Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pierre Seillan Visits Blue-Merle Vineyard, Offers Pruning Advice

Pierre Seillan, winemaster of Chateau Lassegue (St.-Emilion), Verite (Sonoma County), Chateau Vignot (St. Emilion) and Tuscany, toured the Blue-Merle Vineyard and offered these words of advice as we walked up the mountain inspecting the vines:

* [while pulling off the vine "suckers" just as I would] "You can pull these off." (Note: The Queen had forbid me to touch the vines and cut off suckers and extra growth. See, dear, me and Pierre have the the same idea!)

* "This is too long, you should cut it," he said about a cordon stretching out 3-feet in each direction. "It is too much work for the vine." (Note: Much of the Blue-Merle vineyard is on 6ft. spacing. Pierre recently planted a vineyard with 3 X 3 spacing in Sonoma (3 ft. between each vine, and 3-ft between rows). He limits the cordons to two spurs each, with 4 buds per spur. He says limiting the production is sustainable -- he doesn't need to fertilize. And, there's a new type of "tractor" that travels over the vines spaced 3 X 3.)

* I asked about our new plantings that are on 4ft. spacing ... "That is fine. " Should I use a single arm cordon or double arm? "You should have two arms; it creates better balance for the vine."

* About pruning the new vines in the winter: "You should cut them to the bottom, then let it grow up to the top wire of the trellis. Then, the next year you should cut it at the cordon. I like to make a strong trunk, and strong cordons." (Note: We had originally planed to encourage single, one-arm cordons on our new vines. But, we will follow Pierre's advice to develop a really strong trunck and cordon -- especially after having experienced the consequences of weak cordons from vines we did not prune properly this winter. And, as an attempt to create great tasting, "boutique" fruit which a large commercial vineyard could not afford to create.)
After the tour -- gazing at the sunset in the West and the moonrise in the East -- the Hidden Meadows Winemakers Association convened at Coyote Oaks Vineyard for a gourmet's dinner and tastings of several Pinot vintages. Said Pierre, "I call you the Epicureans." An encore champagne brunch of les Epicureans du pays du Merle-Blue was held at Sunrise Vineyard Sunday morning.

Pierre first visited the region several years ago as a young man in his 20s, when he planted a vineyard in nearby Temecula. Welcome back, Monsieur Pierre.

Earlier in the day, Pierre met with the San Diego Amateur Winemakers Association in 100 degree heat at the Arroyo Vineyard in Bonsall. When Pierre spoke about "le terroir" (the earth) expressing itself in the wines he produced it really touched a chord in my thoughts, as the Blue Merle (like Pierre's own vineyards) has distinct areas of land (some red clay, some decomposed granite, some silty soil, some inhospitable rock -- each with its own varietal) which will produce unique flavors -- which can only be found in the land of the Blue-Merle.

Spraying & Mildew Control

One of our vineyard consultants -- who will remain nameless today-- believes spraying for mildew where we live may not be necessary very often because we have wide spacing between our rows and good wind flow. Our neighbor (Sunrise Vineyards) has the vines really packed in, and sprays quite often. On the other hand, our other neighbor at Coyote Oaks with 3 year old vines (who uses this same consultant) has never sprayed. Neither have we.

Our friend Gerry -- who grew the excellent Petit Verdot we have in the barrel -- operates a weather station and sends out weekly mildew reports. I had to ask him, in a polite way, is our consultant nuts? Here's Gerry's answer:

"Hi Craig, [the consultant] is not nuts but he does not have all the technical facts about mildew. It depends on grape variety , air flow, temperature, and moisture at the start of the season.. but I use the Davis system (used to be a secret). Some folks will make a big deal of the moisture being important but that is only the thing that gets the mildew started in your vineyard. Once it exists even in a small area it exists and then you have to proceed with protecting your vineyard from getting a major infestation developing. I just assume at the start of the season that I already have some mildew (it stays in the vineyard over the winter by the way). So I am in protective mode from day one. Thus It really depends on temperature and time, Mildew likes its temperature between 70 and 85 deg F. (just like us human beings). I would be happy to describe it to you in person or over the phone. It is simple to do if you have a recording weather station which I have.

The simple version is: 1. do your first spray using Thiolox when the buds just appear... maybe 1" long. The rest of the sprayings depend on your grape variety and the calculated risk level that develops after your first spraying.

2. Each day you have temperature between 70deg and 85deb for 6 continuous hours you add 20 to the risk level. ( If it goes above 85deg for 45 minutes that breaks the cycle and you subtract 10 from the risk level. If it goes above 95 for 15 minutes you get to subtract 10 from the risk level for that day. (That is why the Temecula folks don't worry much about mildew... because it is very hot during their season.

3. the risk value you compute never goes above 100 or below 0. A mild level is 30 or below. 60 is very high 100 is as high as the system will compute it.

