Farming the Vineyard

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Well, more like their scent. And thankfully not everywhere I look/smell around because that would just be wrong. Lilacs in February? I found this little lovely in in Pier Park, right next to where we live, one of two small bushes nestled under the towering firs that have decided: it’s time. You can’t blame them — it’s been unseasonably warm. In reality, though, they are more an early May/Mother’s Day bloom out this way, and if all the bushes happened to be flowering, that would be trouble: too warm.

We want, no, make that NEED, our vineyard to slumber for another few months, so that a late season frost doesn’t cause harm if it awakens too early. Although what can you do? Even though our land is 90 miles away in a cooler, drier climate, 90 miles really isn’t that far; it’s almost 60 degrees F here in Portland today, and in the low 50s right now in The Dalles. As long as the nights stay cool, though, we’re good, and Weather Underground is showing some rather chilly nights during this period of warmth. If we were making maple syrup (which we can’t out here since sugar maples are not to be found — dang it!) we’d love this weather. But it puts me a little on edge vineyard-wise. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, how something so lovely and scented as a lilac can make one worry?

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nov2

Oops! Didn’t realize it has been so long since I last posted. I pretty much took some time off to do Mama things (cards, cookies, and cadeaux) and actually got them all done for once, with very minimal duress–a very interesting result from stepping a moment (or in this case, a month) away from the wine biz/start-up/swimming-against-the-current fray. Hmmm.

Anyway, while 2011 is still only yesterday, I’d like to leave you all with a month-by-month visual of the sights and colors of the The Grande Dalles and our Uncultivated Life (note the yellow boat serving as wade pool in front of our Campeau) out in the wilds of the wine world.

    

January: We released our wines at the rustically swank James John Cafe in North Portland. Chef Owners Suzanne Bozarth and Aaron Solley would accompany us to New York in March, to the James Beard House.

February: It’s a quiet time out on the hill, but still much for little vineyard gnomes to discover.

March: “Columbia Valley Terroir” unveils itself at the James Beard House in NYC: featuring our wines and sumptuous regional Northwest Solley and Bozart fare.

  

April: A slow start, but the land starts to warm and the greening of the hill begins.

May: Guerilla roadside Wine Stand at the Old Garage during Memorial Day Weekend in the Hood (Hood River). Best line of the weekend asked by someone who drove in, got out, and then quickly left after asking: “Is this legal?”

  

June: Wine in hand, an evening walk out on the land. Sam! Get out of Dave’s wheat!

July: Fire season. Thankfully this was not on our property, but still causing much damage to someone else’s across the way. Reminded us of the 2009 range fire that headed straight toward us, stopping three rows in our vineyard. As the story goes, the Old Coot was the only person who went in our vineyard to fight it. Still need to thank him.

  

August: Wasco County Fair! Aptly themed, “Barn in the USA.” For the second year we sponsored a Demolition Derby car. Yeah! Hot day out there in South County in that fairground valley. Whew!

September: Still warm out on the land. In this picture, because we didn’t quite make it to our Deschutes River swim spot, the little boat had to do.

  

October: Harvest. We made it. And we made it into Google Earth’s One World Many Stories campaign. The only wine story IN THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY to do so.

November: A seasonal quiet begins its descent, along with some early snow.

December: While the last hues of Fall in the Columbia Gorge peep through the mist, our wines are beginning to shine in New York City, and at some Michelin-starred restaurants to boot! Where exactly, you ask? Annisa on Barrow Street. Blue Hill NYC on Washington Place. Dovetail on West 77th Street. Henry’s on Broadway. Penn Wine and Spirits at Penn Station. First & Vine on First Ave. Yippy skippy!

As thankful as I am for our accomplishments in 2011, there are still many miles to go before we can sleep. Many miles. So, while I look forward to 2012 and all the exciting things we have planned, I wish you all a prosperous and healthy New Year and from time-t0-time, to step off the beaten path, for it is what often makes all the difference.

~ stephanie

 

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My jaw dropped and eyes teared when I saw the devastation of that little cold snap we had last week. “Holy crapola” was all I could say, again and again, as we drove into the vineyard, and saw all those fried sangiovese leaves along the farm road.

