The Hardscrabble Journal

Ready, Set, Go

Linden’s big planting is accomplished with 3,000 new Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines in the ground. I needed to make some difficult decisions along the way because of the many different soil types within this relatively small area (about 2 acres). In over half of the rows the variety changes as the soil changes. This is not conventional as logistically it can be a management nightmare when rows are variety inconsistent. Harvest comes to mind.

So Cabernet Sauvignon is on the granite rock or steeper south facing slopes and Cabernet Franc is planted on more clay based soils. The wines will be better is done this way. I just need to keep really good records of what is where!

Pruning is also complete. I already miss those hours of focus, thinking about the form vs. function consequences of each cut. I get the same satisfaction from shoot thinning, which should begin in a few weeks.

Although, it might be a longer wait. Bud break is very late this year. The entire season is delayed. Average Chardonnay bud break date is April 20. With the forecast temperatures it looks like the start of the season will be a week to ten days late. That extra week has been good for us to catch up with all our spring work, but now we are ready to go.

Restrictive Agricultural Ideologies

Last week was a very good week. Lots of new vines and 26 tons of chicken litter made it into the ground before a big soaking rain. The final blocks of Cabernet are nearly all pruned. We saw the first buds of chardonnay swell. And the barn swallows returned to take up residence under the winery deck.

We are back 100% in the vineyard, which is supremely rewarding.

My passion for winegrowing extends beyond my own farm. Annual visits to progressive growers stimulates professional and personal outlooks. Reading can do the same. I recently read an interview with esteemed Burgundian producer Laurent Ponsot who was asked about his farming techniques. He explained that for years he has been incorporating organic and biodynamic methods in his vineyards, but has no interest in becoming certified in these practices. I have heard this many times before, but Ponsot used a term that struck a cord with me:“restrictive agricultural practices”.

Most experienced farmers make decisions day by day based on reactions to weather, observation and intuition. We don’t have a rigid rigid playbook and aren’t very interested in playing by someone else’s rules. Organic and biodynamic framing practices are tried and true. I have learned much by studying and understanding their philosophies and techniques. Unfortunately, certain terminologies have fallen into the hands of clever marketers and these farming practices have become brands bantered about without any definition or true meaning. Certification is rigid and can be detrimental to good farming practices if unusual weather circumstances arise (which seems to be happening more frequently).

I started my farming adventure in 1977. At that time the buzz words were “good farming practices”. And that’s good enough for me.

What the forsythia tells us

The first blooming of Forsythia was duly recorded last Friday. This is one of many important indicators of predicting, tracking and recording each spring’s evolution. Linden’s spring indicator records go back decades. They include the first evening of the peeper chorus, the first crocus and daffodils. Peaches, magnolias and cherries are next up to bat.

I never took much to numbers. I also saw how statistics could be easily manipulated to show whatever you want them to show. In farming there can be a lot of numbers involved in decision making: GDD (growing degree days), average number frost free days, zones maps, average low temperatures and rainfall.

Mother nature is more honest.

So as I recorded the forsythia date, I went back through past notes books (yes, still using notebooks; all this stared in the pre-computer days and one must respect tradition). I expected this to be one of the latest dates for forsythia bloom given our cold March. But in fact it is pretty average. I had already forgotten about that warm February that woke up the peepers way too early.

Yikes. I thought we had more time before vine budbreak. I need to get back to finishing pruning.

Digging Holes

 

This week, after many weather delays, we finally started planting. 1,000 Cabernet Sauvignon vines are now in the ground. We still have another 2,000 vines to go. Every morning we plant around 300 vines. The warmer afternoons are reserved for pruning, tying and brush chopping (flailing).

The routine is that I mark the holes the day before using a 300’ tape measure and cans of florescent orange spray paint. At first light we dig two rows worth of holes) about 50 to 70 holes per row), and then plant and then repeat. The temperatures are still in the 30Fs, so it is a good way to get warm quickly!

