Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Farming is hard!

I don't know exactly what I expected when I decided it was a good idea to plant a vineyard.  But one thing is for certain, I had no idea it would be so hard to get fruit all the way through the process to ripe. Yes, trellising, pruning, watering etc. were learning curves.  Then I had to learn about spray fungicides because our humid New England summers are a black rot paradise.  Then of course I had to learn about pesticides because every bug in the world loves grape leaves and grapes.  Let's not forget the deer which have stripped all the leaves off many a shoot overnight.  Last year I only managed to get literally a bowl-full of fruit to ripeness.  I only had 3 vines mature enough to make grapes last summer.  I assumed I had all my procedures down:  fungicide schedule, insecticide schedule, and bird netting.  This year, with 11 vines making grapes, even with that depressing loss of fruit to hail, I figured I would at least get 50 pounds of grapes so I could make a small batch of wine.

Nope.  I got absolutely zero fruit.  Nada.  Nothing.

What was is this time?  Yellow Jackets!  They are of course those tremendously painful stinging bugs that many people think of as bees.  Not bees.  Bees are good.  Bees pollinate.  Yellow jackets are wasps that eat fruit--and as far as I can tell serve no useful purpose on planet Earth.  Once once they found my grapevines, they built a nest high in a tree out of reach and destroyed my whole crop like a horde of locusts within only a day or so, before I even realized what was happening.  Even though the fruit was sprayed with Sevin (a pesticide) the yellow jackets ignore that stuff.  They are immune to most of the relatively benign pesticides that are not too toxic to people.  So, the entire crop is gone...teaching me a valuable lesson in yet another critter I have to keep from attacking my grapes.

Next year I need a two-pronged approach.  The first is to kill the queens in the spring with Onslaught poison traps before they go and create a zillion workers to eat my grapes.   Next, I am going to experiment with insect netting instead of bird netting to physically exclude the yellow jackets from the fruit.  Also, I will build some T shaped brackets to hold the netting further from the vines as the birds still managed to stand on the netting this year and peck through to any fruit that was within a few inches of the net.

One thing is for sure...grapes have a lot of sugar in them.  (That's why they make good wine).  Animals crave the carbs--it's like candy.  Deer, rabbits, birds and yellow jackets, (God only knows what else) once they find your grapes, are voracious!  It probably doesn't help that I live in the middle of the woods, surrounded by a zillion hungry animals.  But one thing is for sure:  farming is hard.

There is some good news to report however.  My 2011 "Bordeaux Blend" made with Merlot and Cab from Washington state (plus that bowl of estate-grown Marquette) was just bottled.  As the second batch through my new 8 gallon Vadai Hungarian barrel, it has a fair amount of oak that is going to need some time to mellow.  However, it's the first wine of mine that I really think is pretty darned good.  It was awesome before going in the barrel.  Now there is enough oak in there that I'm not sure it's as good, but hopefully the oak will integrate in a couple years and the micro-ox of the barrel treatment will shine through.  We'll see.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Damn hail!!!

Many times I have read about hailstorms causing havoc in Bordeaux.  Now I truly feel their pain.  A week ago we got a freak hail storm and it did a number on the garden and vineyard.  It literally shredded leaves on the vines, knocked entire clusters of grapes off the vines, and punctured dozens of grapes on other clusters.  In all, it looks like a loss of at least 10% of my already meagre crop.  :-(  Farming sucks!

Over the weekend we netted the vines since the grapes have started changing color.  Veraison is the term for this metamorphosis, and the result is that it attracts the attention of the birds.  We don't want that!  So time to net and protect the crop I have left!


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What happens when it rains....

You often hear winemakers lamenting the weather during flowering and complaining about a poor fruit set.  What does that mean?

The tiny flowers of grape vines must be pollinated to create grapes, just like any other fruit.  In the case of grapes, bees certainly assist, but if all goes well, they can pollinate with the wind as long as the flowers stay dry so the pollen can blow freely from one flower to the next.  When the weather gets rainy and the flowers are wet, the pollen won't blow around because it's all soggy.  The bees are not out there working the flowers much in the rain either.  So basically, nothing gets pollinated.

The picture below shows some clusters of Marquette all photographed on the same day.  (Click the pic for a larger view).  On the left, a nice healthy cluster of small grapes that had sunshine during flowering.  In the middle a cluster created by a vine that flowered a couple days later, when it was rainy.  You can see how very few flowers in the cluster got pollinated so the cluster has only a small number of grapes, plus a few tiny grapes that probably will not mature.  On the far right, an extreme example of a cluster that really didn't pollinate well at all.  Fortunately, I only have a few vines that flowered late and ended up with clusters like this.  Who knows why they flowered late, but I'm grateful for the ones that flowered when the sun was out.  This was a rough spring for grapes...very rainy in spite of early warm weather and a mild winter.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we pray for sun during flowering!