Holy crapola. The dark clusters, only last week comfortably housed under a fall canopy, looked so desperate now as they clung to the plant, cringing below the now crispy leaves. “Get us out of here!” they seemed to be calling from behind the net. “Help!”

Help us!

Granted, this cold snap did not kill anything other than the leaves, and not even all the leaves across the board; the vineyard’s hillside got it in different places. Definitely at the bottom where it’s the coldest, and hit and miss across the midsection and top. Click on this picture to enlarge and you can see the line of “normal” looking yellowed autumn plants, and the dark, fried plants at the bottom.

Our Vineyard Gnome Surveys

What did this occurrence mean for us? It meant we had to make decisions that would otherwise not have had to be made if it were not to have happened. Like speeding up harvest, for example. We were out picking the cabernet sauvignon last weekend, as planned, which also fell prey to the cold, but it was the sangio we were still waiting for. Turns out another cold snap is moving in (and why shouldn’t it? It is the first of November, after all — like everyone else, we are a good three weeks behind harvest) and to mitigate the risk of sangio ice-wine, where the berries actually freeze on the vine, we picked it today. So it’s pretty much a done deal out there.

What a year. There are worse things, like the bank telling us our funding stops here, which they did. Yesterday. While ketchup may do just fine with a fried vineyard, I’d prefer a stiff drink for that news. And a good, warm fire for us to gather around, while we enjoy this evening’s last bit of sunshine in Portland for a while. We’ll figure it out, with ketchup or not.

 

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Let’s just say, last night’s frost was not little. Scott spent the night at the camper, up checking temperatures throughout the late night and early morning, with a helicopter on stand-by if the freeze would be that severe. It was not good–not the 15 degree junk our little vineyard endured the first year we planted it, more at the 25-27 degree mark –but what was not better was that by all indications, there was no warmer air to push into the vineyard, the temps at the top of the hill below freezing, too. And pushing freezing air around was not the solution we were after. So the helicopter was called off, and the damage done.

How much? We don’t know. The question now is, is the vine still working if all leaves were not destroyed? We were planning on harvesting the cabernet sauvignon this weekend anyway — how much might the fruit degrade if the plant is no longer active? And what does it mean for the sangiovese, all those vines so laden with lovely fruit, but still a ways off from being what we need? Scott’s trying to figure all this out, on his way to his day-job that keeps the bills paid and at least THAT worry taken care of.

Scott just said, rather simply,”It’s a fecked* up year that continues to be fecked up, to the end.” I tried reminding him that the riesling and tempranillo we just brought in last weekend turned out just fine, that is, the sugars and acids were in balance and so we can breathe a little there. But then he reminded ME that we were only looking at 3.5 tons of fruit there, mostly because of the season’s earlier cold temps, and we still have 8-10 tons hanging. What could I say to that?

So we’ll see. Fingers crossed, aGAIN.

*I changed this to the more polite term, for us American English speakers. Irish readers might still feel the full pain.

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Such a late harvest has us, like many, walking the line: on the one side we’re hoping this new abundance of mid-October’s above average temperatures will give us just what we need; on the other side, it won’t. I have no idea how many times Scott may check the weather during the day, my guess is many. I don’t check, because sometimes, I can’t handle what I’m going to hear.

Like last night, before going to bed, we listened to old Portland weatherman Matt Zafino give us his interpretation of the weather. Chance of frost in The Dalles. Sh*t. “If it’s going to be that cold in town,” Scott said, “It’s going to be colder out on our hill.” Well, that was enough to worry me, and as much as I do know worry is a waste of time and energy, it made for some hard sleeping. Scott didn’t seem so worried, his snores moving me from bed to couch so I could toss and turn out there.

We’re supposed to start harvest this weekend. Checking Weather Underground this AM, it doesn’t appear we got the cold Matt Zafino told us about, but I’m sure Scott’ll check some of the surrounding orchard stations to verify. We’ve yet to have a crop where we look at each other and say, “What are we going to do with this?” Thankfully we’ve walked the line with success for all our vintages to date. The specificity of grape character intact, and sugars and acids in balance, we have what the year gave us, and we’ve been extremely pleased with the results. Sanity-wise, that’s a whole different story.

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Yesterday I held a flicker in my hand, feeling its chest heave and its little heart beat, right there on my skin. Speaking to it only increased its agitation, so I stopped, and waited for Scott to return with Sam–who was having a tearful day, scared by all the grasshoppers and wanting to go home as soon as we had arrived–and something to help extricate the poor bird from the netting it was caught in.

