If You Make Wine in a Winery, Do You Make Vinegar in a …..?

Lucinibalsamic

Basic Balsamic – $$

Almost from the beginning, Jed and I have joked that if our grapes turned out to be lousy we would just make vinegar.  Somewhere along the way the idea morphed from a joke into taking a serious look at actually making vinegar.  My guess is that it probably happened some night when we were pouring a nice balsamic over some strawberries and that the conversation went something like this:

Jed:  These berries are really good.

Me:  They are.  And the balsamic really makes the taste pop.

Jed:  Who have thought vinegar would be good with something sweet like strawberries?

Me:  And this is the same one we’ve been using without anything else on salads.

Jed:  Yep.  It’s really good.  Does it cost a lot?

Artisanbalsamic

Artisan vinegars – $$$

Me:  Well, yeah.   But we’ve been growing our own strawberries and lettuce.  So we haven’t paid anything for those.

Jed:  Always good.  So, how much was the vinegar?

Me:  I don’t remember for sure, but about $12 or $13 I think.

Jed:  So less than for a decent bottle of wine, right?

Me:  No, that would be for a little bottle of vinegar; half the size of a bottle of wine..

Jed: (after thinking on this for a while) So good vinegar costs more than a bottle of wine?

Me:  Well, more than some of the wine we buy, yes.

Jed’s look said “We should look into this.”

 

The Wine Adventure Takes A New Turn.

For the next several months, we looked into making vinegar.  We learned that supermarket vinegar is usually aged for about 24 hours while good vinegars are aged for months and sometimes years.  That balsamic vinegar doesn’t have any balsam in it.  That ‘red wine vinegar’ usually has more than one kind of red wine in it.

ATasteofOlive

The ATOO staff in Haddonfield

We tasted a lot of vinegar:  wine vinegars from the supermarket; balsamic vinegars from fancy food stores; apple cider vinegars from farmers markets; flavored artisan vinegars from websites, gift vinegars from friends.  Some were good; some were boring; some were over-priced, and some were amazing.

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The starter came double wrapped!

We researched the various ways to make vinegars: the chemical method and the Orleans method.  We learned about ‘mother’  and ‘starter’ in vinegar and fermenting in steel vs oak.  (Did you know balsamic is aged in more than one kind of wood?)

We began to understand that making a really good vinegar is just as complicated as making a really good wine – because you need to start out by making a really good wine.

Jed, of course, worked on spreadsheets of how many grapes to make how many bottles of vinegar. He determined that if the vinegar is really good,  you can charge more per liter than you’d get for wine.

Most importantly we learned that the idea of making a good artisan vinegar sounded like a lot of fun to us.

My French Vinegar Barrel

My French Vinegar Barrel

So last spring Jed gave me a small oak barrel for making vinegar along with some starter.  I headed to the store for some locally made merlot. I read the “easy as 1-2-3″ directions, poured in the wine, added the mother, and replaced the lid.  “Leave alone in cool dark area undisturbed for three months.”  I marked the date on the side of the barrel.

May passed:   Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another couple of months.”

June passed:  Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another month.”

July passed:  Jed: “Is the vinegar ready yet?” Me: “Not for another couple of weeks.”

The ready date in August passed.  Jed decided to turn the spigot and taste the vinegar.

 

Jed:  You should come and taste this vinegar.

Me:  That’s right!  It should be ready by now.  I’ll be right there.

Jed:  I don’t like it.  It smells funny.

Me:  (sadly) I don’t like it.  It smells funny.

Jed:  How did you make it?

Me:  I bought two bottles of local merlot and followed the instructions on the jar of mother.  They said it was as easy as 1-2-3.

Jed.  Well, I want to get rid of it.  It smells funny.

Me:  Yeah, I guess so.

So I held my nose, turned on the spigot, and waited while all the beautiful red liquid went down the drain in the kitchen sink.  Gradually the liquid turned browner with weird specs. Finally it was empty. There was no mother to be seen at all.  I took the top off the barrel and peered in. Something else was in there.  I reached in gingerly and pulled out part of a piece of plastic wrap and some wine-colored paper with the remains of what looked like instructions on them.  I could just make out a bit about soaking the barrel for 24 hours before using it.

I opened a bottle of wine and reported on my findings to Jed.  After a bit, we both started to laugh.  What other possible outcome could there be in Pam and Jed’s Wonderful Wine Adventure?  This would just get added to the list:  deer, beetles, wasps, powdery mildew, clay plan, winter die back, and now: instead of wine that tastes like vinegar we ended up with vinegar that doesn’t taste like vinegar!

We took turns scrubbing out the little barrel.  Jed poured in some white vinegar and let it soak.  Soon I’ll buy two more bottles of merlot and try again, maybe this time with a different starter.

 

So, back to an important question: if you make wine in a winery, do you make vinegar in a vinegary?

Suggestions welcomed.

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The Summer of Our Discontent

It’s the third summer out in the vineyard.

