Posts Tagged With: vineyard

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


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?


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.


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.

photo 3

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.

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

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.



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.



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!



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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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.



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.

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.

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20 x 15 x 19 x 70 = 50 tons

In the wild, grapevines can be found sprawling on the ground, climbing over bushes and scrambling up trees and fences.  Good viticulture requires that you tame that vine-y behavior by tying the vines to sturdy trellising so that growth can be managed, and grape clusters kept healthy until they are ripe and ready for harvest.

Geneva Double Curtain

Geneva Double Curtain

There are lots of different kinds of trellising systems for grapevines: the lyre, the Geneva Double Curtain, the Keuka high renewal, the Scott Henry vertical canopy, the Kniffen system, and the Hudson River Umbrella are a few of the more exotically named ones. I have been studying the options for trellising for a couple of years and had opportunities to look at different systems here in New Jersey.  I knew that we needed something that was compatible with the growing habits of merlot vines, wasn’t too difficult or complicated to work with,  and was affordable for a small grower.

Billateral cordon trained system

Billateral cordon trained system

I really liked one particular system used at several of the vineyards in south Jersey.  After Jed and I had a chance to work with it during our apprenticeship last summer we decided we would go with a bilateral cordon-trained system.  This is a relatively simple set up in which sets of wires are strung between two strong end posts and the vines are trained along the bottom ‘cordon’ wire.  The other wires are moved up during the course of the growing season to keep the shoots that climb from the cordon vine tucked up neatly.

So in August Jed ordered all the supplies and we began the task of building out our trellising.  Step one was to install the 40 big wooden end posts along with the earth anchors that keep them upright.  We outfitted the tractor with a smaller augur.  Jed would mark the spot, I’d drop the augur in, and voila in a few seconds we’d have our hole.  Jed would heft the post into the hole and we’d tamp it into place.   Repeat 39 times.

Jed probing a post hole

Jed probing a post hole

Of course, like all things to do with the rocky soil in our vineyard, it frequently never went that smoothly.  Often Jed was down on his stomach reaching into the hole to see what was obstructing progress – usually a big rock.  But eventually we got them all in along with the earth anchors.

The next step was to pound in the 9 ft metal stakes along which the wires run.  There were 15 stakes per row; times 20 rows = 300 stakes.  Big operations use an engine to pound the stakes in.  We didn’t.  We used a time-tested tool consisting of two long

The stake pounder tool

The stake pounder tool

metal handles attached to a heavy metal tube that fits over the top of the pole.  You slam the tube down over the top of the stake driving it into the ground.  You do that repeatedly until the stake is about 3 feet into the ground. By ‘you’ of course I mean Jed.  This tool weighs about 70 pounds, so though I could lift it, I couldn’t heft it high enough to really slam it down over the stake with any meaningful force.  So all 300 stakes were left to Jed.

After pounding 15 stakes on the first row, he silently made his way to the hot tub where he stayed, moaning for a good chunk of the evening.  With 285 still to go I suggested that it was a good time to take the ‘before’ pix of his biceps, but he dismissed the idea suggesting that my time would be put to better use by bringing him another beer.

The next weekend two neighbor boys, Mike and TJ, stopped by to see if we needed any mowing or other work done.  Jed told them that if they could lift the pounding tool over their heads they could help with pounding stakes.  TJ is almost as tall as Jed and was able to do it so he helped for that afternoon.  His brother Mike later confirmed that TJ’s muscles were really sore the whole week.

Jed takes a break

Jed takes a break

Thus, Jed did most of the 300 stake pounding by himself.  He would tackle one row per day, a couple of days a week.  By the end of the project he could do two rows in a day.  The night he finished, we celebrated with beer and a soak in the tub.  He noted that it took an average of 19 lifts to pound each post in.  So, with 20 rows times 15 stakes per row x 19 lifts per stake x 70 pounds per lift he calculated that he had lifted the equivalent of 50 tons over the course of past month.

He still wouldn’t let me take pictures of his biceps.  So I brought him another beer.

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Better Than Feet

Tommy’s vineyard

When I started to write this it was early October.  Then the election got in the way, and now it is early November.  So anyway…….let’s start catching up.

Neighboring vineyards have been harvesting grapes for about a month.  Some varietals have yet to be picked, and vineyard owners alternate between watching the weather forecast and monitoring the BRIX, or sugar content of grapes still on the vine.  One Saturday a few weeks back a car came down our road and a guy named Tommy hopped out and asked how we were doing with our vineyard.  He owns about an acre of vines and makes wine just for family and friends.

