Monday, March 29, 2010

Thinning The Shoots

San Diego's weather the last few weeks has been what you imagine it to be: beautiful. It's been warmer the last few days than most days in June and we're finally thawing out after the cold and storms that visited us in winter. The new green shoots of the vines are loving the sun and growing inches by the day. As the globe celebrated Earthhour on Saturday we were the last of "the wave" that circulated round the world turning out our lights. So it is with ringing in the New Year with California among the last populated time zones to cheer the clock strike twelve. But when it comes to vines it's as if budbreak in North America starts here first, right in our backyard. And as some of the first shoots reached the first wire, it's time to thin them, the idea being to have more or less two shoots per spur, approximately sixteen shoots per vine (on our 6' ft. spaced vines), more or less. It being early in the season, and with the possibility of El Nino's last desperate gasp at rain (the little baby seems to have disappeared in March), I leave extra shoots, just in case. The objective is to have proper spacing between remaining shoots to improve air flow making powdery mildew easier to manage. Also, we're not trying to grow the "most fruit" but the "best fruit" and thinning reduces yield.

Saturday was also Bluey's birthday. He's now a robust 8 years old about the same age as me in dog years and for an Australian Shepherd, he's mellowing out and aging quite nicely, just like the wine in the barrels.

The Queen spied her first snake of the season this afternoon among the rocks of the Protea Garden. "It was a nice snake,"' she said.
"How do you know?" To her, any snake that doesn't bite her is nice.
"It didn't rattle."
"Could it have been one of the new deadlier breeds that doesn't rattle?" Darwin has been working his laws of evolution with the snakes of this region. Since those that rattle tend to get killed, survival of the fittest is resulting in snakes that don't make noise.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

At Spring, Looking Back on Winter's Vineyard Mistakes

The first day of Spring with three-quarters of the vineyard in bud break and some shoots five inches long. Spanish and French lavender are in full bloom. It is a period of renewal for the vines and for the United States as well, I hope. In the vineyard's case there is a threat lurking underneath the serene picture of green shoots: mildew. Since hope is not a strategy I'll take decisive action to implement a spraying program in upcoming weeks to control it.

In hindsight, we made serious mistakes managing the vineyard this winter that could easily have been avoided. Novice vineyard owners and future grape growers pay attention. It is yet to be seen how grave the mistakes will be, but we have definitely made our vines susceptible to fungal infections this year. In hindsight, it is better to:

1) Wait until pruning as late as possible in the season. We started pruning in mid-January, but there is no reason why we couldn't have waited until mid-February. One reason for waiting is rain encourages mildew and other fungi to enter the pruning cuts in the vine. Our error this year was pruning early. After we pruned, the vineyard experienced heavy rains -- and strong fungal growth around the pruned spurs.

2) Immediately after pruning (i.e., the same day), apply a fungicide to the cuts. This is easily done with a paint brush. Next year, I will make this brush application part of the pruning process: prune a row then paint over the cuts. This is to protect the wounds from fungi (and the health of the vine). Think of it as washing your hands with soap and water after a cut to reduce the risk of bacterial infection.

3) A day or so after pruning apply dormant spray and oil, soaking the entire vines. (Our error this year was waiting two weeks before spraying, allowing fungi to grow.)

For a compilation list of errors in the vineyard & winery, I invite you to click on this link:

What's done is done. Once again we've become a laboratory for unwanted vineyard experimentation. Our consolation will be topping off the barrels this evening (and tasting the 2009 wines). The last time we did this the Tempranillo was to die for.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

New Weapon For Weed Control: Flame Thrower

I pulled into the vineyard's driveway and noticed one of the staff donning a protective face shield as he carefully sprayed around the bottom trunks of the vines. As I got closer I was surprised to see what seemed like fire spouting out the nozzle. In the tasting room I asked if a flame thrower was being used? They didn't know so pointed me to the vineyard manager who explained they were experimenting with new weed control techniques this year. Instead of using Roundup adjacent to the vines, they were trying propane gas. Are you planning to become organically certified? No, but as a sustainable vineyard we're trying to use less chemicals, he said. As he spoke the distinct essence of propane made it's appearance outside the tasting room. Don't strike a match, I joked. I wonder how that device would work pointed down gopher holes?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jumping Is For The Dogs