4. The day you spray puts the risk level down to zero and you start over. The interval between sprayings depends on the material you spray with. If that first spraying was Thiolox (micronized sulphur) and the risk level goes up to around 40 to 60 or above you only get to wait 7 days til the next spraying..... so you see it depends on the type of spray. I use Thiolox for the first 2 or 3 sprays (or til verasion starts)... I am now using Rally and Pristine... you have to alternate the types of spray unless you are using sulphur which does not need to be alternated with anything except you do not to want to use sulphur near harvest (your wine is affected by it negatively) This is simpler than it seems to be if you can make a good stab at the risk level. If you do not do that just read the label on the material and it will tell you the interval days/weeks...sort of and just do what the label says forget the fancy risk will probably just add one or 2 sprayings to your vineyard for the year. I usually spray about 10 times per year. Gerry."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

San Diego Boutique Winery Ordinance On Hold

In a complete and surprising reversal, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors was forced to bow to pressure from a small group of citizens opposed to seeing San Diego County becoming host to dozens of boutique wineries.

In a memo written by Carolyn Harris from Ramona, a major supporter of the measure:

"This morning the San Diego Board of Supervisors accepted the recommendation of the DPLU [Department of Land Use] to rescind their approval of the Boutique Winery Ordinance, which was scheduled to go into effect on 23 May 2008. What I understand is the following:

The County has received a "Notice of Intent to Sue for Violations of CEQA - Boutique Winery Ordinance" from lawyer Marco Gonzales, representing the anonymous "San Diego Citizenry Group". They declared intention to sue the Board of Supervisors and/or County of San Diego on the grounds that the proposed Boutique Winery Ordinance's provision for direct sales and tastings is likely to have a significant effect on the environment and must therefore first be supported by an environmental impact report, as opposed to a mitigated negative declaration.

* County Counsel has consulted with CEQA experts and have advised the Board of Supervisors that if the County loses the suit the County will be liable to the San Diego Citizenry Group for a cash payment for their legal fees, as well as the legal fees that the County would spend to defend the suit.

* Therefore, in order to avoid the expense of defending the suit and the probable payment to the plaintiffs, the Board of Supervisors rescinded their action of 23 April approving the Boutique Winery ordinance.

There was no discussion at today's hearing on the subject,which was added as an "urgency ordinance" just yesterday and approved5-0 with the other dozen or so items on the consent calendar.

* During an upcoming meeting of the Board of Supervisors in June they will consider recommending that pending the completion of the EIR [environmental impact report], the "boutique sized" wineries be allowed to make direct sales and provide tastings at the winery subject to an administrative use permit."

Harris notes that it is interesting what power the California Environmental Quality Act has in the hands of a few people who have a check book and know how to use it.

Knowing Harris, this is just the end of the beginning ... there is more to come, and I expect in my lifetime that San Diego will be home to a flourishing cottage industry of boutique wineries.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Winemaking Mistakes To Avoid: Lessons Learned

It's been a year since we celebrated the blessing of the vines, and we have many blessings to be thankful. Here are some of the lessons we've learned along the way. I'm sure there will be many more.

* When pruning first year wines in the winter after the first growing season, do not prune them too high above the cordon wire. Some people recommend two inches above the cordon. Others recommend just below the cordon. In any event, don't go above two inches. (Alternatively, if you want to take more time to develop a strong root system, you can prune down to the bottom of the vine, to establish a very strong trunk in year two -- then in year 3, prune at the cordon wire to establish the cordons. This approach takes longer, but will result in a strong root system.)

* As much as you would rather be tying vines and pruning in the winter/spring, get the gophers! (Get them early to avoid multiplication of the problem after they breed!)

* After the first year, don't hesitate to prune any weak cordons. I know, you worked hard all summer to grow those first cordons, but if they're weak, prune them off in the winter before spring. You'll be amazed at the strength of the new cordons which grow out -- and you'll have a much stronger cordon.

* You don't have to put vines on a trellis system, especially if you're making a micro vineyard.

* Study the theory of vine spacing. Some people like 6 feet spacing or more. Others will insist you cannot make great fruit if the cordons are too far apart.

* If you can cold soak must after picking and crush, do it! A few days of soaking allows color and "fruit" to enter into the must, without harsh tannins. You can use containers (used milk, orange juice cartons filled with water then turned to ice from the freezer) to keep the must cool. If you put in dry ice, watch out for a bubbling volcano!

* Be wary of storing wine in new, small oak barrels that have not been rinsed thoroughly and broken in (the wine may become over-oaked within two weeks!)

* Even though you over-oaked the wine, be patient. The harsh flavor will dissipate with time.--Patience is a winemaker's virtue.