As I write this at the end of August we’ve seen nary a sign of powdery mildew or downey mildew.  Jed was vigilant with spraying, and he was able to limit the amount of spraying with big chemicals by using a very dilute spray of hydrogen peroxide which just keeps the vines very clean.  The hated Japanese beetles were pretty under control this year now that we knew not to use the beetle bags. The deer fence kept Bambi at bay, so no cursing about chewed vines in the morning.

We were glad we had installed our irrigation system this year, because there were plenty of weeks without enough rain, and we ran the system several times to keep the vines going.  There was a lot of canopy management this year, but we managed to the vines from getting too tangled or too long. After three years,  we were finally getting the hang of this vineyard thing.

So what’s up with calling this post ‘The Summer of Our Discontent”?

Clipping extra grapes

Clipping extra grapes

The third year in a vineyard is the year of the first harvest.   It’s supposed to be a modest harvest, so we were advised to limit the number of grape bunches on a vine to just one.  I’ve been growing things for many years, and I confess that I am one of those gardeners who hates pulling out seedlings in the spring.  (In fact, I’ve been known to replant seedlings elsewhere in a garden, usually to little success.)  So clipping off bunches of grapes that looked perfectly healthy was not easy.  But I managed to do it without too much wincing.

 

Meanwhile, back in the saga of the winter dieback, the die back continued all through the summer and into August.  By July nearly 600 vines had died.  Half the vineyard.  The very center of the vineyard was the hardest hit with over 90% of the vines gone in several rows.  There was death in every row.  I would be out there happily pruning away for several vines, and then there would be nothing but brown dead vine.  Or worse, a live vine that was showing the first signs of wilting and dieback.

Winter dieback

Winter dieback

By August, vines that were fully grown and fully fruited were still experiencing dieback. We would dutifully cut the dead vine back and haul the carcass out of the vineyard.  Over and over and over again.  Today, I can see four more vines turning brown out in the vineyard.  ARGHH!

There is some good news.  About 300 vines have healthy root systems that shot up new growth.  So we were back at year one with these vines, putting on grow tubes, and training cordon vines.

Still, that leaves us with about 300 dead vines.  We placed an order for 500 replacement vines back in July.  As the weeks go by, we start second guessing our decision.  Should we try another root stock?  Or switch to a white varietal in the middle? Maybe put more table grapes in since they seem to be hardier.

It has not been an easy summer.  When you are out there doing the work, it is hard to look around at a vineyard that is so decimated.

Maybe we should just skip replanting altogether.  It is, after all, the summer of our discontent.

 

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It Sure Been a Cold Cold Winter

It sure been a cold, cold winter
My feet been draggin’ ‘cross the ground
And the fields has all been brown and fallow
And the springtime take a long way around

“Winter”      The Rolling Stones

The early June  weekend started out with normal vineyard chores.  We decided on Friday morning that we had enough growth to start tucking vines into the guide wires of the trellising.  Jed started at one end with the table grapes where some of the vines were already reaching the top wire.  I started at the other end where the growth was more modest.  I had my work belt on so I was taking the added step of tying up loose cordon vines wherever I saw them.  At the end of the day I reported to Jed that I had seen some dead vines that I had not seen before. He had seen some too.    Dead vines is never a good thing, and we had just finished planting 30 replacement vines the previous month.

Dead cordon vines with new shoots

Dead cordon vines with new shoots

We returned to the project again on Saturday morning, and at our noon break we both remarked that we were seeing more and more vines with leaves that were wilted.  There was no pattern to what we were seeing.  Some vines were totally dead.  Other vines had leaves that were dying on the cordon vines, but there were healthy new shoots coming up from the bottom.  Even weirder were the vines where one of the trunks would be dead or dying and the other trunk was perfectly healthy.  What was going on?  Even since the day before more vines were showing signs of wilting.

Me:  Did you spray too much of something?

Jed:  I’ve just been spraying hydrogen peroxide and I don’t think you can spray too much of that on the vines.

Me:  Could it be a disease?

Jed:  What disease would do this?  Harm part of the same plant but not all of it?  I think it must be frost damage.

Me:  It’s not frost damage.  I know what that looks like from Steve Brown’s vineyard when he lost a lot of buds.

Jed:  We need to take some cuttings and look things up.

Me:  Agreed.

One trunk dead, one trunk alive

One trunk dead, one trunk alive

Our online detective work turned up two disease possibilities:  one was called Eutypa dieback and the other had various names around the world, including Esca or Black Measles.  Both were fungal diseases that were probably present in the canes when they were planted, but that don’t show up until the plant reaches maturity.  Neither has a cure other than to yank out the diseased growth and burn it, and plant new stock.

We stopped our research in a funk, and headed off for the diversion of a Lucinda Williams concert.