The sun shone early this morning as Bluey and I went for a run through the vines. As I jogged along the rows cut into the mountainside, he zigzagged and slalomed around poles demonstrating the agility of an Olympic skier. The way he lept over irrigation lines and obstacles going downhill impressed me. I came to a bale of hay on the course and had a brilliant idea: make a jump for him, with the image of equestrian competition. I called him over and asked him to pay attention and as I jumped over the bale of hay he trotted around it smiling, acknowledging he had made me follow the command to "jump." Smart dog. I thought I would give it one more try so walked back up the hill above the hay bale. Let me set the picture for you. We are on an 35 degree incline on a curved path above the vineyard with the vines below us on the left. I built up some speed and tookoff into the air as Bluey watched me land on one foot, the first step in an unplanned triple jump with step two taking me over the side of the "cliff" and step three with me flying towards the wires of the trellis system....
(Post script: My fingers are intact and I'm able to type. The careful forensic observer may notice in the photograph my foot prints and bodyprint below the vines. The dog just smiled knowing he had won.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Masterpiece: A Perfect Row of Vines

In the six years we've been writing about winemaking then grape growing these pages have recounted countless mistakes, obstacles and disasters which is to be expected as I have no natural ability to succeed at such endeavors as make wine or farm land. But as I tied and primed a row of newer Aglianico vines on Sunday I observed something I've rarely seen before and certainly never recounted on these pages: a row of perfect vines. Well balanced, with good plumbing. Well formed, with no mildew nor mold. These are vines we did by the book. After the first year, we pruned them back to two buds just above the ground, so that last year they sent out strong shoots we could lay down as cordons. In this particular row, we decided to train one arm, a single cordon, for straight plumbing. As these vines enter their third year now, they are picture perfect. A success story. A masterpiece. Next quest: the perfect glass of wine. On that score, I was inspired this week by Andrew Lloyd Weber. I'm dreaming of creating a "Phantom" wine, whomsoever drinks of it will experience the full power of a love that never dies. Would you share a glass?

Hey, What's That Green Stuff?

Something is rotten in the state of Blue-Merle Country. A greenish, blackish moldy substance, which I might be pleased to see in blue cheese or a penicillin petri dish, is growing on the vines right where the woolly cotton buds are bulging in preparation of sending forth new shoots. I'm wondering if this is good stuff or bad stuff and in the worst case what impact this might have on the grapes and how am I ever going to control it?

It so happened that a county agricultural inspector was out our way and I asked her about it. She said all the rain and moisture we've been having has encouraged fungus to grow (which makes sense because this is the wettest I've seen it in the 3 years since we planted the vines). We've had 13.7" of rain season to date, with more on the way later this month. Her thought was once the weather warmed up the fungus would dry and fade away. (If only it were that easy.)

I took a picture of the growth and sent it to Pete Anderson, a vine expert in San Diego and always willing to offer advice. Here's what he said:

"There are three types of fungi that invade our vines: uncinula necator (powdery mildew); aspergillus niger (black fungus); penicillium (green or blue fungus). I have all three in my small vineyard. Treat it like powdery mildew; use the oil to eradicate."

I wonder if Pete brought us the penicillium during his last visit? Well, now that the county inspector has paid us a visit it's legal for us to purchase and use organic stylet oil to try and control it. I'm also thinking about pumping milk from some neighboring goats to make cheese.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sweet Grapes, Salty Grapes but Never Sour Grapes

"I want to buy lots of grapes this year," she said, "Lots!"
"Whose going to make the
"I will."

In mid-August, a long, long time ago, we cut water to the vines in the final stage before harvest to encourage final ripening. The sugars in the grapes were rising steadily and the Tempranillo would be ready for picking in two weeks with the rest of the vineyard following a couple of weeks later in mid-September. Then it struck: a massive heat wave with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and while I kept my eye on the Tempranillo the sugars in the Zinfandel shot up with the once plump grapes turning into soft raisins and prunes. I took a sample of 100 berries to measure the sugar. 26 brix: Too high! I turned on the water in a futile attempt to slow down the ripening and decided to harvest the next day, two weeks ahead of our plan.

