The Hardscrabble Journal

Viticulture Visits

Yesterday was a very good day. I spent a good part of the day shoot thinning Hardscrabble’s three year old Chardonnay. These vines have benefited from my 30+ years of growing grapes on this site. I’ve learned from past mistakes and this vineyard block is a beauty. The season is very much in its infancy, but at this early stage the vines look great.

While working, my thoughts kept drifting back to a visit I had last summer with a very fanatical winegrower in Barolo. I’m one of a group of four viticulturists who love to plan intense visits to wine regions. Our interest is not tourism, nor necessarily winemaking. Our focus is on the vineyards and the winegrowers. We identify the best growers, make appointments (making it clear that our interest is vines and only indirectly, the wines), and spend about three or four days in late July or early August sleuthing the vineyards. This is the perfect time to see the vines as the “green work” is finishing up and one can see the thought process of the grower (i.e. number of shoots retained, leaf removal philosophies, hedging, crop retained, cluster thinning timing, cover crop retention). These are the images that stay in my mind when I evaluate my own vines.

It is also just before everyone heads for the annual vacation.

Roberto Voerzio was our first and only scheduled visit of the day. We were sleep deprived after the flights and the drive from Milan, but very excited to get started. Roberto greeted us politely, but as has become common, I could sense a bit of skepticism. Barolo has become a popular wine tourist destination and the Voerzio winery is open by appointment only. Often visitors will present themselves as in “the trade” to gain access. We quickly convinced him that we were the real deal as soon as we walked into the vines and the questions flowed like wine at a wedding. We connected. Next thing we knew we were piling into his beat up Land Rover and driving up and down the steep slopes of La Morra. Specific questions triggered visual demonstrations: young vines vs. old vines, hail netting, hedging vs. shoot wrapping. And then there were philosophies pertaining to cluster thinning and crop adjustment. We probably spent over an hour in front of one single vine discussing techniques and timing of removing clusters or parts of clusters in order to balance the vine and make the best wine.

Six hours later we departed and had dinner.

First Flush

The first flush of vine shoots appeared very quickly last week. Good soil moisture and temperatures in the 80Fs pushed buds from swell to 2” or 3” length in a matter of three days. This is all good. This quick flush of growth pushed the tender buds and shoots out of a very fragile stage where they were susceptible to insect damage (climbing cut worm) and disease (phomopsis).

We started shoot thinning in a three-year-old Chardonnay block. This was the fastest transition from pruning to shoot thinning I have ever witnessed. Chardonnay is the first variety to break bud and young vines begin the growing season sooner than older vines. Using only our fingers, we basically prune the vines by removing undesirable shoots. We thin to both form and function. Form being the most important, especially with young vines as we are still establishing the trunks, head height and shoulder positions. Each vine will retain four shoots at the head. Their position is critical, as they will form the two arms and renewal spurs for years to come.

Function refers to potential crop. Most, but not all vines will have additional shoots if the winter pruner laid down a cane on the fruiting wire. The winter pruner made that decision based on the observed growth and strength of the vine. Once the vine is pruned one can no longer evaluate its capacity. Stronger vines will therefore have more shoots and more crop. Weaker vines (no cane retained) have less shoots and less crop with the expectation that they will eventually catch up if not asked to “over crop”.

This vintage I am estimating that this young planting is capable of producing a crop of about 1.5 to 2 tons per acre (25 to 30 hectoliters per hectare), or about 40% to 50% of a full crop (once they are fully mature). This will be the block’s “virgin” harvest. After years of planning, it is with great anticipation that we will get to taste its first wine this fall.

Brown to Green

 

This spring has taken an unusually long time to arrive, but now that it has, the transformation has been sudden. The combination of warm, sunny days and recent soil saturating rains has turned the landscape from brown to green.

The newly planted vines are already showing some buds swelling. It seems that the timing of the planting was perfect as we avoided the damaging cold temperatures of mid-March and were still able to finish the planting before several soaking rains sealed the loosened soil around the roots of the vines. Chardonnay, the first to break bud, is off to the races with the first green leaves starting to appear. “Official” bud break for young vine chardonnay was today, April 28. This is recorded when 50% of the buds unfold their first green leaf. The older vines will be a few days later as their roots are deeper down into cooler subsoils.

We now have a bit of a break from vineyard work as we wait for the young shoots to begin to develop. Repairs and maintenance take priority. Tractors and equipment come out of their winter dormancy. Most of our farm equipment is “well aged” and reveal new ailments each spring. Linden’s three tractors range from 15 to 40 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find. Reluctantly, a new tractor will be purchased next year. As tractors become more sophisticated, they become more difficult for farmers to work on. We have to swallow our pride whenever a technician is called in for a repair job. Looks like a lot more swallowing for the future.

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.