Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stressed Vines & Banks

We were hit by a heat wave this week with the mercury topping 95 degrees. The good news: I don't have to spray because temperatures that high will set any mildew fungus back. And, because we irrigated last Friday to apply the AdmirePro chemical against the disease-carrying sharpshooters, there was moisture in the ground and the vines raced upwards, some of them clearing the top wire. Still, with temperatures that hot this early in the season I went out at dawn to inspect which vines had passed the stress test. At the bottom of the vineyard where the soil is more fertile and the temperatures somewhat cooler the tendrils of the growing vines point to the sky. Boy do they look great. But as I climb higher up the hill I notice some tired tendrils, their arms only parallel to the ground or drooping. Stressed vines and perhaps in need of water next weekend.

I ripped out my first zombie vine on Sunday. It was diseased and not functioning properly and it had to go. I replanted a new vine in its place. With thoughts of zombie vines and stressed vines in my head, as I walked through the vineyard I imagined the upcoming conversation with my banker who is deciding the fate of our business. We've been incorporated over 11 years and have had a line of credit with the bank for 11 years and we pay our bills and have a FICO score of 800. The bank has suggested via letter that we pay back the line of credit. Now. And, they haven't been responsive to my idea of a creative bank swap: cash for wine.

I'm filling out the application to renew the line of credit and sign a personal guarantee. There are questions about my assets. "What should I put down for my house value?"

"How much did you pay for it?" my personal banker asks.

"$750,000 -- then we put in improvements and the vineyard worth more than $80K so the house is worth $830,000."

"Hold on," he says and goes to a computer screen, types in my zip code, square footage and frowns. "According to the computer, your house is only worth $495,000. You're underwater."

"Can't be," I respond. "Your computer looks at all houses in the zip code, not just the houses in Blue-Merle Country." He scowls and finally decides to write-down the value 35% which still puts us underwater. (So much for my equity helping me out renew the line of credit.)

"How much did your business earn last year?" he asks.

"We broke even. But as you know, I took what expenses I could to reduce taxable income from my daytime job." More frowns. Then I had an idea. "Why don't you let me calculate my assets and income the same way banks do?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"I mean, let me use the same accounting principles approved by the Financial Accounting Standards Board."

"Go on."

"Well, using the same methods approved by the FASB for banks my house is worth $830,000, which means I have equity many times over to pay back your line of credit. According to FASB rules for banks, I can value my assets at their fair value, as I determine it, just like you guys. As houses in my neighborhood sold for over $1 million three years ago, and as I have invested at least $830,000 in our house and vineyard, then it's worth at least $830K, right?" He nodded. "And don't forget the ocean view," I added. He was beginning to warm up, and at that point, I pulled out my secret weapon: a sample from the barrel that had popped its bung last night to let him taste a bit of what the bank was allowing us to produce. The 2008 "Merleatage" a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. After the third sip, he began to loosen up. "This is good," he said.

"I told you it was good. It gets better. Let me give you," I suggested, "A statement of my earnings for Q1 this year using the new accounting principles."

"What do you have in mind."

"Do you remember the 47 palm trees my wife purchased last year?" He nodded. "A phoenix canarius palm sold for $10,000 two years ago. We have 47 of them. That's a future asset value of $470,000. " I poured him another two ounces of wine and continued. "We paid $49 each for those trees. So, our profit is $467,697 from that transaction alone, enough to pay back your line of credit ten times. It shows in my Q1 income statement and you'll have no problem getting my loan approved."

He thought for a minute and I poured him another taste and he said, "You know, I'm thinking we should increase your line of credit instead of canceling it."

"Now you're talking."

At that point the branch manager comes in, sees the bottle of Blue-Merle wine on the table and calls the subordinate into his office. I realize the gig is up and prepare for the worst, log onto Twitter on my iPhone and type: "Attention wine lovers. XX Bank forecloses vineyard & kicks out dog. Withdraw your money on Friday. Thanks from @bluemerlewinery " I have this message prepared to send if they attempt to foreclose. The tweet heard round the world, when the people punished the banks!

