Tag Archives: Vineyard

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.

 

 

 

Victory (For Now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

How It All Began; Our First Planting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Vine

Please Be Fine

So We May Have

Some Very Fine Wine

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

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

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

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.

 

 

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.

 

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!

Peregrine Falcons, The Polar Vortex and Other Glimpses of The Oregon Wine Symposium

I felt like Barbarrosa was asking me "What's to eat?"
I felt like Barbarrosa was asking me “What’s to eat?”

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).

Copper, the Red-Naped Shaheen.
Hard Working Copper, the Red-Naped Shaheen.

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.)

Jet Stream Arctic Oscillation.  Image borrowed from NOAA and The National Climate Data Center.
Jet Stream Arctic Oscillation. Image borrowed from NOAA and The National Climate Data Center.

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.

Big Backhoe
The T-Rex of Backhoes

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.

Mega Grape Harvester and Hedger.
A Mover and Shaker in the Vineyard

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.

Got Growler!
Got Growler!

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.

Growler Art
Examples of Growler Art done for breweries.

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.

Some cool artwork in the Oregon Convention Center.  A Dale Chihuly, perhaps?
Some cool artwork in the Oregon Convention Center. A Dale Chihuly, perhaps?

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.

 

Springing Forward!

Nick digging deep to uproot a vine.
Nick digging deep to uproot a vine.

Four days ago, I was complaining about winter.  And now, we’re less that four weeks away from the first day of Spring!  The Spring Equinox arrives at 12:57 EDT on March 20th.   And Daylight Saving Time begins on March 9th.  Ah, I can feel the sun and the dry ground already!

Tylor gives the thumbs up to a healthy root ball.
Tylor gives the thumbs up to a healthy root ball. You can see the tight squeeze between the trellis posts and the deer fence behind him.

And that makes it crunch time in the vineyard.  The crew is taking advantage of breaks in the rain to shorten ten rows in one of our blocks by uprooting and  transplanting 40 vines.  We’ve discovered the rows are too long in that spot to turn around the tractor between the trellis posts at the end of the rows and the deer fencing.

A closer look at the roots.  The vines show nice growth over two growing seasons!
A closer look at the roots. They show nice growth over two growing seasons!

The vines we are moving are from our second planting in 2012.  Digging them up is giving us a good look at their root systems.  One of our primary goals for the vines during their first two years in the ground has been for them to establish deep, strong roots.  So far, the roots look great.

Tylor prepares the roots to be transplanted.
Tylor prepares the roots to be transplanted.

Now the challenge is getting all those roots back into the ground pointed downward.  If the roots get twisted during transplanting, they could grow upward and girdle or strangle the vine!  This was also a concern during initial planting, but the roots were much smaller and easier to manage.

A vine finds its new home,
A vine finds its new home,

We are using the transplants to fill in around the vineyard where a vine has died.  Having vines to move is a lucky break for us, because the transplanted vines are the same age and size as the rest of the vines in the vineyard.  That means less work because we won’t have to manage babies mixed in with our mature vines.

Vines laid out for our 2012 planting.  Look how small they were!
Baby vines ready for planting in 2012. Look how small they were!

But I miss the babies!   And all of this transplanting is making me wish we had some young vines waiting to go into the ground.  Spring planting is such fun.  Sunny days (usually), fresh air, great company, music playing, and every vine a new possibility.  Crawling around in the dirt all day and looking back over your shoulder at your work, you start to think that maybe this is the way life is supposed to be.

Nathan during the 2012 planting.  The metal pipes with the marks painted on them were used to measure the space between vines.
Nathan during the 2012 planting. The metal pipes with the marks painted on them were used to measure the space between vines.

There is a way in which planting is the best part of having or managing a vineyard.  And they grow up so fast!  I may have to talk to the horses about giving up a few acres of pasture for some Chardonnay.  If we start planning now and get the ground tilled up this fall, we could be ready for planting by this time next year!

Rocking the Vineyard!  A boom box on a ladder and a very long extension cord.
Rocking the Vineyard! A boom box on a ladder and a very long extension cord.