's teeth.  The sharp point in the upper right of her mouth is one of the molars that needs filing.
Dr. Kang inspects Leah’s teeth. The sharp point in the upper right of her mouth is one of the molars in need of filing.

With Leah comfortable and secure, Dr, Kang was able to take a good look at her teeth.  It had been a while since her last floating and most of her back molars had sharp points on them.  Pointy teeth, like the one in the right foreground of her mouth in the photo, can cause painful sores in a horse’s mouth.  Bob noticed a calloused spot on Leah’s tongue, likely caused by one of the points.

Dr. Kang uses a power tool fitted with a file to smooth out the sharp points on Leah's teeth.
As he did with Buck’s teeth, Dr. Kang uses a power tool fitted with a file to smooth out the sharp points on Leah’s molars.

Leah hung in there (pun intended, just this once) while Dr. Kang floated the points down with power tools. A chin stand and his assistant, Payton, supported Leah’s head while he worked. If you’ve never held up a horse’s head, it’s hard to appreciate just how heavy they can be.  The head and neck of a horse make up about 10% of its body weight.  Leah weighs in at about 700 pounds, so her head a good 70 pounds! And she’s a pretty small horse.  (Buck’s head/neck probably weigh about 110 pounds).

Leah's incisors were quite long.  Dr. Kang used a hand file to shorten them and create an even bite line between her top and bottom teeth.
Leah’s incisors were quite long. Dr. Kang “floats” a hand file over the teeth to shorten them and create an even bite line between her upper and lower jaw.

Because Leah’s teeth had been neglected for a while, her front teeth, or incisors, were horribly overgrown.  In fact, her teeth had gotten so long they sometimes stuck out further than her lips when she reached for a carrot.  When a horse gets this long in the tooth (not a pun, that’s what that means), it can’t chew its food well enough to release the nutrients.  So, even if the horse is eating, it’s not being nourished.  For Leah, her overgrown teeth have been making it hard for her to put on weight no matter how much we feed her.

All done!  You can see the even bite line of her teeth now.
All done! Dr. Kang’s young assistant Peyton can see how much shorter Leah’s teeth are. That will help Leah grind up her food, which is necessary for proper nutritional release and digestion.

To correct the problem, Dr. Kang used a hand file to file down Leah’s incisors, top and bottom.  It’s precision work.  He had to get each row of teeth even and the two rows filed down to just the right height in relation to each other so that the top teeth and bottom teeth close over each other in a smooth bite. It took a lot of patience and elbow grease, but when he was finished, Leah’s teeth looked beautiful. Not being so long in the tooth anymore, she might even be able to pass for a younger horse, which I am sure will please her, because she has her eye on Twister and he’s just a three-year old.

Shella leads Leah out of the stanchion after the float.  It was a complete success.
Shella leads Leah out of the stanchion after the float. It was a complete success.

An hour after Bob and Dr. Kang led Leah into the stanchion, Shella led her out.  She emerged relaxed and not at all traumatized by what had just happened. Shella took advantage of Leah’s relaxed state to give her a quick bath, and then Leah was turned her out in her pasture, where she spent the afternoon grazing in the sunshine, finally able to grind all of the important nutrients out of the spring grass with her newly floated teeth.

If you look on top of the garage door you will spot Orange Kitty sitting in the sunlight.  He watched the whole procedure from there.  Dr. Kang had neutered him in this very barn last summer, which might be why he wanted to keep an eye on him,
If you look on top of the garage door you will spot Orange Kitty sitting up there in the sunlight. He watched the whole procedure from there. Dr. Kang had neutered him in this very barn last summer, which might be why he kept a safe distance.

And so, I am calling it a job well hung (OK, one more pun. Last one, I promise). For those of you tracking the vineyard, no bud break just yet.  Our freezing temperatures overnight seem to have slowed down the buds a bit.  I haven’t noticed much change over the past few days. But it’s supposed to warm up to 70 degrees tomorrow. So there is still a good chance we will see green leaves before the end of March. More soon.

And Already, The First Spring Frost……

A blanket of fog and frost covers the soon-to-awaken vineyard.
A blanket of fog and frost covers the soon-to-awaken vineyard.

People like to think of vineyards as relaxing places.  And mostly they are.  But this time of year, grape farming can get pretty stressful.  We awoke this morning to a foggy, frosty vineyard, which is scary considering how close we are to bud break. It was just 30F when we went out to feed the horses.  Just a degree or two colder is enough to damage any green tissue on the vines.