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Here it is the middle of June and my Marquette vines are seriously kicking butt this year.  We had some rain during flowering, which is never good, but I would say that only 1/3 of the vines show clusters significantly affected by the rain.  The result are clusters with vastly different sized grapes on them.  The unaffected clusters all have similarly-sized (and generally larger) grapes.  But the big news is lots of clusters on lots of vines!

There might be more clusters than the vines can ripen.  We'll have to see about that as the summer goes on.  I'm mostly pretty pleased with the growth so far and I am hoping I can get 100 pounds to make a decent batch of wine.

In other news, I drove down to M&M wine today and picked up my Chilean pinot noir, which is a month late compared with last year.  They had a very late harvest and mine was on the last ship.  It actually looked darned good.  I'll get some measurements in the morning on the must once it has had a chance to warm this evening.  I destemmed and crushed it this afternoon, and threw in some Lallzyme to aid with extraction.  I'm going to experiment this time with fewer punchdowns and a cooler ferment to attempt to preserve aromatics and fruit.  Previously, I have been using the Burgundian technique of a single extreme temperature spike to aid in extraction and I really think I'm losing aromatics when I do that.  I'm hoping to replace that action with enzymatically-assisted extraction instead.

My 2011 fall "Bordeaux" (which I'm calling Meritage to be politically correct) is in my barrel and tasting pretty good.  It has a Syrah-like spice/pepper twang to it that is really cool.  I will likely bottle it in the fall when this Chilean pinot noir is ready to be barreled.  If you are really nice, you might get a bottle for Christmas.


Monday, April 23, 2012

2012 is THE YEAR for Chateau Oiseau!

As anyone in the northeast USA knows, spring came early this year.  We had weather in the 80° F range in March!  All the vines went nuts, trying to push out buds.  After a week of unseasonably warm and dry weather, temperatures went back down to normal (in the 40s and 50s) and the vines went into a kind of suspended animation where nothing happened for a few weeks.  Then another couple weeks of unseasonably warm weather happened again in early April.  We actually hit 91° F for a day!  With very little rain, our local pond's water level was at least a foot low and I decided to put some light irrigation on the vines.  As I sit writing this, we have had a solid day of rain from a passing "Nor'easter" that promises a very wet week ahead.  We need the rain, but the timing isn't good, as the vines are leafed out and starting to produce flower clusters.  Hopefully the flowers won't actually bloom for another week.

I have posted a picture of the buds on one of my Marquette vines popping out in only 4 days.  It's really amazing to watch.  If you compare the dates between this year and last, everything is a full 2 weeks early.  Spring is a busy time in the vineyard.  I have spent the last few weeks removing buds and shoots from the trunks of the vines, spraying fungicide (very important to hit the vines in the spring with fungicide to control black rot), adding composted manure to the vineyard, and hoeing the weeds between the vines.  I'm trying to reduce my use of chemicals like Round-up in the vineyard.  Of course, going "organic" is largely impossible in the northeast as our humid weather simply breeds too much mold and mildew that needs controlling, and the insects will eat everything without some chemical interference.  So hoeing the weeds is one small thing I can do rather than depend on Round-up.

The good news is that I have 6 vines going into their 4th summer, and another 10 or so going into their 3rd summer.  These vines all have tiny flower clusters forming and most are going to make grapes this summer!  So with a little cooperation from Mother Nature and some gentle nurturing from me, I might actually make a batch of Marquette wine this year!  This is exciting!  Four years of hard work and expense and I can finally make wine from my own estate grown grapes!

In the cellar, not much is happening.  I bought an 8 gallon Vadai Hungarian Oak (same wood species as "French oak" but not made in France, hence cheaper) barrel in February and my 2011 spring Chilean Merlot is in there now.  Small new barrels are famous for over-oaking the wine as they have a lot of surface area as a function of volume.  Even though I put water in the barrel for a couple weeks to seal it up and extract some of the oakiness, I'm pretty sure the first batch of wine in there is over-oaked pretty significantly.  On the flip side, this Merlot wasn't that great and maybe a little too much oak is just what it needs to cover its flaws!  ;-)  Once I bottle it (next month) I'll wash out the barrel and put my 2011 fall "Bordeaux Blend" in there.  I don't want to brag, but this wine is actually good.  Very good.  With a little time in a barrel I think it might be awesome and the first wine I have made that I'm proud of.  And just in time, because I have that Marquette to turn into wine this fall I hope!