The next morning we consulted with our fellow vineyard owner Bob Cassady.  By now the count of wilting vines was heading north of 200.  Bob was puzzled.  He agreed that it was looking like it might be one of the fungal diseases but urged us not to yank out any vines until we had consulted with some experts from the state agricultural extension. He put in a call to Dan Ward at Rutgers.  Jed and I headed out to BBQ in Philly determined to forget our worries.  I, of course, worried out loud about the grapevines to everyone I talked to.  It was hard to fall asleep that night.  We had just started construction on the winery, and now we may not have a vineyard if this disease keeps spreading to other grapes.  Finally, we reminded each other that this was supposed to be an adventure, and that meant taking the bad with the good.

Monday morning we hear that Dan can stop by to look at the vines early in the afternoon.  I head back out to the vineyard to keep tucking up vines, determined not to think about the impending doom.

Finally Dan arrives, along with Gary Pavlis who is with NJ Ag Extension program, in charge of helping new growers get started.  We have not talked to Gary since he first advised us three years earlier on starting a vineyard.  I lead the two of them out to the vineyard, babbling about Eutypa, and worrying about the set-back of having to yank out a third of our vineyard.  I point out one of the vines where one trunk is dead and the other one is fine; then another where both trunks are dead but healthy shoots are pushing up from the bottom.

Dan says, “We’re seeing a lot of this in NJ vineyards this spring.  This is classic winter die back, but we haven’t seen this in NJ vineyards for over 20 years.”

Me:  So this isn’t a fungus, and I don’t have to rip out vines?

Dan: No, if anything just be patient.  You won’t really know until July how many vines will make it.

Hard hit winter die back

Hard hit winter die back

Dan goes on to explain the difference between winter die back and spring frost damage.  I am relieved to know that we are not alone, and that I don’t have to worry about more vines getting infected.  But it’s discouraging to hear that we could still lose more vines, now perhaps as much as half the vineyard.   Still, it’s a relief to know that this was plain old mother Nature, and not some doofus thing Jed and I screwed up.

The two guys go on to give tips on how to treat the vineyard over the summer to help as many vines as possible recover.  We talk which kind of grow tubes work best in this situation, and what kind of irrigation plan will best help the needy plants whose vascular systems were damaged by the freezing winter temperatures.  Dan adds a few suggestions about mowing, and I am finally relaxing when they leave.

Our vineyard has taken yet another hit.  But it still has plenty of healthy plants, many of which have blossoms.  So yes we will have a crop this year.  And maybe the smaller size will be a better next step in this adventure.

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Winter Pruning: Or, Jed Gets His Way…..Mostly

By February I was tired of talking about pruning, so at the end of the month, on a relatively warm Friday morning, we hit the vineyard along with our friend Carlos who was more experienced than we were with pruning grape vines.  This year, because the vines are in their third year, we were able to leave two budded spurs, that will aid the canes in heading up the trellis.Image

 

 We thought we had plenty of pruning shears, but when we hauled out our stash we realized that while Jed and I each had a good Felco pruner, all the others were basically junk.  We had learned the hard way during the whole planting process that crummy equipment can really slow you down.  So Jed headed off to a nearby farm supply store to remedy the situation.

 

I consider myself a reasonably experienced pruner of vines by now, but I am careful and take my time, particularly if I’m dealing with a single trunk and want to start a second one.  I study, and I step back, I count buds, and I weigh my options.  For Carlos, the whole process is very intuitive, and he zips along, doing two rows for every one of mine.    Jed returned with more pruners and joined the crew, quickly becoming as fast, but not as good, as Carlos.

 

 

Each time we repeat a task in the vineyard we find some small improvement in the way to do things.  This time, our friend Bob Cassidy, (founder of Salem Oak Vineyard & Winery) made the suggestion that speeded things up.  “Toss all your clippings into piles as you go.  That way you’ll have fewer stops when you go to clear out all your clippings.”  We were two rows in before he stopped by, and we felt a little foolish that we hadn’t just figured that one out on our own.  But at least we got with the program for the bulk of the vine pruning.

Image

 

It took us just three days to finish the winter pruning.  Carlos brought his brother on Sunday, to help with tying up loose cordon vines.  Of course, no project can go from start to finish without Jed and I disagreeing over something.  This time, Jed had brought home a box of small white twist ties from the office.  

Jed:  Look at what I found in the basement at the office!  We can use them up in tying up the cordon vines.

Pam:  They’re too short, and they’re made of paper so they’re not suitable for use outdoors.

Jed:  Oh you worry too much.  They’ll work just fine.

Pam:  Jed, we have two perfectly good gizmos for tying up vines, and we have rolls of the tape made specifically for this task.

Jed:  Yeah, but I want to use up these twist thingies and I can’t think of anything at the office.

Pam:  Well, I have my belt with the pruners and the ties we bought all ready to go.

Jed:  That’s fine.  I’ll just give these extras to Carlos and his brother.  It works out great.