When I saw Scott kneeling on the hillside, at the end of a net-ensconsed row, I figured he was working on a drip tube, a leak or something. Then I saw it was something under the net, and he called me to come down, asking, “Do you have any cutting thing in your bag? A knife or something?”  I didn’t.  “What’s caught?” I was fearful of hearing it was a hawk, or worse, our resident kestrel. “It’s one of those long-beaked birds you like.” “A flicker?” “Yeah, a flicker.” Just as bad, I thought. A flicker.

Scared beyond all get out of what I might see when I got there, there it soon was, wild-eyed in Scott’s grip, as he tried unsuccessfully to release it. He showed me where the one wing had netting stuck tight to it, and our plan was to cut it out.

I’m alone on that steep hillside with the bird now, the sun peeking past the billowy white clouds, the air warm and gently scented with sagebrush and dried grasses, the start of Fall. The ground feels soft under my knees as I try  to gently, yet firmly, hold this fearful feathered creature. I use my fingers and create a stronger vise-like position near its neck area, so the bird’s head becomes a cork and the rest of the body can’t get through, and am more careful with the wings and body, not knowing what damage might be there–its right wing greatly entangled in the green webbing. I look into its dark red eyes and hope and hope and hope that all will be well.

Not knowing how long it has been tangled, it is still feisty, and strangely calm. While I wait for Scott, I undo its big, leathery clawed left foot. Mistake! For as soon as I get that free, the wiggle becomes more determined. And it is soon caught up again. I decide to just wait.

I hear voices, and look up the hill. Soon they appear at the top, and down the hillside Scott comes, carrying Sam so the grasshoppers don’t get him, I suppose. They get to us, and Scott tells me, the only thing he found to cut with was clippers, no knife. We’ll make it work. “Hi little birdie.” Sam, now three, speaks to the flicker. We tell him matter of factly how this little guy got caught in the netting, and now we’re doing our best to get him out.

I have to hold the bird now in one hand, so Scott can get to that leg that had become re-entangled. Done. Now all that’s left is the right wing, and now with the bird almost out, the netting comes easily away. The flicker is free.

Please excuse me while tears come to my eyes now as I write; in the moment there was no time to be emotional, it was simply holding that bird and wondering what would it be able to do once it was released?

I jump up because the flicker obviously senses its recent detanglement, its fight now stronger than ever to leave my hands. “Don’t toss it,” Scott tells me, as he watches me lift the bird while I steady myself on the hill. “I’m not,” I tell him. “I’m taking it away from the netting.”

I walk the few steps across that 30+ grade, to what we call the north side, and set the bird down. And just as soon as my hands move away, it departs. Shaky, but flying, wings broad and nothing visibly damaged, it jumps right into the air, and disappears over the contour of our hill. Why it decides to turn back toward the vineyard, we will never know. “Oh, please, please, please, do not land or drop down there,” I think. I share my concern with Scott, who simply says, “We did what we could to help it, there’s nothing more we can do.”

As we walk back up the hill, I realize there is something more I can do: somewhere, somehow, get a tougher skin.

 

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There’s silence over the vineyard. Last weekend this wasn’t so. Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds had gathered, maybe a good 100 or so, in anticipation of our changing grapes, chippering and chirping in excitement of their imminent gorging of the grapes–or so they thought. They’d rise up as Jack ran the rows, looking like little winged muffins being tossed into the sky, so sudden was their lift. Then those plump little beasties would lazily land only a few rows away, where they remained until Jack or one of us sent them springing upward again. But now, nothing.

We started at the west end, where the sangiovese and tempranillo were undergoing veraison. A few days later, the entire vineyard was under netting.

The vineyard is now ensconced in bird netting, and a new green hue covers the land.

We saw one of our kestrel friends, a male, out watching the activity (literally) unfold. I ducked behind a vine, in hopes I’d see him in action, for that was why we even put in those kestrel houses, so these little falcons would swoop and maybe even swallow down some song birds, as message to others to “Stay out.” Well, he wasn’t that interested, even when it looked like those birds landed right under his roost. Geez!

Hey Guy! Get to Work!