After talking about our trials and tribulations for a while he asked if we had ever seen a crush.  We said that we didn’t really plan to make wine, just grow grapes.  Still, it would be interesting to see what happens to the grapes. He said he would be harvesting some of his grapes pretty soon and would let us know when the next crush was happening.  We said “Great!”.

The very next day we got a call from Tommy who said he had decided to harvest a few rows and invited us to come see the crush.  Becca was on a short break from school, so she, Jed, and I all jumped into the truck and headed over to Tommy’s place.  Of course, if we had been thinking we would have realized that before you can crush the grapes you have to harvest them, so we had really been invited to help with a harvest.  That was actually just fine with us since harvesting the two lone bunches from our vineyard this year probably doesn’t count as experiencing a true harvest.

Becca, Pam, and Jed’s first grape harvest

Two of Tom’s buddies were already out in the vineyard when we got there, so we headed out to lend a hand.  As we got closer we could hear a fair amount of good natured hazing going on over who was moving along fast enough,  or filling their buckets full enough.  Much of the hazing was being fueled by bottles of beer.  Now it might seem odd to be drinking beer in the middle of a vineyard, but since picking grapes falls into the category of summertime manual labor it makes perfect sense.  We were quickly offered ‘brewski’, given a quick tour, and shown the ropes.

Giant vineyards pick their grapes using $100,000 over-the-row grape harvesters from New Holland or AGH.   Smaller vineyards hire pools of manual laborers to go down each row with special harvesting knives.  Amateur operations invite their friends over and send them with garden clippers.  Then there was the equipment at Tom’s……one set of very rusty clippers, one newer set of pretty good clippers, and a pair of fabric scissors with a wicked looking 12-inch blade.  Since there weren’t enough cutting implements to go around, our arrival quickly became an excuse for a break for some of the ‘crew’.  Harvesting grapes isn’t hard work if you’re only doing it for a couple of hours, but if you are bending over or reaching around for hours or days on end, it would clearly fall into the category of back-breaking work.  Inviting your friends over and offering them beer is a smart move in every way.

An Afternoon’s Harvest

Soon there was an assortment of buckets and baskets down each row, all brimming over with grapes.  We were amazed at how many bunches were produced from such a small area.  Tommy appeared with a golf cart and began loading up the back with the buckets of grapes, running them to the small barn that is his winery.

Tommy and his crusher de-stemmer

Now the fun began.  Here is the moment when those of us of a certain age think instantly of Lucy and Ethel, their skirts hiked up around their knees, stomping around in big wooden vats of grapes, getting ever more silly, their white peasant blouses covered with grape juice.  At Tommy’s operation, the wooden vats have been replaced with big vinyl containers, and the foot-stomping has been replaced by a nifty little machine called a crusher de-stemmer.  It consists of two big cylinders that turn, sucking the bunches of grapes down into the interior where the stems are blown out in one direction and the grapes fall into a bucket in the other.  The stems turn into compost, while the grape juice and skins sit in the vinyl vat where yeast and sugars and other assorted mysteries of chemistry take over until eventually you have wine.  Tommy let us taste some of his previous efforts which was just as fun as watching what had lead to that point.

Time for some wine

Becca had been snapping photos of the whole operation, which in the sepia versions made us all feel very connected to an older time and place in which this afternoon would have seemed very familiar to previous generations.  Except perhaps for the tattoos.

When we returned at dinner time to our place and drove past our barn, big enough certainly for a winery.  Both Jed and I looked at each other, and neither said a word.

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An Ounce An Acre

Jed the Smurf Killer

The first year that you own a vineyard you don’t expect to harvest any grapes.  In fact it takes about four years for a vineyard to grow to maturity and produce enough grapes for a commercial harvest.  As a longtime backyard gardener, I’ve had to learn a bit of patience waiting for flowers or vegetables to bloom or ripen over a summer, but my patience has never had to stretch out for four long years.

Nevertheless our grand grape adventure has been pretty fun this first year and, despite all the battles with bugs and deer, we have been rewarded with seeing almost all of our 1265 vines grow up.  Only 3 have actually died, and another 20-30 are thriving less than we would like, probably because the drainage is not good enough in those spots.