 

So by the end of the day Sunday, all was pruned, and little white twists had replaced many of the nearly invisible green or brown twist ties imported from France.  (My sense of aesthetics was offended, but I knew that it would not be long before I would surreptitiously be replacing them.)  We had enjoyed this first chance to be back in the vineyard. and were feeling ready for spring. All that was left was to gather all the clippings up.

Image

 

Monday it snowed, reminding me at least that we were doing this winter pruning in the middle of winter. But the snow was gone by the following weekend, so Jed drove the pick-up out to the vineyard, and Becca and I walked behind tossing the clippings into the truck. It didn’t take long before the truck bed was overflowing, so Jed drove to the back of the barn with Becca and I riding on the tailgate to help unload.

 

Jed:  Where should we drop these?  There will be at least four more loads, so there will be quite a pile.

Me:  Should we save some of them for wreaths?

Becca:  Let’s have a bonfire?

Jed:  I’m not making wreaths.  I think we should just burn them.

Becca:  Bonfire!  Bonfire! Bonfire!

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Bonfire it was.  We hauled out the cut vines to a place away from the barn, and away from the woods. After four more trips, we had a pile of clippings that was pretty impressive.  Becca and I were happy it was done, and Becca thought that burning the fire during a LARP (Live Action Role Playing) even that was scheduled in a few weeks would be the perfect time to burn the vines.  We all agreed.

 

Here are some pix of the LARPers and the bonfire.  Pretty good fire.  Pretty good ending to the story.  

 

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It’s Time to Prune… No It’s Not….Yes It Is….No It’s Not, No It’s Not, No It’s Not!

Late October.  We are sitting on the porch and enjoying a crisp fall day.

Jed:  “Don’t you think it’s time to prune the vines?”

Me: “No it’s too early.  We’ll do the winter pruning next year.”

Jed:  “But can’t we get a jump on things and do it now?”

Me:  “Both the vineyard managers I worked with did their pruning in winter.”

Jed: “Well, that doesn’t mean there aren’t vineyards that prune in the fall.”

Me:  “OK, so you can point them out to me.”

Driving past Heritage Vineyards the following week.

Jed:  “Look. Heritage has pruned their vines.”

Me: “Those aren’t pruned vines.”

Jed: “They look pruned to me.”

Me: “Look again Those aren’t pruned vines.”

Jed: “I can’t look again.  I’m driving.”

Me: “Well, those were not pruned vines.”

Jed: “…….yes they were.”

It’s late November.  We head to Spain for Thanksgiving, on the Costa del Sol, where there are lots of olive orchards, and avocado orchards, and vineyards.  Thanksgiving Day and we are driving to Seville.

banner-vinedosMe: “Oh look!  Vineyards.”

Jed: “Cool.  And those vines look pruned.”

Me:  “Hmm.  I see canes.”

Jed: ” No, I think this vineyard has been pruned already. We should start pruning when we get home.”

Me: “It’s too early to prune.”

We pass another vineyard.

Me: “Jed, here’s another vineyard.  Slow down so we can get a closer look.”

Jed: “OK. See, look how it’s all been cut down.

Me: “No.  I think the Spanish just grow their vines differently, with small trunks and canes that start lower to the ground.”

Jed: “Becca, take a photo so we can see who’s right when we get home.”

Back in New Jersey.  Driving back from the airport, past another small vineyard.

Jed: “See that?  Another vineyard, and it’s been pruned!”

Me: ” I see the vineyard, and I also see that it has not been pruned! “

Jed: “You’re wrong.   I think it’s time to prune.”

Me:  “I may be wrong, but I’m the vineyard manager, and I say it’s too early.  But if you’re bored I have some things for you to do.”

Jed: “That sounds like you have an ulterior motive.”

Me: ” That’s always a possibility.”

Jed: ” Or maybe you don’t trust me pruning.”

Me: “That’s an even stronger possibility.  Besides, you did most of the spraying this year, so it’s my turn to put some labor in.”

Jed: “Well, that may be true, but I still want to help prune.”

Me: “OK.  But it’s still  too early.”

Jed: “OK.  But you said it was a winter pruning, so we could start right after Christmas.”

Mid-January.  Sunday morning, having coffee and listening to the cold wind outside.

Jed:  “So it’s now past Christmas.  Must be time to prune now.”

Me:  ” It’s still a bit early.  Usually it’s around March that the winter pruning happens.”

Jed: “We could get a jump on it if we started now.”

Me: “Yeah, but I think leaving the canes on protects the trunks from frost damage.  So you want to trim just before the bud break.”

Jed:  “That’s a long way off.”

Fortunately, the wind had brought down another dead tree at the back of the barn.  The tree was so big our electric chain saw could not get through it and it died trying.  Jed headed out to get another chain saw.  It was big enough to do the job., even though the log rolled down the hill part way through the job.  So Jed was occupied for the rest of the day.

