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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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, 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We planted the first five acres of our vineyard in April of 2011 and added another eight acres in April of 2012, for a total of 13 planted acres. Our vines are spaced five feet apart in rows that are eight feet apart, which gives us 1,089 vines per acre. Altogether, we planted 13, 639 vines!
The grape variety we planted is Pinot Noir, which is the red wine grape of Burgundy, France. As a cool climate grape, Pinot Noir is perfectly suited to our comfortable, foggy mornings during the summer growing season. Our site and climate are also ideal for Chardonnay, the white wine grape of Burgundy. We might plant some Chardonnay someday if we can convince the horses to give up a bit of their pasture.
All of our vines consist of a European Pinot Noir shoot grafted onto an American root stock. This is because European wine grapes are susceptible to an insect native to The United States known as phylloxera that attacks the roots and kills the vine. Phylloxera is so deadly to European wine grapes it nearly wiped out all of the vineyards in France in the 1800! American grapes are resistant to phylloxera. But most people think European grapes make better wine. So by grafting the European wine grape onto the American root stock, you end up with a vine that has the resistance of the American vine and the quality wine grape of the European vine. Vineyards can be established using own-rooted vines. But such vineyards have a much higher risk of being destroyed by phylloxera.
Within the Pinot Noir variety, there are roughly one hundred clones. A clone is basically a Pinot Noir vine with a specific quality that can be traced back to a cutting from a single vine. The desired quality is passed down from vine to vine using cuttings from previous vines, so that each new vine is an exact genetic copy of the last.
Some clones are selected strictly for viticulture purposes to get a vine that grows a certain way. A clone might be selected because of its drought tolerance, its vigor, or rate of growth, its height, the size of the leaves or the time needed to ripen fruit. Other clones are selected for wine making reasons.
The Pinot Noir clones in our vineyard include 777, which is known for big color and tannins, French 114 and 115, both known for desirable aromas, Pommard, which adds spicy notes to wine, and 828, which produces larger berries that ripen later in the season. Most people wouldn’t be able to taste the difference between the clones if they sampled them one on one. But when blended, clones can make a notable difference. It is our hope we’ve chosen a mix that will blend into a quality wine.
There are hundreds of root stocks to choose from as well and it is important to match the root stocks to the soil type, climate and growing conditions of the vineyard. Our root stocks include 101-14, 3309C, and Riparia Gloire. These are among the most common root stocks used in Oregon. They are able to tolerate waterlogged soil, which is important given how much it can rain here.
It takes three-to-five years for young vines to establish their root systems and mature enough to start producing fruit. We harvested our first grapes from our first plantings in the fall of 2013 and plan to harvest the full vineyard for the first time in 2014. Our first harvest yielded about four tons of fruit. When our vineyard is at full production, we hope to get 2.5 to 3 tons per acre. Pinot Noir typically produces 60 cases of wine per ton of grapes. So our vineyard could eventually produce almost 2.400 cases of wine each year!
Bob and I knew nothing about growing wine grapes when we moved here and started the vineyard. We were very fortunate that Nathan showed up with his Napa Valley know how just as we were getting ready to start planting. We’ve also been taking classes at Umpqua Community College, which offers a two-year degree in viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine making). We’ve taken extension courses online through Oregon State University. And we attend lectures, workshops and seminars on vineyards and wine whenever we can.
We’ve also relied upon the advice and support of our neighbors in the wine business, including Mike and Vonnie at River’s Edge Winery, the late John Bradley and his wife Bonnie of Bradley Vineyards, and Terry and Sue Brandborg of Brandborg Winery. We’ve also had tremendous support, financial and otherwise, from our families and especially from Bob’s folks. We are grateful to them, our neighbors, Nathan and his family, and to our instructors for their help, encouragement and support. Anyone can start a vineyard if they are willing to put in the money and time, but nobody can do it alone.
This post tells the story of our wine. If you’d like to know how to purchase wine, clickhere.