The pink and green colors mean bud break is very close.
The pink and green colors mean bud break is very close.

When I checked the vines late yesterday, I noticed some of the buds are starting to show their colors.  When they first open, the leaves of a grapevine are a vibrant lime green with some pinkish-tan hues around the edges.  You can see those colors in this little bud, which means it’s ready to unfold.

The forecast calls for another warm afternoon in the 60s followed by a cold, clear night tonight.  And so, we hold our collective breaths and hope the buds aren’t encouraged to open in the afternoon sun only to be bitten by another overnight frost.

Fun!

Murphy says what, me worry?  The afternoon sun feels wonderful.
Murphy says what, me worry? The afternoon sun feels wonderful.

 

Wine Bottling 101

Bottling Circuit
A complete wine filtering and bottling system set up on the crush pad outside the winery. The blue pump (to the right) pumps the wine out of the white tub, through a filter (back center), and into the silver drum on the forklift for bottling.

It has been an incredible couple of days on the farm.  My sister and nephews arrived from Colorado for their Spring Break just in time to help us bottle some wine.  It was a great learning experience for the boys, who might grow up to be winemakers and take over the winery someday.  Don’t worry, it is perfectly legal to have kids in the winery as long as a parent is present.  This is how our winemaker, Nathan, learned the craft from his father and grandfather.  And now, he is passing it along to another generation.

Nathan, pulls a sample of the White Pinot which was made by crushing and fermenting red Pinot Noir grapes without any contact with the skins.
Our winemaker, Nathan, shows Memphis (left) and Iain (right) a sample of the White Pinot which was made by crushing and fermenting red Pinot Noir grapes without any contact with the skins.

We had two very small lots of wine for the boys to bottle, about eight cases of White Pinot and an equal amount of Rose’.  Our White Pinot confused the boys at first because it is a white wine we made from red Pinot Noir grapes.  How is that possible?  Nathan, explained that the color in red wine comes from pigments in the grape skins.  A traditional red wine is made by soaking the juice on the skins for a while to extract the color compounds, while white wine is made with little to no contact with the skins to avoid color.  To get the White Pinot from Pinot Noir grapes, we simply processed the red grapes as if we were making a white wine by fermenting the grapes without any contact with the skins. Ah-ha!

We made our Rose' with our own Pinot Noir grapes and limited the skin contact to limit the color.  However, we found the result too pale (right) and so we blended in some 2013 Pinot Noir (left) to boost the color and add a little "earthiness" to the wine.
We made our Rose’ with limited the skin contact to keep the color light. However, we found the result too pale (right) and so we blended in some 2013 Pinot Noir (left) to boost the color and add a little “earthiness” to the wine.

Knowing this, it was easy for the boys to guess how we made the Rose’ wine.  We started with red, Pinot Noir grapes and let the juice soak for just a little while on the skins to extract just a little bit of color. The glass on the right shows the Rose’ color we got by soaking, and the glass on the left is the same Rose’ with a dash of our 2013 Pinot Noir mixed in to darken the color.  After some taste trials by my sister, Kathie and the other adults present, we decided we liked the darker Rose’ better, so we added some Pinot Noir to the lot before bottling.

Nathan inserts a paper filter into the filtering device.
Nathan inserts a sheet of paper filtering media into our Plate and Frame Wine Filter.

Once we settled on the wine blend, Nathan put the boys to work setting up the wine filtration system.  A paper filter medium is used to filter out any yeast or other microbes that might cause spoilage in the bottled wine.  This is especially important with wines like the Rose’ that contain residual sugar because if there is any yeast in the bottle, it will start to ferment the remaining sugar.  Fermentation produces carbon dioxide, which in turn creates pressure inside a corked bottle.  If enough carbon dioxide builds up, BOOM!  The bottle could explode ! (The boys thought that was pretty cool).

Once Nathan placed all the papers in the filter, our nephew Iain tightened down the plates.
Iain turns the big screw on the wine filter to tighten the plates and hold the paper filtering media in place.

Once the filtering system was set up, Nathan and the boys pumped a citric solution through it to clean the filters and all the hoses that would carry the wine.  Then, they ran about 150 gallons of clean water through to flush out the citric and get the paper taste out of the filters. You might not think paper has a taste, but you can detect it in wine if you push it through the filters without neutralizing the paper first.