Of course, it still needs to be chopped into firewood.  Only six more weeks to keep him occupied.  Sigh.  Ah, but the pruning shears all need to be sharpened.  And oiled.  The tractor will need to be tuned up.

Or I can always plan another vacation.

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2013 in review – Yikes!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for Raccoon Creek.  Who knew people were reading this stuff?  OK, so my New Year’s resolution needs to be to get back to writing, err, finishing the blog posts I’ve started and never published.  Happy New Year everyone!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Fruits of Our Labor

Mars Table Grapes

Mars Table Grapes

 Last spring,  we had drilled one more row than we needed for the wine grapes.  So Jed decided to fill the row with table grapes.  He ordered  three varieties, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.  They are all seedless purple grapes that are supposed to ripen at different times over the summer.  As summer came the vines seemed to be thriving so I left most of the bunches on the vines knowing I could thin them out later if needed.  Come mid-summer I did eliminate about a third of the bunches wherever a vine seemed to be slowing down.

Table grapes culled

Table grapes culled

By the end of July the bunches were starting to get big and we tasted a few.  They weren’t real sweet. I needed to cull more bunches, so I decided to save a few and dry them into raisins. Drying them would concentrate the sugars and make them sweeter tasting I thought.  I went online to look at some ‘how-to’ posts on raisins and most of them said it was the easiest thing ever.  Just put them on a tray in the sun for a few hours, and voila! raisins!  I got a bunch our wicker baskets and trays, and spread the bunches out in the sun.  It was a hot, sunny day, so I went back after a few hours to see if they were starting to look like the image on the website.   Nothing.  Oh, don’t be so impatient I told myself as I grabbed a grape from one of the bunches.  Nope, not that sweet, but not sour either.  I turned all the bunches over so both sides would get sun.

Like every project in the vineyard, making raisins was going to be a bit of an adventure.

Drying Table Grapes

Drying Table Grapes

I began to worry that all the grapes might just get moldy or rot before they dried into raisins, so I tossed a dishcloth over the baskets so they wouldn’t pick up dew overnight.  In the morning I proudly removed the dew soaked towel from the baskets, and looked hopefully up to the sky.  Sunny with just a few clouds.  I took off for work and left the sun to do its work.  Twelve hours later, there were a few grapes that seemed to have changed color, but none were very shriveled looking.  What happened to “in just a few hours you’ll have raisins”?

That weekend I was out of town, and because it rained Jed pulled the raisins into the house.  While they hadn’t turned moldy, they also hadn’t turned raisiny.  Back to the web.  A more in-depth treatment on raisins warned that those of us in ‘humid or rainy climates’ might not be able to rely on the sun.  They advised putting the raisins into a 170 degree oven for 24 hours.  So I transferred all the raisins onto jelly roll pans and into the ovens they went.  That evening some of the raisins had shrunk to tiny dots that were hard as a rock while others looked comfortably plump.  I spent 15 minutes picking out the grape ‘turds’ and tossing them away.  Did I want to leave the grapes in overnight, unattended?  Nope.  I turned the oven off and went to bed.

The next morning I turned the oven back on and began to monitor the grapes every couple of hours or so.  After the first check, there were about 50 shriveled grapes.  I pulled them off the bunches and left them on the counter to cool. I turned the remaining bunches over and back into the oven for they went.  I inspected the ones on the counter. They looked like raisins, they felt like raisins, and yay, they even tasted like raisins.  Just one small problem:  every one carried it’s tiny stem.  So I spent ten minutes carefully pulling out the stems.

Mars, Jupiter, Venus grapes

Mars, Jupiter, Venus grapes

Jed stopped by to watch.

“That can’t be the way they make raisins.  No way they pull all those stems off by hand.”

“I know, but they taste terrible if the stems are left on.”

“And why are you only doing a few at a time?”

“Because they don’t seem to turn into raisins at the same time.  Some were turning rock hard.”

He just raised an eyebrow and left me to figure out a better way.

After a couple more hours, I decided to pull all the grapes off a few bunches and just lay them on the pan.  It was messy work, with grape juice getting over everything.  As I monitored this batch baking, I could see that grapes were sticking together, and tried stirring the grapes a few times.  The grapes stuck to my spoon and then to my fingers.  Jed was right, this can’t be the way the commercial growers make grapes.  But by evening most of the grapes were looking very raisiny, so I pulled them off the pan, let them cool, and then ran them under water to get rid of the juice.  On to the counter to dry for a while, and then a tasting.

Raisins!

Raisins!

Our home made raisins have turned out to be delicious, not as tart a a dried cranberry, but not as sweet as what comes from the grocery store.  There is real variation in the flavor, which makes them much more interesting to eat.

So I’ve deemed this adventure a success, and even though this wasn’t a real harvest, it still qualifies as the fruits of our labor.

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Ready, Set, Bud Break!