My favorite job is digging. There is much to be learned from every shovelful of soil. If one pays attention there is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from very hole. Some holes have layers of soil with black humus on top and orange clay just underneath. Some holes have lots of rock, which may be loose granite or impenetrable greenstone. Sometimes the soil is light and grainy, other times heavy, with sticky clay.

I already have a better sense and expectation of what to expect from this new block of vines. We’ll see how it plays out over then next few decades.

Cold, Cold March

An unseasonably cold March has kept the vines in a prolonged state of dormancy. This has afforded us a leisurely pruning pace, as there has been no spring panic pushing us to finish pruning before bud break. A month ago it looked as though spring would arrive too early. Now it seems that it will never come.

 

Cold and snowy conditions have presented some management challenges, but this is the reality of farming. Typically we start planting in late March, but this year that would be too risky as the young tender grafts could be damaged by cold temperatures. While pruning is winding down, the canes still need to be tied to the trellis wires. This is difficult to do in the cold because we need a certain dexterity that a gloved hand interferes with.

 

This week we had about 6” of snow bringing a brief halt to vineyard activity (it melted within a few days). In light of the forecast, I decided to bottle, always a good inside “team” activity. The 2016 Hardscrabble Chardonnay and the 2017 were ready. Wednesday was the day, but the biggest concern was getting everyone here as the snow was seriously heavy and roads were white. At least four people are needed to run the line. After some stressful waiting the team assembled and we had a flawless bottling.

 

We are now all ready for T shirt weather.

Calm and Tranquil

I do so dislike the wind, especially the March winds. March is the peak of pruning season. It is so wonderful to be back out in the vineyard full time and without interruption. But I have to admit that the fierce, biting winds of the last several weeks has taken some of the pleasure out of pruning.

The sounds of silence are washed away by a freight train roar constantly at your back. On a calm day we are amused by the unending bickering of Canada geese ritually staking out their territorial clams on the pond. We are awed by the power of a V flock flying close overhead as wings in unison stir the air with a rhythmic swoosh. We’ve learned to identify birds of prey by their lonely and forlorn distant screeches. In the early morning, ridiculous sounding turkey gobbling echoes off the ridges. And then there are the peepers.

The wind washes all this away. We feel cheated as we hunch down to make ourselves small against the blow. Our observations realign into the visual rather than the auditory. The loamy soil has become soft and as friable as a souffle after a winter of much freezing and thawing. Surface rocks have been washed and are quite brilliant and distinct. Tiny white flowers are blooming from a plant that I must key in and id when I get back to the office. So much going on.

Wine Trade Show Culture

 

Winery trade show season is January, February and March. Those in the biz are more relaxed at this time and have the time to attend. It has been a number of years since I have been on a trade show floor. I was asked to give a few presentations at a PA show last week and spent my free time “on the floor”.

Three segments of the wine industry are targeted. Winery and cellar supplies are the most represented, then tasting room and associated accoutrements, the vineyard equipment and nurseries. It can make for a Star Wars inspired bar scene.

Jonathan and I were drooling over a sexy, sleek Italian tractor to die for. Backing up to get a better perspective of the tractor’s articulating turning function, Jonathan almost tripped over the wine slushy machine being demonstrated at the adjacent booth. High tech bottling lines mingle with grape cluster jewelry. Sophisticated lab equipment vendors are geeking out and are oblivious to the constant high-pressure swirl of the barrel washing set up next door.

The veterans know how to attract customers. Linden’s label purveyor had a cooler of cold beer available to all takers. Winemakers love beer, especially after a long day of tasting wine. Know your audience.

Why I love to prune grapevines

I’m now used to the puzzled looks in reaction to my declaration that pruning is my favorite vineyard activity. So I’ve been working on an explanation that makes sense of it all.