Nathan shows the boys how to check the sulfur content of the wine.
Nathan shows the boys how to check the free sulfur content of wine.

While the wine was being filtered, Nathan and the boys were off to the lab to check wine samples for free sulfur.  A very small amount of sulfur is needed in wine to prevent spoilage and oxidation.  But too much can bother some people.  So it’s very important to know how much sulfur is already in the wine before adding any at bottling.  Both the Rose’ and the White Pinot had just the right amount, so no additions were needed. But the sulfur check was a great chance for the boys to see chemistry in action.

Nathan helps Iain raise the variable container holding the filtered wine so gravity can be used to fill the bottles.
Nathan helps Iain raise the stainless steel container holding the filtered wine so gravity can be used to fill the bottles.

Then, it was time for some basic physics.  Nathan let Iain hit the button on the forklift that elevated the stainless steel drum containing the filtered White Pinot.

Nathan runs a siphon hose out of an elevated, stainless steel drum holding the filtered wine.
Nathan checks the siphon hose that dispenses the wine into the bottles.

Once the drum was hovering high overhead, Nathan showed the boys how to use gravity and a small hose to siphon the wine out of the drum and into the bottles. Genius!

Filling the bottles to just the right level is precision work and Iain did an excellent job.
Filling the bottles to just the right level is precision work and Iain did an excellent job.

Iain volunteered to be the bottle filler.  He controlled the flow of wine by pinching off the siphon tube when each bottle was filled.  Then, to prevent oxidation, he had to watch for an air bubble to rise up out of the wine before he pulled out the tube.

My sister, Kathie, was in charge of volume control.  She topped off the bottles to exactly 750ml each.
My sister Kathie was in charge of volume control. She topped off the bottles to exactly 750ml each.

My sister Kathie, who is a PhD, checked the wine levels to be sure each bottle was filled to exactly 750 millilitres and adjusted them if needed.  During the bottling, and perhaps after a little sipping of excess wine, she was inspired to name the White Pinot Umpqua Loompqua, which is a play on the name of the nearby Umpqua River.  A label is in the works.

Memphis used his strength to man the corker and also did an excellent job.
Memphis used his strength to man the corker and did an excellent job.

Finally, Memphis used the manual corker to squeeze the corks into the bottles.  This job requires a good amount of steadiness and strength.  Working together, Iain, Kathy and Memphis got all eight cases of the White Pinot bottled before dinnertime, a total of 96 bottles of wine!

Bob tops off the bottles while Tylor operates the corker.
The Second Shift; Bob tops off the bottles while Tylor operates the corker.

The bottling of the Rose’ had to wait until after dinner, and fortunately for us, our friend Tylor showed up to help because the boys were exhausted by then.  We adults stayed up late to  finish the job.

The full moon rising over the drum of Rose'
The full moon rising over the drum of Rose’

At one point we looked up and realized were bottling under a full moon. This inspired me to name the wine Moonlight Rose’.  A label is in the works.

The Second Shift working well into the night.
The Second Shift working well into the night.

This isn’t how we usually bottle our wine.  Usually, several of the small wineries in town band together to hire a mobile bottling truck. Those are exciting but busy days when time is money and everyone is a little uptight. It’s not a setting where you can take your time and let your nephews fill bottles and squeeze corks.  But with small lots of wine meant for ourselves and not for commercial sale, we can take our time, do it all by hand, and invite our family and friends to help out.  And that’s the true magic of having a winery.

The "Bottling" Moon
The “Bottling” Moon is the most beautiful of all full moons.

