Growing Great Wines in the East

by Jim Law

I am convinced that we can grow great wines in the East. Viticultural knowledge has progressed dramatically. Most regions now have several decades of experience to draw on. The public is thirsty for local wines and willing to pay for quality. So why aren’t our wines consistently getting 90 points by Parker or Spectator? We’re not trying hard enough in the vineyard. It’s time for us all to examine our PR mantra: “wine is made in the vineyard”. I would like to outline the areas where I believe we can do better. I have divided this into short term (seasonal) and long term decisions. The following requires sacrifice, risk taking, patience, vision and focus.

Short term:

These are decisions that can be implemented this coming season. They are a culmination of my own experiences and those of my colleagues from the East, and Europe.

  1. Crop load. It doesn’t matter whether you express it in tons per acre, pounds per vine or clusters per shoot. Most eastern vineyards take too much fruit off their vines to make great wine. It is easy to rectify the situation, but impossible to justify it if you are not a believer.
  2. Canopy management. If you don’t shoot thin, shoot position, leaf pull, hedge, or green harvest, then you aren’t in the game.
  3. Picking strategies. Just because it’s the same variety doesn’t mean it all ripens at the same time. Picking decisions need to be by soil type, slope aspect, vine age, canopy side, and clone. In some cases making several picking passes through the same vines is necessary. Picking by the numbers (Brix, pH, TA) may produce safe, balanced wines, but it doesn’t allow for expressive wines of character and personality.
  4. Contracts. Most contracts discourage quality because they are based on tons rather than acreage. Paying by the ton encourages excessive yields and early, safe picking. Paying by the acre puts more of the quality decisions and risk on the winery.

Long term:

These are the tough decisions.

  1. Matching grape variety to place. Most of us grow too many varieties. I am as guilty as anyone is. Pulling out vines that you planted is an emotional experience. I have tried to avoid this by field grafting and interplanting, but now I have to face the music. Decades ago we all planted a plethera of varieties because we were basically clueless as to what would do well. By now we do have some clues, and its time to start doing what we do best. I first visited Napa in the late 1970’s. Most tasting rooms offered Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Petit Syrah, Riesling and/or Gewurztraminer.
  2. Site selection. For years we in the East have talked climate. Winter damage, lack of sun and rain related diseases define our region. We always seem to enviously compare ourselves to sunny California. Do Burgundian winegrowers wish they were in Languedoc? Why don’t the Bordelais pack it up and start growing grapes in North Africa? Yes, our weather is challenging. Rain at harvest time is a bummer. Northern European winegrowers have the same problem. This is why soil drainage defines site and wine quality. This is where we in the East are just starting to wake up. Here in the mid-Atlantic mountains and piedmont, farmland has slowly been abandoned over the last 100 years. Upland soils that are rocky, poor, and excessively well drained were the first to be let go and revert back to forest. These are the best sites for potentially great wines. They are rarely planted to grapes because of the cost and time involved in developing them. The heavier soils in the cropland below the hills are planted instead, yielding vigorous vines and green wines.
  3. Keeping vines old and productive. Older vines planted in the right place have the potential to produce wines with more depth, concentration, structure and aging potential. We are just now seeing vines in their twenties, but many of these old vines are struggling. I feel that a major contributing cause to old vine decline is the constant use of chemicals in the vineyard and a lack of awareness of soil health. Again I think we need to follow our European and Californian colleague’s lead and farm more sustainability.
  4. Keeping winegrowers old and productive. It takes years, decades, and generations to intimately know a vineyard. At some point vineyard management decisions become intuitive. This is when the wine quality can go from simply good to great.

All this is very expensive. Extra labor, reduced crop, higher establishment costs need to be recouped in the form of higher bottle prices. Most of us won’t bother. We can sell our wines profitably now to tourists in our tasting rooms or festivals. We don’t need to compete on a global scale. This is our advantage. This is also what is preventing us from pushing the viticultural envelope to make great wines.