Both our winery and vineyard are known as the Hundredth Valley. The name comes from The Hundred Valleys of The Umpqua, a phrase used by locals and poets to describe the many small, secluded valleys within the larger Umpqua River Valley. We are nestled into our own little valley and like to think it was one of the last such valleys that remained unspoken for when we found it. So we named it the Hundredth Valley.
We hand craft small quantities of wine under two labels, Hundredth Valley and Big Leaf. What’s the difference? Hundredth Valley is a big Pinot that leans more towards a classic Pinot Noir while the Big Leaf is a really big Pinot Noir. Bob, Nathan and I all love Cabernet Sauvignon, which is considered by most to be a big red wine. In making our Pinot Noir, we use some wine making techniques typical of making Cab, such as cold soaking the juice on the grape skins prior to fermentation to extract maximum color and aromas. With the Hundredth Valley vintages, we nudge the Pinot Noir in the direction of a Cab. With the Big Leaf, we push it. Truth be told, this approach is a bit controversial, especially among Pinot Noir purests. But it is in our nature to be rebels. And people really like the wine.
Our 2011 Hundredth Valley, which was our first vintage, was intended as a learning experience. Our vines were far too young to produce fruit that year, and we didn’t have a winery yet, so we bought a ton of grapes from a neighbor and made the wine at The River’s Edge Winery in Elkton. Mike and Vonnie of River’s Edge were kind enough to let us experiment with our own wine making ideas in their winery. We made just sixty cases that year, all of which has been given away or sold. We learned a lot and ended up with a very nice wine.
In 2012, we stepped things up a bit. We bought enough grapes from our neighbors to double our production! As with the 2011 vintage, we were still without a winery. So once again, Mike and Vonnie opened their winery to us for crush and fermentation. We can’t thank them enough for their help and hospitality.
2012 was an exceptional growing year and we noticed that about a half-ton of the grapes we bought were super ripe and sugary. When analyzed, they came in at 25.4 Brix! Typically, you’d harvest Pinot Noir between 22-23 Brix. We knew these grapes would make a meaty and robust wine that would be off the charts compared to a classic Pinot Noir.
At first we thought we’d blend the wine from these grapes into our Hundredth Valley. But the more the wines matured, the more we realized the Hundredth Valley was coming along nicely as a classic Pinot Noir on its own. And, we had something kind of special and revolutionary in the wine from the super ripe grapes. And so, the Big Leaf label was born. We had two very good but very different wines that demanded their own identities.
Towards the end of 2012, we thought it was time for us to have our own wine making space. So we applied for a winery license and Bob, Nick and Nathan started to convert our garage into a small winery. In January of 2013, we were street legal and ready to go! We moved our 2012 vintage, which was in barrel, from River’s Edge to our little winery. All of our wine making has happened here ever since.
The 2013 vintage is the first made entirely in our winery. It is also the first vintage made with our own grapes. We harvested about four tons, and expect to have about 240 cases, split between the Hundredth Valley and the Big Leaf labels. Bottling is set for September 2014, with release dates in 2015.
We are quickly outgrowing our little winery. Bob and Nathan have designs on remodeling the donkey barn into a larger space. Of course, Luigi, Emma and Jenny D. would have to be consulted and a replacement barn designed to their satisfaction. We are sure if we come up with a barn grand enough, they will agree.
Our winery is located within the American Viticulture Area, or AVA, of Elkton, Oregon. An AVA is a grape growing region of distinct characteristics that is recognized by the US government. Elkton was granted AVA status in February 2013. We are excited to be part of this growing wine region and proud to be able to label our 2013 and future vintages as coming from the Elkton AVA.
Our 2012 Big Leaf is now on tap and available by the glass at Tomaselli’s Pastry Mill in Elkton, Oregon. Come for the wine, stay for the excellent food! It’s well worth a trip to Elkton. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays).
Dispatches From Our Farm and Vineyard in Southern Oregon