A Celebration of Spring Weather

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Blue got things going with a roll in the grass.
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Brutus thought that looked like a good idea.
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So did Murphy…..
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And Jenny…..
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And Honeymoon!
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Uma attacked one of the canes pruned off of the grapevines.
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And Dodger slogged through the drainage ditch in the vineyard. It’s hard to see but the water is almost elbow deep.
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Dart, the Thoroughbred, and Buck, the Running Quarter had an impromptu race past the vineyard.
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Jazzy Duck stretched her wings in the sun…..
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And then traded places with Buffy Duck on their nest…..
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So Buffy Duck could stretch her wings.
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Luigi petitioned for a carrot by looking painfully cute in the shade. He got a carrot.
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Jenny D took a more proactive approach. She let loose with a bray in the sunshine. She got a carrot.
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Emma quietly grazed in filtered sunlight. She, too got a carrot.
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Up at the barn, Orange Kitty tasted the sunshine.
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Black Kitty climbed a flowering tree….
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And then stalked things in the tall grass….
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And wrestled with Mama Cat. She let him win.
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Grey Kitty (foreground) stalked Sweetie (by the car).
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Orange Kitty intervened and Sweetie got away.
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Leah, the aging Arabian, was able to soak up some fresh air and sunshine!
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Meanwhile, back in the vineyard, Murphy was all smiles!
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Dodger tramped thorough the mud.
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See what I mean?
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Blue attacked the oak tree.
Jenny slunk through the tall grass.
Jenny slunk through the tall grass.
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Uma hunted things that live under stumps.
And Brutus took a snooze.
And Brutus took a snooze.
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I think that’s everyone. All in all, it was a tail-wagging good time!

 

 

A Bold Experiment in Vineyard Pruning

Raindrops glistening along the trellis wires in the vineyard with the horses in the background.  This is the best I could do to make the rain look pretty.
Raindrops glistening along the trellis wires in the vineyard with the horses in the background. This is the best I could do to make the rain look pretty.

I apologize for the long silence but it’s been raining for so long and life on the farm has gotten so soggy, muddy and unattractive, it’s left me uninspired. But then, the clocks turned forward, the sun came out, and the farm came to life.  And just in time for the arrival of spring, the winter pruning in the vineyard is done!

A bud growing on "second year wood."  This was a green shoot with leaves and grapes during the last growing season.
A bud growing on “second year wood.” This was a green shoot with leaves and grapes during the last growing season.

For those who don’t know, grape vines must be pruned each winter.  The fruit comes from what is known as “second year wood,” or from the buds that formed on last season’s green shoots.  The trouble is, there are far more buds than you want because if all of that fruit developed, nothing would ripen.  So you have to prune it back to about 16-20 bud per vine, give or take, to get a good crop.

Winter vines in desperate need of a haircut.
Winter vines in desperate need of a haircut.

There is nothing more nerve-wracking than confronting a tangled mass of vines and trying to decide what to leave and what to prune.  Because once you make a cut, that shoot is gone!  Complicating matters even more is the fact that there are two general types of pruning to choose from, cane pruning and cordon pruning.

An example of a cordon pruned vine.  The arms, or cordons, will stay year after year, and like the trunk, will get thicker as the vine ages.
An example of a cordon pruned vine. The short branches sticking upward are the two-bud spurs. The arms, or cordons, will stay year after year, and only the growth out of the spurs is pruned. Like the trunk, the cordons will get thicker as the vine ages.

So before you can even start cutting,  you have to decide between cordon and cane.  Cordon pruning lays out an “arm” along the fruiting wire that stays there year after year.  The shoots grow out of buds on the little “spurs” from last year’s growth that you leave when you prune.  The goal is to give each arm 4-5 two-bud spurs.

An Example of our cane pruned vines.
An Example of some of our vines with two canes per vine. They look a lot like cordon pruned vines at the start. The difference is we will cut those canes off next winter and lay down new ones.

With cane pruning, you cut off the arm each year and lay down a new one from last year’s shoots.  Most growers lay out two arms per vine, one on each side, with about 6-10 buds each.  Less common is the “Uni-cane,” where you lay out just one long cane on one side of each vine that hopefully has about 18-20 healthy buds on it.

Nathan studies a cordon laid down last winter before cutting last year's growth down to two-bud spurs.
Nathan confronts cordons laid down last winter before cutting last year’s growth down to two-bud spurs. Once the cordons are established, this is a quicker and easier pruning method than cane pruning.

In our vineyard, we have decided to embark upon a bold experiment.  Our first planting of five acres is cordon pruned and the second planting of eight acres is cane pruned.  And I can’t tell you how controversial this is.  Nobody we know of in our part of Oregon does cordon pruning on their Pinot Noir vines.  The worry is that with all of our morning fog,  the buds left on the spurs were too low on last year’s shoots to get adequate sunlight.  And sunlight determines how “fruitful” the buds will be, or how much fruit they produce and how good it will be.