I realize I've spent another hour in the vineyard and it's time to stop pulling shoots and get to my daytime job where the real life banker calls to say they've decided to convert the line of credit to a 4-year fixed at a low interest rate. This is good news--neither my vines nor banker are zombies--and I'm bottling up wine this evening to drop off at the bank as a thank you gift and to plant the seeds so they'll be there to finance us when we're ready to take on The French!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Grafting Grape Vines

Enough of the stories and back to the vineyard and a lesson on grafting vines brought to us by Pete Anderson, who knows more about grape varietals than just about anyone in San Diego. Pete, among other things, teaches a course on vineyard management at Mira Costa Community College and last Saturday gave his students a demonstration on grafting at his backyard laboratory. As a guy who still can't tie a slip knot (and working on my third vineyard installation), one key thing I learned from Pete is that he makes two parallel cuts into the vine where the graft is to be inserted which doubles the odds that the graft will take. (When John the Avocado Grower and I tried grafting an avocado tree last Thanksgiving we only made one cut and failed.) Pete is also an accomplished winemaker and after the demonstration (and the knives had been put away) he brought out 7 different bottles of wine to taste. (Pete generously gave each of us a bottle to take home so we didn't fight over the leftovers.) Below is a summary written by Pete on the grafting procedure along with a video clip. When doing this at home watch your fingers!

Grafting Grape Vines By Pete Anderson

Field grafting should take place when the bark slips as the vines begin new growth.


Cut the truck to 4 inches below the desired head height. If trunk diameter is small use loppers; if not use a chainsaw.

Using a fine toothed pruning saw, make 2 horizontal cuts on opposite sides at the base of the trunk -- these cuts will relieve the sap pressure that could cause the graft sticks to be pushed out.

Prepare the bud stick of the varietal to be grafted. Make sure you prepare only the amount to be grafted that day and keep them moist.

Bud sticks usually will have 5 - 7 nodes - using hand pruner cut them into 2-bud lengths. Caution: Make sure the orientation of the cane (bud stick) is maintained upward. Just as in potting, a cane grafted in the downward orientation will not take. The lower end should be at least 2" long; the top end should be cut at a 90 degree angle not less than 1/2" above the node.

Using a grafting knife make face cuts parallel to the vine row on opposite sides at the top of the trunk. The length of these cuts should be similar to the length of the lower end of the bud stick. The cuts will remove the outer surface of the trunk exposing the cambium. At the bottom of the face cut, make a diagonal incision approximately 30 degree angle deep enough to allow the base of the bud stick to be inserted.

Make another diagonal incision half way up the face.

Make a long diagonal cut on one side of the lower end of the bud stick the same length as the face cut on the trunk. Turn the bud stick over and make a sharp diagonal cut at the lower tip creating a sharp edge. Make a small incision on the bud stick face cut that will match the incision made on the trunk face cut.

Tap the bud stick using the grafting knife handle into the angle cuts on the trunk. Important: Cambium layers of trunk and bud stick must be in contact. It is best to have the bud stick positioned to one side of the face cut, not centered on the face cut.

Using grafting tape (1/2" works best) tightly wrap the graft making sure the bud sticks are in contact with the trunk. Seal the entire graft area with Henry Tree Seal or similar sealant. Also, put some seal on the bud stick tip.

In order to prevent the graft stick from being pushed out of contact with the trunk cambium, frequently check the small incisions at the bottom of the trunk to insure the sap pressure is being relieved. If any bleeding is seen in the area of the graft, new trunk cuts should be made to relieve the pressure.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coyote Karen Stricken With Vineyarditis

Coyote Karen who owns the perfect micro vineyard in Blue-Merle Country got a crazy idea in her head. Plant more vines. The little vineyard she has right now at 250 vines is a wonderful size, produces more than a barrel of juice and can be considered a "hobby." Adding 500 - 700 more vines and this vineyardista will be looking at a career change. I think she's been bitten by some glassy-winged sharpshooter (or vampire?) who's given her "crazy lady disease." That's what happens to strong women who live in the country too long. Next thing you know she'll be buying 1,000 acres in Paso Robles.
"Want some fruit trees?" she called.
"Be right over." We loaded Bluey into the vineyard mobile and sped over.
She was clearly infected with vineyarditis and was out there by her lone self, dressed in a white pull-over, digging up orange, lemon, avocado, nectarine and plumb trees that were in the way of her vision. We went over to lend our backs and a helping shovel. Let me tell you it's a lot of work digging out a tree with a shovel but that women huffed and puffed and seemed to blow them down with her tornado. When I offered to help her install her new vineyard, that didn't include transplanting fruit trees. "Are you crazy?" I asked. "Think for a minute. With a tractor, you could lift these babies out in a minute with less damage to the tree." And just then I saw what I thought was a mirage: Joe the Wino out Easter Day taking his bright orange Kubota for a leisurely drive. I ran out to greet him.
"Joe, good to see you. You're just in time to help a damsel in distress."
Joe drove right onto Karen's land and right up to her stepping down from his tractor. "Hello sweetheart. Give me an Easter hug." Joe got his hug and Karen got her trees pulled out and then the vineyardista took advantage of having that machine there to get her property "manicured." I can't use the word "graded" because government permits are required for "grading." Joe drove over the land smoothing it out here, filling in holes there, ripping up dirt and rolling boulders. There were a couple of more trees in a prime vineyard spot (WARNING: Tree huggers should stop reading now!) and Karen was ruthless in her vision. "Rip them out!" Joe agreed with her, saying, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." He runs his business the same way. Ruthless. But I persuaded him to take the trees back to his place (after all, he has 10 acres). So, we saved the trees and Karen got her her land cleared. Joe got his hug, but he didn't get to mud wrestle the vineyardista in all that rich dirt and water. Bluey got to play in the mud. We got a bottle of wine. Ever hear the expression "Will Work For Wine"? You should watch what you say. And, as an extra benefit, when I went to the dentist's office this morning for a regularly scheduled check up my blood pressure was lower than last year (that's what a 4-day vacation of working in the vineyard and wine drinking will do to you.) Meantime, Karen has been on the phone getting everything ordered: vines, end posts, cement, wire, irrigation supplies, the works. She even found Fidel, that rascal, who is available for hire. If you want to see one of the most beautiful vineyards in California develop, stay tuned. And remember, do try this at home.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Zombie Vines & Zombie Banks