No time for picking party. No time for vineyard blessing ceremony. No time to be the perfect host to our friends from France who had just arrived for a relaxing vacation. I sent out an SOS call to the neighbors. It's time.

Merlot Mike said he'd bring the Gator, but called back later to say he had promised to make sandwiches for the tea ladies and could only come for an hour. Coyote Karen was harvesting her own grapes and couldn't help. I didn't have the number for Rodrigo or Augustine. And, as I did my best to spend time with our dear friends from France I wasn't on the phone as I should have been recruiting help for the next day. Well, I thought, being French and the Kings of Wine they ought to be expert pickers and two more bodies would be needed.

At midnight on the last Saturday in August 2009, I sent an email requesting a blessing to our patron the Bishop and pledged a tithe from the harvest. Bluey and I then hiked up into the vineyard holding a solar powered accent light, said our prayers , banged the ground with a shovel to clear away the rattlesnakes (it must have been close to 90 degrees outside, even at that hour) and began the first night harvest (and the inaugural harvest) in the history of the Blue-Merle Vineyard. We worked for an hour, gathered 50 lbs. and returned with our fingers and paws intact. (Friends, it's hard to pick grapes at night with a flashlight. The dog has trouble holding it steady. Next time we'll use miners' helmets.)

At dawn, as I prepared to head back into the vineyard, Snakeman James arrived. He had cleared a monster rattler earlier that summer. "Sorry I'm late. I got your message last night after getting back from an evening with the Commander. Afraid we enjoyed ourselves a bit too much."

"You are our cavalry and savior. Good to see you. Welcome aboard!" I saluted him and gave him a quick lesson in grape picking 101 (rule #1: Don't clip your finger), then sent him on his mission.

Then the neighbors above us Peter & Pam arrived. I hugged her and shook his hand, grateful for the help.

The Queen awoke from her slumber. "I'm calling Fidel."

"You're what?" She hates Fidel.

"It doesn't matter. You can't do this by yourself. You need more people." So she called her enemy who takes Sunday's off. No, he couldn't help. But he gave her Augustine's number. It was 7am by this time. I called Augustine, and he didn't sound pleased to hear from me at that hour on a Sunday. Fortunately, I couldn't understand all the names he called me in Spanish (something about madre and carumba). He called Rodrigo and by 8am they arrived and we were rescued. Meantime, Merlot Mike dressed in a sleeveless yellow tank-top arrived with Mark.

"Mike, why is it that you always where a muscle shirt during harvest?"
"I might get lucky."
"I think you wear yellow so the bees will think you're the Queen and won't sting you." Now we were making progress and the grapes were filling the bins and the bins were stacking up. Since the vineyard is on a hillside I just slid them down the hill, like sledding.

The house guests from France made an appearance and went and picked for an hour. Then low and behold Joe the Wino himself showed up (after Merlot Mike had left because he had to go and make tea sandwiches for the tea ladies) with his 4-wheel drive vineyard mobile and the grapes were coming in and we got the press cranked up and found out the chute didn't function properly (in fact, the stand I was given had no chute) and grape juice started splattering out all over the place except where it was supposed to go but by 1pm we were done and the French guests were back in their chambre resting and the Tempranillo and the Zinfandel had been crushed and everyone was a hero and we were so grateful because we couldn't have done it alone. It was not well planned but we did what we could do to get the grapes in and we survived and more than five months later (in early March as I edit the final verses) the wines have been settling in the barrels and for three-year-old vines the wine is tasting pretty good and I'm pleased and Bluey gives them four licks. In fact, the wine is tasting damn good. That was the first pick and crush of the season and just the beginning.

"I want to make a lot of wine this year," the Queen announced. She said this with the same authority she used 10 years ago when she woke up one Sunday and said we're bringing the children to Church. You couldn't argue against it. I tried to reason with her.
"Who's going to make it?" I asked, knowing it would be me. It takes a lot of work to make lots of wine. She's a 98 lbs. weakling and takes showers and sprays herself with Channel No. 5 before going into the vineyard. She's a vineyardista who doesn't get her hands dirty.
"I will," she said. Yeah right, I thought. "Call Pete right now and ask him for grapes," she commanded. "I want one ton of Nebbiolo and a ton of Montepulciano. I really like Montepulciano."