Jed & the Spinning Jenny

Jed & the Spinning Jenny

As the weather turned cold last fall, Jed and I congratulated ourselves about the fact that there would be nothing to do in the vineyard for the next six months.  Well, we knew that was only going to be partially true.  Once the vines started growing again in the spring they would need a support system, so we knew we needed to finish setting up the trellis.   Jed had already ordered all the wire, along with a spinning jenny to lay it out properly. We waited for the vines to shed all their leaves and then got to work setting up the main cordon wire.  It took us a while to get the hang of operating the spinning jenny so that the wire unfurled smoothly, but once we did we were grateful that we had yet another smart invention to aid us in our work.  It took several days to complete this task, but then the vines could be secured for the winter.

We Who Are About To Tie Salute You   Since Jed had done the yeoman’s work of pounding in all the trellis stakes over the summer, I assigned myself the task of tying up vines to the cordon wire.  We ordered a fresh supply of tying tape in the lightest weight, designed to support young vines before they finished growing.  I looked forward to the task as it gave me a chance to use the nifty little tying tool I had learned about as an apprentice in our own vineyard. As I walked the rowsI was pleased that so many vines were large enough to reach the cordon wire, but I was also disappointed to see how many were a mass of shoots – the result of all the deer damage over the previous summer.  (Dang deer!) My only option was to choose the shoot that was most inclined to bend around the wire and see what happened.

All Tied Up

All Tied Up

It was slow work, mostly because of my uncertainty with each new deer-bit vine.    It took about 30 hours of tying vines, after which I found myself wishing for one of the few times in my life that I was a couple of inches shorter.  I thought the reason we were doing vines instead of lettuce was so we wouldn’t have to bend over.  GRRR!  But, whoo hoo! We’re All Tied Up ….With No Place To Go!  (Yes the bad puns just keep on coming.)

What A Bit of Spit and Polish Can Do

What A Bit of Spit and Polish Can Do

The Winter of No Discontent   Garden journals wax eloquently about the joys of pouring over seed catalogs in January.  Hey there – it’s time to plan for the next year’s abundance of good eats.  Grapevines are a perennial crop, so once you’ve made the decision about which varietal, clone, and rootstock, you are pretty much committed to whatever you’ve chosen to plant.  Winter brings other tasks like repairing your equipment, sharpening your blades, and bringing your records up to date.  I used this time to polish up our work boots, and take pictures of the vineyard in the snow.  (Oh, and there was also a ten day trip to Mexico. Yay!)

The Vineyard in Winter

The Vineyard in Winter

The Emperor of The North Goes Back To School Jed used his winter months to buy a new 400 gallon sprayer which we knew we would need in the ongoing battle of bugs and bacteria in NJ., This meant he had to have a controlled substance applicator’s license   One day he came home with a very thick manual which was the basis for the test he needed to pass in order to be approved for the license.  Lo and behold: all the lectures Jed gave Becca about studying properly were based on advice he actually followed himself.  He sat at a desk, highlighted the book, made notes on a separate pad, and tested himself in advance.  He came home confident he had passed, and thought he might possibly have aced it.  But no moment of glory for the Emperor of the North:  you never learn your score, only whether you are approved for the license.  I say having the license is glory enough for the Commander of the Merlot Defense League.

Fixing the Spinning Jenny

Fixing the Spinning Jenny

Wired  We own quite a few electronic gadgets:  Blu-ray player, laptops, tablets, smartphones, IPTV, and even a turntable.  We are a ‘wired’ household.  This March we got a new definition for wired, and it didn’t have anything to do with the internet.  The cordon wire is just one of five wires that had to be fastened to trellising, and we had four still to be completed:  one for the irrigation system, and three ‘catch wires’ for managing the grape shoots as they grow.  So the minute the days got a bit warmer this spring we headed back to the vineyard to finish up the job.  (See Lazy Lester for more on the first day out.)  Of course, the spinning jenny broke down, and we had one roll of persnickety wire, but by now that was to be expected.  With each row we perfected our technique and our routine so that by the end of the job we were feeling like we really knew what we were doing.  Why we could even put ourselves out for hire!  Aahh, NO!

Agua, Fresca Y Pura  The last task on our vineyard prep list was to string up the drip line along the trellis wire closest to the ground.  We could have left the line on the ground where it was the first year, but raising it up protects it from mower damage and means less work in the long run.  This task was relatively easy once Jed had walked the vineyard and replaced all the line that was damaged.  A few zip ties every few feet was all that was required – just don’t pull them too tight or the water won’t get through.   It didn’t take long before we were in a competition to see who could get their row done the fastest.  (Yep, we still act like kids,  probably one of the reasons we’re still married.)  OK vines – bring it on!  We are ready for you!

Mars bud break

Mars bud break

Bud Break!  We began peering at the vines every day looking for some sign of life on what appeared to be nothing but dead wood.  Every so often I would finger the end of a vine only to see it break off in my hand.  I felt bad that while my Minnesota relatives were still having snow in April, I was stressing over any day that dipped below 40 degrees.