 

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This year marks our fifth year anniversary since planting the vineyard. If you have been reading our Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker series on The Daily Meal, you will have come across this — I posted one year each day last week. If you have not, it’s all right here for your reading enjoyment. Hold on, here we go.

2011 marks the fifth anniversary of our little vineyard on the frontier. It’s been five l-o-n-g years since we took the plunge and transformed a steep and distinct hillside out in the middle of wild, windy Oregon wheat country into a vineyard going on its 4th vintage, to make wine like no other from only the grapes we grow. Can that be right? We planted in 2006; at the end of our third growing year in 2008 we had our first harvest; then 2009, 2010, and holding our breath for 2011, which is our 6th growing year. Yes. This will be, if all goes well, our 4th harvest.

We thought you might enjoy a tiny peek in on those five years, for what happened along the way—to us and to our land—is as much a part of the wine as the grapes we make it from.

2006 : The Planting, and the Big Freeze

After months of preparation that began pretty much the day after we stepped off the plane in October, 2005, from Scott’s 2-year work assignment in Ireland, we planted The Grande Dalles vineyard. We had already found water and dug the well in 2005, so that was off our to-do list. But early 2006 was busy, busy, busy, as we laid out the vineyard, walking that hillside and holding up markers, person unseen because the terrain was so curved in areas.

Scott put in weather stations, a deer fence went in, we had a surveyor out to help us set rows evenly, 3-phase electricity was brought in from miles away, and Scott placed numerous orders for the supplies we would need for the vineyard, the grapes not the least of it. The bigger things we collected were drip line, wire, end posts, and center posts, and between Scott’s squabbling with our vineyard manager over inches of ground (Scott’s a farmer at heart, and does not like to waste a bit of land) we decided on the vineyard’s boundaries. In April 2006 the end posts were set, Scott holding every single one of them as they were tamped 5 feet into the earth on a terribly cold and blustery day.

If you want to get a decent first growing year, you have to plant as early as you can, and every day you lose is every day less for the plants. The big pressure for us was getting water to the top of our hill before the plants arrived. We sort-of made that deadline, and the plants arrived. But to make absolute sure water could successfully reach our hilltop again and again meant we had to stage all 17,000 starts for a week or so, securing them behind chicken wire so local deer couldn’t feast. As soon as we knew we could depend on bringing water up a good 400 feet from the well down in the valley below, we were ready to plant, and plant we did, in early June, 2006.

It was a joyous time, for the most part, as we placed all our hopes and dreams into that hillside. But Stephanie was beginning her slip away, as relationships and characters, and all the weeding we did by hand, began to take their toll. And by December, all our jubilation was soon dashed when we got the news that our vineyard was most likely dead from that unexpected freeze in October. To add to that, our then vineyard manager, our one and only with no ulterior motives who believed in us, had emergency open-heart surgery. It was around Christmas, and we thought we had lost both of them, Leroy, and the vineyard. What would 2007 hold? Read the rest of this entry »

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Our latest installment on The Daily Meal. We (mainly me, Stephanie) write a bi-monthly piece called “Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker.” What we(well, I)’ve written to date are HERE.

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We’ve only been “in business” for just under a year, and are working on finding like-minded wine adventurers who appreciate wine like ours, as well as our endeavor. It’s a crowded, crazy market these days, as you all know, but we’re slowly reaching some of you individuals who dare to step off the well-worn route, or should I say, you’re discovering us, as true adventurers are apt to do.

Carl found us through Scott’s parents, out in Missouri. He was so interested in The Grande Dalles that he purchased six bottles of our inaugural wines: two ’09 Leroy’s Finest, our bone-dry Riesling; two ’08 Gampo, our sangiovese blend; and two ’08 Home Place, our tempranillo blend, just like that. Since his order, we’ve exchanged a few chit-chat messages, so imagine our surprise, when he told us he’d be out in the Pacific Northwest (a rare visit, he said) and wanted to meet! Our first fan from afar wanting to come and learn more! We were thrilled.

So off Sam and I went — Scott had to stay in Portland, holding down his day job that keeps this dream alive — to meet Carl.

Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s starting again. Scott. Gone. Weekends. Only one day at-a-time for now. Longer visits on the way. It happens every year. The vineyard calls. And if we can keep her happy, she, we hope, will keep us all smiling, if you know what I mean.

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