"How about Agliancio?" We gave up on our own Aglianico grapes this year. Too much mildew damage.

"Yes, that too." So I got on the phone left messages and sent emails and was somewhat surprised it being late in the season when I got the response that our orders had been confirmed.

"Our orders?" I asked. "I was asking if they were available."

"Don't you want them?" Pete asked.

"OK, we'll take them."

Merlot Mike called, "How much Merlot do you want this year?"

"Mike, I've got so many grapes coming in I don't know what to do."

"OK, that's fine. We have too many buyers and not enough grapes and I wanted to give you first shot."

A week later Paso Robles Bill called. "Craig, do you want any Paso grapes this year?" Well the Queen was getting her grapes and how could I give up an option to purchase grapes from Paso Robles, one of my favorite wine making regions. It was the first sign I might be catching "crazy lady disease," most likely infected by our neighbor Coyote Karen who broke every zoning law in the county and every federal regulation protecting wetlands by putting a 40' container in her front yard to house her winemaking operation.

Then there was the annual trip to Valley Center with Merlot Mike to pick the Petit Sirah. "Mike, do you want me to drive up there to test the grapes before harvest?"

"No need to. Don's tested them. Says they're 24 brix. We get them on Sunday."

"Sunday? I won't be here. I need to go to Texas on business."

The Queen said, "I'll go. I can do it."

"Well, you'll have to. I'll be out of town. Be careful what you wish for."

So with me out of town, our women folk stayed behind and harvested the grapes and put the must on ice until I got back. First thing I did was test the grapes. 22.5 brix. Only, 22.5 brix. You don't make bold, award winning kick ass wine with low sugar grapes. I was disappointed but only had myself to blame. Oh well, I'll blend it with some other grapes and it will be fine, I thought. Never again, I said. Next time, I'll do the testing myself.

Crazy Lady Disease is a funny thing. It starts with planting a few vines. The next symptom is you plant a few acres. And the next stage is when you get a container and put it in your front yard and the property values in the neighborhood start to plummet. It happened to Coyote Karen. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the disease can mutate and cross genders.

We had reached the point where we'd had just about all the grape picking, feet stamping and pressing this crush season when Celestial Sandra called and asked, "Would you like our Brunello?" Without hesitation I said yes. She had negotiated this contract with a grower (Bill Schweitzer) in the Ramona AVA for his famed Sangiovese clone of Italy's Brunello grape. We aren't supposed to call it Brunello or the Italian Carabinieri will descend upon our winery and confiscate all the goods, so let's refer to it as "Bluenello" after Bluey, the Blue-Merle Australian cellar master, and yes, a canine, who accompanied us on this most beautiful of picks, him chasing Coyote scat while the Queen and I brought both of our cars to haul away 500 lbs. of grapes. Bill himself was there to greet us with a smile. I hadn't seen him since the great fires of 2007 about which he observed "a vineyard makes a pretty good fire break" and it's a good thing. His residence overlooks the vineyard and a magnificent valley. It's not work to go there. It's a vacation. I could have been in Tuscany, picking these grapes. But I was just 25 miles from home, and when we got back to the ranch I did my measurements which confirmed what I had been afraid of. The grapes didn't taste very sweet when we picked and I sighed as I read the hydrometer: 22 brix. Not ripe at all and I only had myself to blame. Oh well, I'll blend it with some other grapes and make a Super Italian wine, I thought.

After all that effort negotiating that contract and after all the awards they had won making Bluenello in past years, why would the ladies suddenly give it up? Was there tension fermenting beneath the smiles? Were the hours of backbreaking winemaking leading to a quarrel? Was a long-term friendship being tested? Were there sour grapes? The warning signs were there, but those two grape gals had been friends too long to let a little grape juice come between them. There might be a batch of wine or two that turns into vinegar but not a friendship, not in Blue Merle Country.

Next up, the Petit Verdot harvest, the varietal that's so fragrant the ladies of Blue-Merle Country want to spray it on instead of Coco Channel. The 2007 Petit Verdot was so fragrant Salude Scents is figuring out a way to bottle it. For the 2008 vintage, we improved the flavor and complexity by harvesting the grapes a bit later. And for 2009, we tried to harvest even later. This was our third year harvesting at Arroyo Dulce vineyard and we have the routine down and the nubile maidens from the local community college came out and did a foot stomping while Bluey picked up remnants of grape bunches between the rows.

