Tag Archives: Pinot Noir

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.

 

 

 

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.

DSC_0143_3_2
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.

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!

Vines

The tilled soil in February 2011, prior to our first planting
The tilled soil in February 2011, prior to our first planting

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!

Deer Fencing going in around the vineyard site.  The finished fence is eight feet tall, and still a deer could jump it if it wanted to.
Deer Fencing going in around the vineyard site. The finished fence is eight feet tall. A deer could jump it if it wanted to.

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.

Bob planting one of our first vines in April, 2011.
Bob planting one of our first vines in April, 2011.

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.

The green plastic tubes are called Grow Tubes.  They protect the young vines from insects, cold and other hazards.
The green plastic tubes are called Grow Tubes. They protect the young vines from insects, cold and other hazards.

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.

A young vine growing inside its protective tube.
A young vine growing inside its protective tube.

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.

Our first plantings in August 2011.  This first growing season is known as the vine's "First Leaf."
Our first plantings in August 2011. This first growing season is known as the vine’s “First Leaf.”

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.

The vineyard in August 2012.  The 2011 plantings are on the left and are in their Second Leaf.  The vines on the right are the 2012 plantings in their First Leaf.
The vineyard in August 2012. The 2011 plantings are on the left and are in their Second Leaf. The vines on the right are the 2012 plantings in their First Leaf.

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.

Our first harvest starting to ripen in mid-August, 2013.
Our first harvest starting to ripen!   Mid-August, 2013.

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!

Sept. 8th, 2013, our first harvest!
Sept. 8th, 2013, our first harvest!

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.

Our first harvest crew; Nick, Bob, Tylor, Me, Nathan, Mike, the other Nathan, Liam and, of course, Uma.
Our first harvest crew; Nick, Bob, Tylor, Me, Nathan, Mike, the other Nathan, Nathan’s nephew Liam and, of course, Murphy and Uma.

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.

Wines

This post tells the story of our wine.  If you’d like to know how to purchase wine, click here.

HV-FRONTcBoth 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.

BL-FRONT-tightWe 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.

Setting up for Crush at River's Edge
Setting up for Crush at River’s Edge

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.

Grapes about to drop from the conveyor into the crusher/de-stemmer.
Grapes about to drop from the conveyor into the crusher/de-stemmer.

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.

Bob doing a late night punch down at River's Edge.  The grape skins are punched, or mixed back into the juice during fermentation to extract more phenols into the wine.
Bob doing a late night punch down at River’s Edge. The grape skins are punched or mixed back into the juice during fermentation to extract more phenols into the wine.

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.

Our first bottling inside a mobile bottling plant in the trailer of a semi truck.
Our first bottling inside a mobile bottling plant in the trailer of a semi truck.

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.

The garage, midway through its conversion into our winery.
The garage, midway through its conversion into our winery.

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.

Bob pressing our 2013 vintage with a basket press.
Bob pressing our 2013 vintage with a basket press.

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.

The crush pad in front of our little winery.
Our Crush Pad in action during our first harvest.

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.

A sample of the 2013 Hundredth Valley while pulled from the barrel.
A sample of the 2013 Hundredth Valley pulled from the barrel.

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.

Tomaselli's Pastry Mill, on Main Street in Elkton.
Tomaselli’s Pastry Mill, on Main Street in Elkton.

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).