They're out there. Vines that are sending out shoots, sprouting leaves and setting fruit. They are green today but when summer comes and they try to move water from the roots to the leaves they can't. The leaves won't get water. They will turn red and brown and shrivel and the vines will die. There are dying vines in the vineyard and I don't know which ones. They are zombie vines infected with Pierce's Disease, the #1 enemy of vineyards in Southern California where the sharpshooters fly. Those pesky sharpshooters. Glassy winged. They suck the juices from an infected vine, become infected themselves (they are born innocent) then go and bite a healthy vine who becomes a zombie.

When we planted our vineyard two years ago I noticed some interesting bugs on the vines. Move near them and they instinctively scuttle to the other side of the shoot to hide. Clever rascals. Paso Robles Bill, who planted his micro vineyard two months before us that year, called in a panic: "I have sharpshooters in the vineyard!"
"Are those the ugly bugs that hide on the other side of the shoot when you move near and look like frogs with a flat alligator nose?" Yes. I was told to wait until I had significant growth in our vines before applying AdmirePro, a regulated chemical (very similar to nicotine I'm told) that costs about $1,000/quart and repels the sharpshooters. Sharpshooters don't like the taste of vines with admire (which will kill them) and will stay away from them. Bill, whose vines were taller with plenty of foliage, inoculated his vines right away. We didn't, not until Labor Day. Last year, when I saw red leaves in the vineyard I panicked and called an entomologist who inspected the vines and told me that the redness was a varietal characteristic of Tempranillo. I had dodged a bullet. We even had a vine tested for Pierce's disease -- and the report came back with good news. However, Paso Robles Bill said that the incubation period can be up to three years, so I may not see any sign of the disease until next year, or the year after. And so they are out there, zombie vines. And, I just found a sharpshooter in the vineyard last week. And, another one today.

Just got back from a meeting with Pat Nolan, San Diego County's plant pathologist, and she gladly answered my long list of questions, including, how long is the incubation period? She assured me that an infected vine would show symptoms the next year. Looks like we dodged a bullet. And, that one vine in the vineyard which isn't putting out shoots? "Rip it out."

If admire is similar to nicotine, I'll ask my princess the college student to do some research: clone the nicotine gene from tobacco into vinus vinifera to produce sharpshooter resistant vines. There is likely to be an additional benefit from the nicotine: drinkers will get hooked on our wine.

Just received a notice from the bank. The line of credit we've had for 10 years will not be renewed and the bank is demanding payment of $50,000. Worse than zombie vines are zombie banks. Time for a fire sale to feed the zombie bank: One thousand bottles of wine for sale at $49/piece .... any takers? Perhaps I can work out a swap with the bank.

Baby Barn Owl Makes Debut

Owl Gore, Jr., son of Mr. & Ms. Owl Gore who occupy the box by the entrance of our property, made his debut on Sunday after his mother kicked him out of the roost for not picking up his room. "He just got too big for our coop and had to go," said Ms. Owl. A year ago we erected an owl box on a hill in the middle of our vineyard with 270 degree panoramic views of surrounding mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The penthouse has been vacant, another sign of the region's troubled real estate market. We sweetened the offer with free food: all the gophers and mice you can eat (which we have in abundance below the box). Our neighbor asked, "Did you get an owl yet?" Nope. They have owls all the time. He looked up at our box and observed, "Well, you don't have a perch. Your box needs a perch." Looks like I'll be yanking the 16 ft. pole out of the ground today and attaching a perch. One good thing; I didn't set the pole in concrete. Maybe we'll get that teenage Owl Gore, Jr. to lease our penthouse? What a hoot.