Now grapes for a dog is like rat poison for a human. And by evening he was moving kind of slow and in the morning I thought he was a goner and the least we could do was rush him to the emergency room of the pet hospital. Here we are making some of the finest wine in the region and the trade off is your dog. Bluey is a grape fiend and although we enrolled him in a 12-step grapes anonymous program he fell off the wagon.

We think we're living in a dream world planting vineyards, picking grapes and making wine and then your dog who'd rather chew a grape than a filet minion is in the emergency room, Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra are about to screech at each other like two felines in heat and I read this story about a couple living an ideal life in winemaking country and the whole thing ends in divorce just as there are tanks of wine and boxes of bottled wine filling up every nick and corner of their house and garage needing to be sold.

This is not easy. I used to say "the family that makes wine together sticks together." On the other hand, the tensions can tear relationships apart. So, I'll refine that to say that the family that makes wine together and sticks together can stick through anything.

The tests showed Bluey's liver was still functioning and he started recovering the moment we took him to the doctor and pulled out the credit card; Sandra and Karen patched things up and the gal who lost her winery to divorce has bounced back and is writing a book about the experience.

Next up were the Guadeloupe grapes, which have yielded some of the best Nebbiolo in the world. There's one word to describe how the Mexican grapes came out this year: salty.
"They're always salty," Pete explained. "You must have the ability to discern the salty taste" he said of my taste buds. That's great, make me the official taste tester, but before committing to buying the grapes. I insisted I had never tasted a hint of salt in the dream 2006 vintage. Ah well, sweet grapes, salty grapes, but never sour grapes. We made the wine, and we'll see how it comes out.

Next up, Paso Robles Bill with the Paso Robles grapes. By this time, everything was organized. We had the crews. We had the trucks. And the Queen was supervising everything. In fact, I was out of town while the Baja grapes were fermenting away and I left the 98 lbs. weakling in charge of punching the cap down and even pressing the juice and it ends up that she pressed more wine than Coyote Karen from the same amount of grapes. Imagine that!

We bit off about as much as we could chew with the Paso Robles grapes and all the crew was there including Fidel, Augustine, Rodrigo and Rodrigo's son (we let Karen hire Fidel). After we finished crushing at our place we went over to the Coyote's to check on things and to help out. (Now it ends up that the Paso grapes were "overripe" and the pH was too high. If you recall we had other grapes that were "under ripe", so by blending we may just come out with something just right.)

As we shoveled the grapes we heard a band in the distance strike up a tune.

"Sounds like someone's having a party," I said.

"Joe the Wino's son is getting married," said Coyote.

"What, Joe's son is getting married? Fidel, what are you doing here? Weren't you invited?" I asked.

"No," he replied. I was incredulous. "You should be over there celebrating Fidel. You practically built that estate," I said.

"Only family was invited," said Coyote.

"Well, if the Godfather could invite Luca Brasi to his daughter's wedding couldn't Joe the Wino invite Fidel to his son's wedding?"

Well, mi casa es su casa and family is family and even if we're not technically family we always felt like we were family out there planting vines and tending the vineyard and picking grapes with Joe and drinking wine with him and joking about getting naked after drinking 1.2 bottles of wine.

"Fidel," I said, "When my daughter gets married, I'm inviting you to the wedding. But, behave yourself, you rascal."

Our work was slowed by picking out leaves from the grapes and everyone was complaining about how slow we were. I became the chief leaf picker and Augustine had a pitchfork and that pitchfork was working very close to my hands and my eyes but I trusted him and we did the best we could picking out the leaves and pitchforking the grapes and dropping them off the flatbed truck directly into the crusher destemmer while the Coyote put on lipstick and supervised. As she powdered her nose a 32-gallon juice filled container on wheels demonstrated Newton's laws of physics and started rolling down the driveway when Augustine leaped from the truck with exclamations in Spanish I don't comprehend and put himself between that rolling container of grape juice and a ravine and kept it from spilling. This time.