* Don't attach a sulphur stick to a rubber bung when sulphuring a barrel. When the sulphur burns, it may melt the rubber (not a pleasant tasting addition for a barrel).

* If you don't get all the sulphur out of the barrel, your wine may have the nose of used matchsticks.

* When selecting a home-site for a vineyard, a mountain top offers fabulous views and excellent drainage, but flat land is easier to walk on, develop and maintain. (Retaining walls may be more expensive to construct than your vineyard!)

* Don't buy a house in the country just because your dog needs more room. If the coyotes and the snakes don't get him, the foxtails will.

* Inspect the dog's toes for foxtails twice a day, or withdraw $2,000 from the ATM to pay for the upcoming visit to the vet.

* In the long run it's cheaper to purchase $25/bottle wine from the local winery than to make your own. (But not nearly as fun.)

* Don't leave your cases of wine in the garage if the temperatures rest at 90 degrees for a month or so. The wine will oxidize, turn brownish and change taste. Said one taster: Hmm, reminds me of 'medicino'--A polite way to say the Syrah had turned to medicine!

* Just because a self-proclaimed wine judge doesn't ooh and aah over the best bottle of wine you ever made doesn't mean it's not an award-winning concoction!

* If you live in southern California where sharpshooters are present, inocculate your first year vines against Pierce's disease.

*Seen on a T-Shirt: "I spent most of my money on wine and women. The rest of it I wasted!

*Things that go bump in the dark: Watch out for scorpions when getting a glass of water in the middle of the night.

* Watch out for black widows when pulling the cover off of your wine containers.

* A glass of white wine isn't so bad if you've only been quaffing red for the last year.

* The rabbits will eat the buds and first leaves from your newly planted roots -- put the plastic covers on, fool!

(To be continued.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Richard's Vine

A sea of people gathered to celebrate the planting of the vineyard parted to make way for the station wagon as it mounted the 45 degree driveway to the flat space in the garage, which had been converted to a wine tasting spot for the occasion. On level ground we pulled out your wheel chair, helped you into it and whisked you into the house, then backed the car out of the garage as the hundred other visitors converged on the barrel for another taste.

When Pope Jean-Paul II died of that same Parkinson's disease afflicting you, I prayed to his spirit that he show a miracle and send a healing cure to you.

After the priest blessed the vines I asked you a favor. "Richard, I need your help. Would you like to plant a vine?" I had saved you hole #1, the first spot in the first row which we gaze upon every day out the front windows of our house. Carefully, you were lowered inch by inch down that steep incline by your saintly spouse and the vine was planted (did you plant it yourself or did your family plant it for you?) -- hereafter affectionately known as "Richard's Vine."

We hosted a ceremony to bless the vineyard but it was all of us who were blessed by your presence, as you made the effort to visit us that day from far away, to negotiate those steep inclines and to plant that vine.

I don't know exactly what it is with that row # 1, but of all the thousand vines in the vineyard the 12 vines in that boutique row are our problem children. Only a few of them reached the cordon wire the first year. But yours, our most precious vine, didn't even make it out of the pink grow tube. Still, last Fall it showed life and was green. I pruned it back to give it a fresh start this Spring. It still lags behind the others. It's still in the tube (even though vines we planted just six weeks ago are already well out of their tubes!). We give special attention to your vine. Each time we irrigate, we make sure there is plenty of water (perhaps one reason it's a slow grower is that it was planted too deep?). On Saturday, I put in a new emitter above the vine to make sure it gets twice as much water as any other.

Thank you for your gift to us, and may you find wellness with your new life.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Wine Storage: Which Way Is Right Side Up?

We have been storing our wine "right side up" -- which is to say upright, with the corks pointing to the sky. We don't have a storage facility yet for laying them on their side.

Below is advice from the president of the San Diego Amateur Winemakers' Association, who just sent me this note:

"Standing up is only good if up means upside down. The corks need to be in contact with the moisture. Side is best but not really feasible unless you have a chateau and a cave. Wineries age full bottles upside down. After bottling (and corking). Keep them right side up for a week or so to let excess gas get out (and not have push out). Then flip them. Just like anything you might buy on a trip. Travel with it right side up. But after you get home, flip those babies. "

Friday, May 2, 2008

Poems For The Day: On Women, Wine & Owls

"Brother can you spare a dime,
I've spent all my money on women & wine.
The rest of it I wasted,
You couldn't even taste it."

This is how the mind thinks on Friday morning after much racking, barrel topping, bottling the topping wine and tasting late into Thursday evening.

Remember this:

"The silence of the vines
Distills the wife's song
Into sweet wine."

The Queen was also waxing in verse last evening, reminiscent of an old Japanese folk song, calling for an owl to descend from the heavens upon the gophers:

"Hoot, hoot,
Owl koie,
Chung chung a cha chung
Chung chung chung...."