A close look at a two-bud spur on the cordon. As you can see, the buds grew low in the canopy last season, and so had more leaf cover and less sun than the buds that grew near the top of the shoot.
A close look at a two-bud spur on the cordon. As you can see, the buds grew low in the canopy last season, and so had more leaf cover and less sun than the buds that grew near the top of the shoot.

This is a valid worry.  We don’t get as much sun here as they do in Burgundy, France, where Pinot Noir comes from and where almost all the vines are cordon pruned.  But the thing is, nobody here has tried it to see what would happen. And so against the cautions, objections, and even outrage of some of our grape-growing neighbors, we are giving it a try.  Since most vineyards here drop upwards of half their fruit each year to be sure to ripen the rest, producing less fruit in the first place seems like a smart idea.  So the real test here is the quality of the fruit produced.

An example of a uni-cane vine with just one long arm laid down along the fruiting wire. This cane will be pruned away next winter and replaced with a new one.
An example of a uni-cane vine with just one long arm laid down along the fruiting wire. This cane will be pruned away next winter and replaced with a new one.

As if that isn’t excitement enough for one vineyard, we are experimenting with our cane pruned vines as well by going with the seldom seen “uni-cane.”  This is all about disease control.  Our theory is that by eliminating the overlap of shoots that grow at the point where the two canes from neighboring vines meet on the wire, we will get more air flow through our canopy (leaves and shoots) during the growing season and that will mean less moisture problems like Powdery Mildew.

Uma supervises Nathan as he ties down a new cane to the fruiting wire.  Tying down the canes assures they grow straight and the buds are pointed upwards.
Uma supervises Nathan as he ties down a new cane to the fruiting wire. Tying down the canes assures they grow straight and most of the buds point upwards.

Of course, that means longer canes, and more fruit from the buds near the very tip of last year’s shoots.  Those buds were the last to develop, leaving them with less time to soak up the sun during the growing season.  And so, the same concerns about fruitfulness apply.  We will have to see if the quality of the fruit suffers from having one long cane rather than two shorter canes.

Nathan strikes a "Jethro Tull" pose as he bends a new cordon along the wire.
Nathan strikes a “Jethro Tull” pose as he bends a new cordon along the wire.

Our vines are quite young, so it could be a few growing seasons before they start producing a consistent crop and we know  which method gives us the best fruit.  We may even have to produce wines exclusively from each pruning method before we know the results. If we are making a mistake with either of these pruning methods, it will take us years to correct it. I think that’s why our neighbors are so concerned. But that’s just part of the adventure.

The crew is working hard to finish tying down all the cordons and canes before bud break.
The crew is working hard to finish tying down all the cordons and canes before bud break.

For now, we wait for bud break.  Most of the vineyard is in the “wolly bud” stage, which means the hard outer shells on the buds have cracked revealing the white, fuzzy fibers inside.  You can see what a “wolly bud” looks like in the “second year wood” photo up top. If our warm weather holds, the shoots will start pushing against those fibers and we could see our first leaves in about 10-12 days.  I will post lots of baby pictures just as soon as the buds break.

Grey Kitty and Orange Kitty are very glad the sun finally came out!
Grey Kitty and Orange Kitty are unimpressed with the pruning activity in the vineyard, but they are very glad the sun finally came out!

The Pros and Cons of an Early Spring

Rain clouds hover over the vineyard.
Rain clouds hover over the vineyard.

An epic battle is being waged in the skies over the farm.  And for a brief moment, it appeared as though the Sun might win. It happened at about 3:07 Thursday afternoon.  The sideways rain shut off, the wind stopped blowing, the grey clouds gave way, and the whole farm seemed to radiated with sunshine and warmth.

Sunlight shining through the blossoms.
Sunlight reflecting off the forsythia blossoms.

Of course, it didn’t last.  But while Winter and Spring duke it out in the sky, the ground battle here on the farm is being won decisively by Spring.  The most spectacular sign of victory thus far is the bright, yellow forsythia which sits just outside our front door between the house and the vineyard.  It started flowering during the final days of February.  And just today, I noticed one of our camellia bushes is in bloom.  This is only my fourth Spring on the farm, but things sure seem to be blooming early this year.

A perfect camellia blossom, as alarming as it is beautiful.
A perfect camellia blossom.

All of these early blooms mean that bud break in the vineyard can’t be far behind.   We usually see bud break during the first week or two of April in Elkton.   But this year, we might see the first green shoots in our vineyard as early as March 15th!  This is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking because the potential for our 2014 harvest, and by extension our wine, is contained completely within those buds.