Deb Yanking Grow Tubes

The growing season is now nearly over for the vines, and the nights are getting cooler.  So that meant it was time to pull the grow tubes off the vines so the canes can harden off before the weather turns freezing.  We started that task about two weeks ago with Jed yanking off the tubes, or slicing open the plastic if the vine was really big.  I followed behind tying up the vines to their bamboo stakes.  The task is pretty pleasant, though it still takes over a couple of hours to get through one row.

Karen Tying Up Vines

Last week our planting buddies Karen and Deb came over for the day to help out.  It was a beautiful day to be outside enjoying the end of summer. All the tubes were gone by day’s end, and all the vines were tied to stakes.

Seeing all the green vines without a sea of smurf blue made it look like a real vineyard.  It was a really nice reward for a summer of hard work, and of patience.

But  of course, as with all things relating to this adventure there was one small surprise.  Jed had just pulled a grow tube off one of the vines when I heard him yell.  So of course I rushed over to see what was wrong, and there on the vine, tucked all the way at the bottom was a tiny cluster of grapes.  Jed and I excitedly each pulled off a grape and popped it in our mouths.  Expectation mixed with apprehension for a moment as pits mixed with skin mixed with juice.  We both smiled – the grapes were delicious.

Grapes On A Vine!

A few rows later we discovered another, slightly larger cluster, which we carefully transported to the fridge.  Karen and Deb each got to taste one when they came to help out.  Now professional growers carefully pull off all the blossoms from new vines in the first couple of years.  You don’t really want grapes, you want good roots the first year and good cordon vines the second.  But oh it was nice to actually see and taste a grape from our very own vineyard in the very first year!

Fortunately we didn’t find any more clusters so we didn’t have to feel like the amateurs that we still are.  Jed, of course, had to do a calculation about the size of our harvest.  We have about three acres under vines, and our two little bunches weighed just 3 ounces.  So our first harvest yielded an ounce an acre.  Let’s see, that would be a return on investment of about how much per acre? Um, let’s leave that for a future year.  Suddenly I find I can be very patient.

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Die Bambi Die!

It’s not like we didn’t know there were deer in the area.  On our very first visit to the property we spied a young deer ambling through the brush down by the creek.  Jed and I were both charmed.  After we bought the property  we continued to to be delighted whenever we spotted deer or even just deer tracks.  We should have thought more carefully about the implications of seeing tracks in the snow that went from one side of our ‘soon-to-be-a- vineyard’ to the other.  But we didn’t want to think about the day when seeing a deer was something to get excited about – but in a bad way.

Yep, that day has come.

Our Bambi is likely a young buck traveling on his own;  ma has a couple of new fawns and can’t be bothered with him anymore.   Our new grapevines are a lovely salad bar, one that he has snacked on every few days.  As vines that had escaped his nightly munching grew taller, the difference between chewed vines and unchewed vines became more apparent.   As with the Japanese beetles, our initial tepid response turned quickly into Bambi wars.  The skirmish has gone something like this.

Deer tape, electric fence, and the bar of Irish Spring.

  1. Put up strip of bad smelling deer tape along the creek side of the vineyard. (Rotten eggs and mint combo.)
  2. Extend the deer tape to the whole perimeter of the vineyard.
  3. Add a second band of deer tape.
  4. Put up wire for electrical fence. (Thanks Karen and Mark for helping out with this project!)
  5. Stick peanut butter inside tin foil strips here and there to make sure Bambi got his nose zapped.
  6. Put up a flood light to scare Bambi up in the middle of the night.
  7. Visit the hair salon for hair clippings which were sprinkled at the base of the fence. (Sure – take all the hair you want!)
  8. Stick bars of Irish Spring soap into suet holders and put around the perimeter.  (Thanks to Jackie Alcorn for that suggestion.)
  9. Add another strip of electrical wire and another strip of smelly deer tape.
  10. Park the tractor and/or the truck between the vineyard and the creek every night.

Pam and the 6 foot vine.

We think we might be winning the Bambi war. At any rate, we haven’t had any vines munched on for over a month, and we haven’t seen any tracks inside the vineyard.  The deer-bit vines are recovering, and though they aren’t as far along as some of the other vines, which are now over 7 feet long in some cases, at least they are healthy and flowing over the top of the grow tubes.  Jed has declared us the MDL – Merlot Defense League.

We didn’t even have to kill Bambi, and we can still enjoy the young fawns that come into the back meadow to graze shyly.

Did I mention that we have wild turkeys in our woods, and that they too, like grapes?

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