After 30 years my winemaking has become intuitive. It can change dramatically depending on harvest variables. The wines reflect this. My intent is not to confuse my customers because of vintage differences in style or blends, but often it seems that way. I am always mindful that a wine’s first job is to complement a meal. Because of this I prefer wines that have good acidity and structure, with moderate alcohol.
My inspiration comes from Europe. The vineyards are my focus. Soil, site and micro-climate are more important than grape variety. We are winegrowers and our best wines carry the vineyard designation on the label. Our wines age quite well. We encourage our customers to age our reds, Chardonnays and late harvest wines. We also have a program here at the winery of aging certain vintages.
Many of our wines are unfined or unfiltered. We work hard in the vineyard to get as much concentration from the grape as possible. We are non-interventionists in the cellar. The result is wine with more flavor and texture. This can be at the expense of sediment or haze in the bottle. This is a risk that we feel is worth the benefit.
Our vineyard practices are French inspired. For many years I traveled to California to learn techniques and philosophies in the vineyard. Eventually it became apparent that I needed to look east rather than west. In the non-Mediterranean viticultural areas of France, growers experience situations similar to ours here in the mountains of Virginia: diverse soils, erratic weather and a small scale. They have learned to micro-manage each site according to its needs. They have learned how to change vineyard practices as the growing season unfolds: hot, wet, dry, cold.
Every spring we look with great anticipation to the new vintage. After 30 years I feel very comfortable taking whatever Mother Nature gives. Vineyard practices have become intuitive rather than scientific. We prepare for, and then react to, the weather. Living this close to the elements and by the rhythm of the seasons is the greatest reward for what we do.
Pruning: Pruning is my favorite job in the vineyard. The pace is relaxed. I get reacquainted with my vines. I review the past season and gauge their well being. Most of our vines are now cane pruned. We converted from cordon pruning in 2004 and are pleased with the results. We typically leave two buds per foot of canopy.
We rough prune first in November, then start the fine pruning in February with Seyval and Vidal, our most cold resistant varieties. The task is leisurely until March when the pace quickens as the April deadline approaches. We come back through the vineyard after pruning to repair trellising and tie canes.
Suckering and Shoot Thinning: Bud break usually begins with
Chardonnay in mid-April. By May we begin removing undesirable shoots that grow from the crown, trunk, and cordon. With some varieties (Cabernet Franc, Seyval and Petit Verdot) we have to make two passes. The goal is to have about (depending on variety, training system and soil) 2 shoots per foot of canopy. We are looking especially for uniformity of shoot size and spacing.
Tying and Shoot Positioning: A good deal of June and July are spent tying shoots to the wires. Some shoots do catch the wires by themselves, but most need help. We use a Japanese tying tool that dispenses green ribbons to hold the tender shoots to the trellis wires. This is very laborious, but I feel it is necessary to attain uniform sunlight interception and quick canopy drying after a dew or rain.
Hedging: Also known as summer pruning, hedging is done by hand two or three times a season. Rainy years promote more vigorous vine growth, requiring more hedging. My goal is to retain approximately 15 leaves per shoot. Lateral shoots are either removed entirely or cut back to a few leaves.
Leaf Removal: Also known as leaf pulling. We start about 10 days after bloom to remove some of the leaves around the clusters. This is done to promote better drying after a rain, which reduces disease pressure. Leaf pulling also allows more sun on the clusters, for riper flavors. If the growing season is hot and sunny, we may only pull leaves on the east or north side of the canopy.
Green Harvest: By July or August I estimate the crop load on the vines and decide if it is necessary to reduce yields for quality reasons. Yield goals range from 2.5 tons per acre to 4 tons per acre (30 to 50 hl/hectare) depending on the variety, season and wine. We thin in July just before veraison. The reds are thinned a final time at veraison when we can see which clusters are further behind in ripening. With the reds we remove the clusters with more green or pink berries so that ripening will be more uniform.
Harvest Strategies: When and how to pick is one of the most important quality and stylistic winegrowing decisions. I have begun to understand my individual blocks. Some ripen faster than others do because of soil characteristics or slope aspect. Young vines ripen faster than old vines. The south or west sides of the canopy ripen before the north or east sides. Cabernet Sauvignon can weather a rain much better than Sauvignon Blanc. This knowledge of the vineyard is much more important than knowing the sugar or acid content of ripening grapes.