Each little white bump on the vine is a bud that will grow into a shoot.
Each little white bump on the vine is a bud that contains three potential shoots.

As hard as this may be to believe, each of the little buds on a grapevine is really made up of three buds. And each of those contains not one, but three tiny, compressed green shoots complete with all the cells needed to form leaves, tendrils and grapes.  Only the primary shoot will push out at bud break.  The other two buds are back ups, in case the first shoot is damaged by frost or other extreme conditions.

Blue checks a vine for wolly buds.
Blue checks a vine for wolly buds.

Right now, our buds are still dormant.  But we are starting to see early signs of swelling, which means the primary shoots are getting ready to pop.  Eventually, the buds will become so swollen from the pressure of the shoots pushing outward, the white fibers that form their outer shell will start to fray and the buds will look fuzzy.  We call those wolly buds. Once we see those, we know bud break is next.  And the warmer the weather, the quicker it will come.

Frostbitten vines on the morning of May 1st, 2013.  The shoots grow from the tip, so if it's damaged, the whole shoot eventually dies.
Frostbitten vines on the morning of May 1st, 2013. The shoots grow from the tip, so if it’s damaged, the whole shoot eventually dies.

If our hunch is right, and our buds open early this year, it could make for a tense couple of months. We are at risk of frost in our vineyard until early May.   If the temperature drops below about 28 degrees, any green shoots on the vines will die.  The vines themselves will survive thanks to the back up buds and their shoots.  But the back up shoots are not as fruitful as the primary shoots and could produce less fruit, fruit of poor quality, or no fruit at all.  So an early bud break followed by a late spring frost could have a devastating impact on the size and quality of this year’s harvest.

I won’t lie.  In the battle between Winter and Spring, I am rooting for Spring.  But it might be better for the vineyard and our wine if I endure a few more weeks of cold, winter rain.

Evidence of the battle between winter rain and spring sun; the blooming forsythia is reflected in a raindrop on one of its blossoms.
Evidence of the battle between winter rain and spring sun; the blooming forsythia is reflected in a raindrop on one of its blossoms. (Click the picture to make it big. You’ll see it).

 

 

 

A Quick Piece From My Creative Writing Class

THE WINDOW

The window is smudged, especially near the bottom where the noses meet the glass.  Behind it sits the old leather sofa.  Not the stark, Danish kind with a stiff upper back, but the comfy, overstuffed, pillowy kind that invites you to sink into it with a cup of hot tea and a blanket.  It would be the perfect place to look out over the farm on a rainy afternoon if the couch were orientated that way.  But it’s not.   Instead, the comfy sofa faces inward, with its back up against the glass, to engage conversation from across the room.

It is there that they sit, waiting for me, whenever I am not at home.  On one end is Brutus, the aging Shepherd mix, slouched into the arm of the couch with his head craned around and resting on the pillow topped back, his gaze fixed outside.   Slumped at the other end in a mirror image pose is Dodger, the ethereal, red-coated, blue-eyed Husky. Between them is Murphy, the painfully cute, caramel and white Beagle mix, draped long ways across the back of the couch on a billowy platform he somehow scrunches out of the overstuffed leather.  From there he can see beyond the front porch and well past the donkey barn, almost to the start of the driveway.

And so it is usually Murphy who spies my car first.  By the time I am past the donkey barn I can see him through the window, now seated on the couch back with his head tilted back and his nose pointed skyward, letting loose with a full Beagle howl.  Dodger quickly pops up and adds his high pitched yelps.  Old Brutus is slow to un-slouch, but his head is at full attention with one ear up Shepherd style, and the other forever flopped down. He joins the chorus with his low, staccato paced woofs.

As I pull up in front of the house, the two younger dogs leap off of the couch.   Brutus gingerly plants his front feet onto the floor before pushing off with his back to follow them to the front door.  My other three dogs come running.  There is Uma, the imposing, hundred pound Akita mix, Blue, the snow-white Pit Bull with the one blue eye, and little Jenny, a black dog of unknown breed that could pass as an undersized Lab.   It is all I can do to nudge the door open past the swirling wall of dog that has gathered to greet me. Somehow I manage, and the dogs rush out past me, turn in tight circles and escort me inside, barking and spinning around my feet every step of the way.

I shut the door and Murphy jumps up to tag me.

I am home.