The runaway container was a clue to a mystery: How is that with 1,200 lbs. of Nebbiolo grapes our Queen was able to extract 77 gallons of wine not knowing how to use a press while the Coyote, an Amazon woman with the power to press stronger then Merlot Mike and Muleman Jim, barely got 60 gallons? Was she short shipped? Did Fidel spill a container of wine? Did a container careen down the hill? Or, did Fidel, that rascal, siphon off a few gallons to bootleg to Tijuana for a Friday night soiree with a cute senorita?

I suspect an accident. I was a victim of a similar incident as we transferred a ton of grapes from the bottom of our driveway up to the winery. The pickup truck couldn't negotiate the hill so Rodrigo and Armando bucketed grapes from the immense pickbin into smaller containers and then trucked these up the hill to the crush pad. And while I poured grapes into the machine, I heard for the first time that day exclamations in the Mexican tongue I had not heard since I called Rodrigo at 7am on the first harvest day and looked over to see a pickup truck halfway up the driveway with two containers of Paso Robles grapes on the ground and a stream of purple juice flowing down the pavement. Spilled grapes. No sour grapes. "Just pick them up, and hose it down." No use crying over spilled grapes.

We were back on the stake-bed truck and the afternoon was waxing on and Paso Robles Bill was making noises about how slow we were and I was picking leaves and Augustine reached in to pick up a leave and for the 3rd time that afternoon I heard such expressions of the Mexican language that I didn't understand. He had been stung by a yellow jacket.

"No big deal," said Fidel. "I got stung so many times the other day."
"It's OK, it's OK," said Augustine.
"Fidel, you deserve it. But not Augustine," I said, tending to my friend.

We finally finished and we divided up the grape juice and Fidel was pushing the container up the driveway of Coyote Oaks. "Come help me," he called.

"What's the matter? Can't you push that uphill yourself?" I kidded.

I went to help and we pushed the juice up the incline and a yellow jacket landed on my left pinkie and stung me and I let fly an expletive Fidel heard from me for the first time that day.

"What happened?"
"I just got hit by a bee that was aiming for you!" I said.
"You deserve it," he said.
"Because you said I deserved it." I detected his feelings had been hurt. A complaining, no good, cheating son of a bitch with feelings. And he was right, I did deserve it.
"Amigo!" I said. I took his hand and shook it.

At work the next week I was in a meeting with a client and Joe the Wino brought some empty cases of wine into my office (I work for Joe at his high tech company). "Thank you Joe," I said and explained to my client that he was witnessing a case of "trickle down economics." I sell millions of dollars of software for Joe and Joe gives me his discarded empty wine cartons, which I recycle by sending wine to friends. The system works and that's what makes America great. But Joe is pissed as hell because his taxes are going up and he keeps threatening that when health insurance reform passes he's going to cancel our insurance plans so we can go on the government plan.

That weekend back at the ranch the crush is finished and for the first time since the end of August we can relax. The full moon of Halloween Eve is rising and the Queen and the Coyote and Bluey and their servant (me) are enjoying a glass of wine looking at the sun set behind Catalina Island out there in the Pacific.

For the fifth time since Michelle Obama become First Lady and was so proud of America I was even more proud of my wife. She was a winemaker. She supervised the harvest and the crush of the Valley Center Petit Sirah. She supervised the crush of the salty Nebbiolo. She managed the pick up of the Montepulciano and the Aglianico when I was called into important meetings. She pressed the Nebbiolo by herfself and got 75 gallons from the press (while Coyote Karen got less). And, while I was at work, she pressed most of the Monty, the Ugly, the Moudvedre and the Cabernet Franc by herself. And, she even caught her first gopher. Well, if I could teach her how to rack wine, I'd be home free. She said she would do it and she did it.

"Follow me. I want to show you something." And in the amber light under the full moon of Halloween, following the same path that Bluey and I took when we picked grapes under the full moon at the end of August, I lead the two ladies to a spot where I had set a ceramic tile of a blue-moon onto the retaining wall and we drank the wine like water and admired the moonwine and life was good.

The crush season is over and we made it and we're thinking never again but it's a funny thing about that crazy lady disease. It goes into remission until next harvest season and erupts with a vengeance. I haven't heard from Coyote Karen in a while. I wonder if she's in Canada trying to score some frozen grapes to make ice wine?