The three months of November, December, and January are my least active time in the vines. This is just as well as both parties need a rest. In February, as the days lengthen and temperatures moderate, there is a magnetic pull to the vineyard. It is a sort of reunion. After months of cellar work, firewood, desk-work and relaxation, my focus returns to the vines. Just walking a few rows I am reminded of the previous growing season. Last year was very dry and it shows in the vines, as the canes are smaller and shorter than normal.

But it is not until the pruning starts in earnest that we really get reacquainted in an intimate way with the vines. Each vine is an individual and needs to be evaluated for both form and function. Form refers to the shape of the vine. There should be some consistency of a system so that any experience pruner can “read’ the vine and know how to approach the pruning. Over the years vines can grow out of a given desired shape and they may need to be severely cut back in order to reestablish form. Most people have trouble doing this because it is drastic and reduces yields in the short run. I however love it and find it intellectually challenging. This is why I try to focus more on older “problem” blocks.

Next is pruning for function, also referred to as balanced pruning. Each vine has a vigor and yield potential that can be quickly determined by looking at last year’ growth. Cane numbers, their size, internode length, lateral production are evaluated. Then the vine is pruned accordingly. For weak vines only a handful of buds are retained with the goal of rejuvenating their strength. Moderate vines are pruned classically with great satisfaction. Excessively strong vines are problematic and may require leaving extra “parts” to channel all the vigor, which never ends well, is tough to manage during the growing season, and usually produces poor quality grapes.

There is a certain degree of excitement and challenge as one moves slowly down a vineyard row from one vine to the next. Both the pruning shears and the mind need to be sharp. Once we are “in the groove” we prune one vine every one or two minutes. No time to linger over decision-making. Gut feel and intuition prevail.

week of 2/19/18:Soils, Slopes, and Great Red Wines

I’ve had an article in my head for the past couple of years. Last month I was contacted by Linda McKee, editor of Wines and Vines, a well respected trade journal. She wanted to know if I would be interested in writing another piece (I wrote something for W&V last year). The subject would be on the relationship of vines, soils and slopes. But this was too broad and I needed to narrow the focus. I decided to write about what I have learned about fine red wine growing at Linden (Hardscrabble specifically) over the past three decades and how vineyard planting decisions significantly determine red wine quality over the life of the vineyard.

I also needed some corroboration from colleagues who were also doing some good work on understanding soil/vine relationships at their perspective vineyards. So a group of us from RdV, Linden and Barboursville met last Friday and talked and tasted and learned from each other. We focused on the four Bordeaux varieties that we all grow and use for the blending of our top wines (Barboursville Octagon, RdV Lost Mountain and Linden Hardscrabble): Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

I was relieved that there was consensus. Each operation is fine-tuning their plantings according to the soils and slopes on their farms. This may not sound like a big deal to some, but the progress we have made in the last few decades is outstanding. Most of the future quality improvements of Virginia red wines will be related to this notion. I’ll post the article after it comes out, probably in a few months.

week of 2/12/18: learning by looking backwards

In youth I looked forward: new Lyre training systems in the vineyard and fancy high tech dejuicing tanks in the cellar. With age I find myself looking backwards. Linden’s winemaking has become boringly traditional and the vineyard now looks more like Barolo rather than New Zealand.

Perhaps that is why I am embracing a new/old pruning technique that I will refer to as Lafon. Rene Lafon wrote a technical pamphlet in 1921 detailing a new pruning system that would allow vines to have a longer and healthier productive life. I had read about a modern revival of this system in Europe in reaction to an increase in severity of wood diseases in many vineyards. Luck would have it that last year an Italian pruning consultant specializing in the Lafon method to Barboursville Winery paid visit to Linden (via Barboursville: thank you Luca) just as pruning was starting. I decided to dedicate a young block of Petit Manseng to the Lafon system. I had some skepticism at first, but now I am starting to understand the benefits, especially in our climate. This system will not work in our older, widely spaced vineyard blocks, but looks promising for our locks that are less than 15 years old (planted at 3 to 4 feet between vines. My goal is to have most of these blocks converted to the Lafon system within three years.