We peered at the neighboring vineyards, worrying that if they had bud break and we didn’t something had gone wrong.  Is that a swelling bud?  It doesn’t look very alive.  What’s that powdery stuff on it?  Geez. I hardly touched it and it fell off!

In late April we were at an ag extension presentation on disease and pest forecasts when one of the presenters asked if any vineyard owners had seen any “bud break” yet.  We looked around anxiously, reminding ourselves that different varietals have different timings.  No hands went up.  Smiling, we suppressed our whoops of relief and and agreed with everyone that it indeed was a very late spring this year.

Venus bud break

Venus bud break

Two days later, the first few buds popped open.    First to open were our Mars table grapes with hardy looking pink buds .  Venus and Jupiter were just behind,  a riot of pink and green.  The merlot vines were still ominously bare.  Finally, one morning we searched and found enough delicate green buds on the merlot that Jed and I could breathe a collective sigh of relief.  We each knew the other had been silently wondering “What if we did all that work and they didn’t make it through the winter?”  Soon baby leaves began to appear and now the vineyard is tinged with pale green everywhere.

Last weekend , feeling brave, I finally undertook the task of walking every row to count up the number of vines that actually didn’t make it through the winter.  We lost 21 out of 1265.  Not too bad.  We’ll drink to that.  A nice merlot perhaps.

PS.  I admit it.  This is about six different posts that somehow never got finished.  So I rolled them into one.  Not exactly a professional blogger yet, eh gang?

Merlot bud break

Merlot bud break

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Longitudinal Landings

Wild Violets

Wild Violets

Spring can be a mean manipulator of expectations. Cold, bitter winds and freezing temperatures follow days of warm sunshine and balmy breezes.   Still, wildflowers are returning out in the vineyard.  The longer days have meant the return of “our” geese.

Last year we were surprised when two small gaggles of geese descended on the farm in the spring.  There were two geese in one group, and four in the other, and they didn’t mingle.  After a couple of weeks had gone by and the geese hadn’t moved on we began to wonder what was up.  At that time we’d seen lots of wildlife on the property, including wild turkeys, deer, ground hogs, herons, and lots of birds.  But the only Canadian geese we’d seen had been in the sky, or in the fields of nearby farms.

By the third week it was evident that one goose in each group was now sitting on a nest.  The nests were down in the taller grasses close to the creek.  Except for one gander, the other geese all left for parts of the day, but by late afternoon they would all be back by the creek keeping the mom-to-be company.  Then one day we noticed that one of the geese

Some Goose Tracks

Some Goose Tracks

had left her nest, and a couple of days later the other one was gone too.  But we didn’t see any babies.  It took another week or so before we spotted two geese making their way up

from the creek followed by five little puffballs.  The following week we saw the other group on another part of the creek, also with a small group of tiny goslings.  It was great fun to see the babies grow, and about the time that they were beginning to sport their black heads and white chin bands they all left for good.  We never saw them fly, but we did see bigger groups of geese with babies in neighboring fields, so we assume they had all just left for the proverbial greener pastures.

Last fall, as the giant chevrons flew overhead, we jested that we had seen “our” babies on their way south for the winter.  Then one of our neighbors told us that we should expect those geese, and their babies, to return every spring from here on out.  That’s ok, we thought.  We have plenty of room, and besides, geese don’t eat grapes.

Now it’s spring and the geese have returned.  This time our two gaggles number three and eleven.  Oh, and this time we have a vineyard out front.  Of course, the geese can’t get in there because there is electric fencing all around.  Plus there is all that trellising now so there’s no way a bird as big as a goose could land without getting caught in the wires.

More Goose Tracks

More Goose Tracks

Right.  Um, there are geese in the vineyard.  But how did they get in?  They had to be flying in!  Wow, what a feat!

For days we peered out the windows looking for geese, trying to see how they might be accomplishing what we had come to call ‘longitudinal landings’.  These clever geese would have to line up with the aisles and fly between the rows of trellising in order to land.  Once in, they could wander around on the ground at will, but they’d still have to figure out how to take off.  We were ready to admire another miracle of nature.  If we could only catch them coming and going!  Maybe we could even catch them on camera! It was clear they were getting in all the time, not only because we could see geese in the vineyard, but because we could see their tracks everywhere.  But we never saw a single one take off or land in the vineyard.

Last week, as we were headed out for work, we saw two geese between the creek and the driveway.  We slowed the car and watched them cross the road toward the vineyard.  Then we stopped the car and watched as first one and then the other dipped their heads and slipped easily under the lowest wire of the electric fence.

Yep, we pretty much felt like idiots.  Guess there won’t be any miracle longitudinal landings caught on camera at the famous Raccoon Creek Vineyard.  Oh well, at least the geese don’t

Still More Goose Tracks

Still More Goose Tracks

eat grapevines.  Of course, bud break hasn’t happened yet, which means that so far the geese are just munching on the grass in the aisles between the rows of grapes.

