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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I ran outside this morning at 9:57am to celebrate the arrival of spring. And this is what I found. The vineyard is full of fat buds like this one that are ready to break. Sometime in the next 2-3 days, we expect to see our first little green leaves. I will have my camera at the ready. More soon!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 have been away from the farm for the past couple of days attending The Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland, Oregon. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Lots of hours spent sitting in rooms listening to experts discuss Vineyard Nutrition, Alternative Weed Management and National Distribution. So rather than bore you with all of that, I’ll just stick to the highlights. Like these two impressive birds that are, I kid you not, falcons with jobs. The top falcon is Barbarrosa, a female Peregrine Falcon. The other is Copper, a male Red-Naped Shaheen. (Nope, I hadn’t heard of it either before today).
These falcons are hired along with their handlers at harvest time to patrol vineyards for migratory birds that eat grapes. It’s an important job. A flock of hungry birds could wipe out our whole 13-acre vineyard and an entire year’s work in a matter of hours. I’d love to hire these falcons to chase birds out of our vineyard. But it costs tens-of-thousands of dollars to have a handler and a couple of birds camp on your land for several weeks during harvest. That’s more than a small vineyard like ours can spend. Still, it’s cool to know larger vineyards are using this natural and (mostly) non-lethal means of bird control. (FYI, we use noise makers, remote control airplanes, our six dogs, and balloons. Cheap and non-lethal, but also not super effective.)
The most exciting speaker I’ve heard so far is the climate expert that explained why everyone’s weather is so crazy right now. He says the water around The North Pole is warmer than normal, which is causing the jet stream to freak out. These two globes tell the story. The jet stream on the left is normal and the one on the right is freaking out. When the jet stream fluctuates like that, it not only moves more slowly, which causes weather systems to get stuck, it also produces more extreme weather. So whatever is going on weather-wise where you are, it’s probably unusual, possibly extreme, and it’s sticking around for a very long time. That’s the best I can explain it. Click here to read a great webpage about it that’s written by actual scientists. Also, if you follow such things, a La Nada weather pattern is lingering in the Pacific but the dreaded El Nino could return sometime this fall or next winter.
I also got to see some mega machines! I think this backhoe is the biggest. It towers over everything in the exhibition hall, kind of like the biggest dinosaur skeleton in a museum. I have no idea how they got this in the building or what you would use it for in the vineyard. But it is getting a lot of attention.
If the backhoe is the T-Rex of the expo, this piece of gear is the Stegosaurus. It is an automatic harvest machine that’s designed to drive between the rows in the vineyard and shake the vines to loosen the fruit. The shaking is done by big arms that fold out, so you don’t see those in the picture. Nothing like this is used in any vineyard ever I’ve seen. We’re all so small in Elkton, our fruit is hand-picked. A piece of gear like this runs hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. You’d have to sell a lot of wine to justify that kind of expense.
Finally, here’s peek at the future of wine packaging. These jugs are called Growlers. They’ve long been used for beer and now they are being legalized in states, including Oregon, for wine. A Growler is a refillable container that can be filled with wine straight out of the barrel or from a keg. So if this is legal where you live, you can buy a Growler and take it to a winery or pub to be refilled again and again.
Growlers can be painted or etched with cool artwork or logos, which can turn them into collector’s items. And, they eliminate the cost and environmental impact of using an individual wine bottle for every 750ml of wine. Of everything we do in the vineyard and winery, the production and shipping of glass bottles has the greatest carbon footprint. Growlers and kegs are a direction we want to go with our Big Leaf wine because we think it’s more environmental and more fun. So it’s exciting to find Growlers like the green glass ones above that are being made specifically for the wine industry. The amber-colored glass used for beer growlers isn’t the image I want for a premium wine.
So now you know some of the fun stuff wine people talk about at their symposiums and trade shows. It’s probably not what you expected. But it’s the biz. I’m off now to learn about the spread of Red Blotch Disease on the west coast, and then Public Relations. More later from the farm.
Dispatches From Our Farm and Vineyard in Southern Oregon