So far, none of the geese have made a stop to say goodbye on the way south, so they won’t be eating grapes in the fall.

So far, we are still looking forward to seeing more baby goslings.

So far, they don’t really make tooo much noise with their honking.

So far, we just won’t do the math on how many geese to expect next year….or the year after that….or the year after that.  Oh my.

Geese Heading Toward the Vineyard

Geese Heading Toward the Vineyard

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Lazy Lester

“Want some grapes?”  A big bunch of red table grapes was dangling out the window of an ancient black Ford sedan.

If you have 3 acres of grapes growing in front of your house, one thing you don’t anticipate is someone pulling up out of the blue and offering you grapes.

Jed and I had ventured out to the vineyard on this cold cold March morning for the ostensible purpose of stringing catch wires on to the trellising.  The real purpose was to keep Jed from going stir-crazy waiting for warm weather to arrive.

So there we were, with a heavy load of wire on the spinning Jenny, half way through the first row when we heard a voice call out asking if we wanted some grapes.  We both looked at each other in surprise.   I got to the old Ford first.   Inside were several boxes of grapes surrounded by old magazines, maps, coffee cups, and other assorted unidentifiable items.  A grizzled face looked up with a smile that was missing more than a few teeth.

“My son used to mow this field when it had the big bumps around the outside. You growing grapes here?”

“We hope to.”

“This used to be a farm you know.  I knew the people who lived here.”

“Ah.  We heard there used to be a peach orchard here.”

“There used to be a farm across the road too.”

“So we’d heard.”

“I knew them too.”

By now our visitor had gotten out of his car and was surveying our field.

“So, do you live nearby?”

“Down near the intersection of 45 and (garbled).”

“My name is Pam, and this is my husband, Jed.  And your name is?”

“They call me Lazy Lester,” he said.  Then with a mischievous grin,  “Sometimes they call me Crazy Lester.  Do you want these grapes?”

“Well, thank you!  Did you grow these?”

“No.  What kind of grapes are you growing?”

“Most of the vineyard is merlot, but we have one row of table grapes.  I can’t remember the names of the varieties.  What kind of grapes are these?”

“I dunno.  Here, have a peach.”  Out comes a peach with a small sticker saying it’s from Chile.

“Oh goodness.  We’ll have this fruit for our break this morning.  Are you a fruit wholesaler?”

“No no.”  Out come three small kiwis from the car which Lester hands to me.  “Do you subscribe to the grape magazine?”

“Well, I think there is more than one, but we do get a vineyard management magazine.”

“I’ve got one you can have.”  Lester starts rummaging around in the back seat of his car.  It can’t be found. He turns back to us and asks us what we do.  Jed explains that he has a company that does movie previews on line.

Lester nods and returns to rummaging in his back seat.  Soon he produces an 8 x 10 glossy of the band Kiss and says he read that they wear more make-up than anyone.  “Here, you take it.”  We decline smiling.  Then he asks ” Do you know what the oldest part of a computer is?”  Jed ventures a couple of guesses that Lester declares wrong before he announces “The barcode.  Created right here in New Jersey.”

Jed nodded, “Hey, that’s true! I forgot about that.”

“Who invented the first motorcycle.?”

I guessed Harley Davidson since I knew they had a factory in Pennsylvania, and a big dealership near the Delware Memorial Bridge.

“Mercedes.  What’s the oldest magazine in the U.S.?”

I’m thinking it might be ‘The Ladies Home Journal” but I’m not sure it’s still being published.  Jed guesses ‘Time”.

“Nope.  ‘National Geographic.’  One of their photographers was from south Jersey.  I met him when he gave a talk.  I read a lot.  I like to know things.  How old do you think I am?”

Lester looks like he is in his mid-eighties to me, but I hesitate to say that.  Jed jumps in with “I have no idea.  How old are you?”

“I’m 78,  But I look a lot older because I almost died twice.  Once my house burned.  I had to be in the hospital for three weeks.  They changed the bandages every day.  I have scars on my back now.  It cost over $640,000.”

“Yikes.  That had to be scary.”

“Then I had a heart attack.  But I’m still here.  I look old though.”

“I don’t know.  You look pretty good to me, Lester,” said Jed.

Lester's Fruit

Lester’s Fruit

I have been carrying the grapes, the peach, and three kiwis this whole time, so I turn to put them in the wagon with the spinning Jenny.

“Well, I better get going.  I still have three more stops to make today.”

“Thanks for all the fruit, Lester.  You’ll have to stop back when we have grapes on our vines and we’ll give you some of ours.”

“I don’t much like fruit.”  He got back in his car, and backed it around to head out onto the road.

“It’s way too cold to be doing this.  Let’s finish this row and head back inside,” said Jed.

Later, we snacked on Lester’s grapes as we warmed up on coffee.  Lester had known our field through multiple owners.  We wondered what he thought about a vineyard being there now.  He had never said.

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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