Journey: Thoughts and Reflections along the path.
Drought is a very serious thing, and this past several months we have experienced the highest level of drought, level "D4" or "Exceptional" shown in the Dark Red, which up to last week covered 22% of the state. There are places in the Central Valley and near Paso Robles where wells are going dry, the earth is subsiding and in general it was looking like a dust bowl was coming. While we had not seen that level of problem yet in the Southern Santa Clara County, to the east of the notch in the coast which is Monterey Bay, we were starting to plan for it.
Agriculture under that dark red blotch is a multi-billion dollar industry, and employs thousands who feed a good part of the United States and supply nuts, fruits and vegetables to the rest of the world. The state of California and Federal agencies had constructed reservoirs and aqueducts over the last 100 yrs to alleviate the effects of periodic droughts, and up until 5 yrs ago it was pretty effective. At that time there was a change in policy that diverted the much of the stored water to support the "delta smelt" a small fish living in the Sacramento River Delta.
Without rains and good snowpack up in the Sierra it was looking like a very brutal year for agriculture, the people who work in it, and the consumers of local foods. Sending relief money to the farmers and workers does not replace their land, work and pride, though it may let them buy food from others, when they "fed a nation" in the past.
John Mellencamp's song "Rain on the Scarecrow" is probably the most poignant descriptor I can point to that describes my feelings about land. My family has had agriculture in our hertiage, since my great^8 (great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great) grandfather John Haynie apparently got off the "Margett and John in Northumberland Virginia, CA 1621 and was listed as a "planter". I've developed a link to the soil that was seemingly latent, an urge to get up at early hours and go out and husband the soil, taking pride in growing a crop, working with and in spite of nature to bring in a harvest.
While jane and I are not solely dependent on farming for our living, we do depend on the wine grapes we grow to make Lightheart Cellars wines and we've both worked many hours to establish our estate vineyard, and recondition the vineyards we manage, bringing their yields and quality up over time.
So its with elation that we celebrate the recent rains that starting this week on Wednesday have brought over 3 inches to us. The plot from the Santa Clara Valley Water District's Church Street Station shows the results of this past storm, bringing 1/3 of our normal rainfall in 3 days. The forecast is optimistic for the next day at least to continue to get more rains.
With 6 inches, we can make it through the season, we may have to use caution and conserve more than usual, but we'll have a crop. If we get another 3-10 inches we'll have abundance.
Gene Kelly ain't got nothin on us, we'll be out there dancing in the rain.
We're out in the vineyards working hard these weeks, racing to get ahead of budbreak.
We started with pre-pruning using a hedge trimmer so the pruning crew can be efficient and fast. Alex and Chris have done 16 acres so far. We also have been spraying a mix of Glyphosate (round up) and pre-emergent herbicide under the wire and along the fence lines to keep the weeds down, now that we have had a bit of rain to germinate them. Having the 25 gal sprayer in the bed of the RTV or in the tractor bucket for the narrow vineyards means we get to drive with one hand and use the other to hold the spray gun, which beats walking a mile per acre with a back pack sprayer.
We started pruning in Soli Deo Gloria last weekend doing the Petite Sirah on the hillside, as there's little frost risk, this weekend we moved to the 5 acres of the Chirala Vineyard, and brought in our harvest crew to prune. We traditionally pay the guys cash and provide morning snack and lunch, as we work pretty hard and it's more efficient to put out food than have the guys have to pack a lunch. When you are working on your feet for 8 hrs a bit of sugar is just more fuel.
Yesterday was clif bars and McDonalds, today we had Girl Scout Cookies and Jack in the Box. On the way to pick up Gator Ade I was mugged by a troop of Brownies outside Safeway. They seemed surprised that someone would buy a box of each type, but then most of their customer don't have 8 hungry guys working. While the cookies are more expensive than alternatives, their mothers are prospective customers, and took a card, We'll hopefully get the investment back soon.
In addition to working in the fields, we have poured at several venues; Viva Los Gatos, Drybar Santana Row, the Campbell wine walk and SF Chronicle grand tasting. Our wines are well received and we hope to see people coming to the winery on future open weekends.
We have even been buffing up our social media presence, including joining Instagram and claiming our location under Foursquare. We're trying to keep our focus on making grapes and wines, with enough effort to communicate so that people are interested and come try them.
Its been a while, since the last blog entry, we've taken a wee bit of a respite from farming too as is typical this time of year, and focused on family and winemaking. Our 2013 harvest was big, beautiful and we've barreled it down to age. Winemaking has focused on malolactic fermentation before the turn of the year, while bottling of more meads, a reserve barrel of our Merlot Zinfandel "Eroika", and Rosè of Zinfandel "Serendipity" rounded out January. We hope to release the Serendipity in February as it comes out of bottle shock.
We finished up after harvest with vineyard ripping, tilling and seeding a cover crop and then have been doing weed management under the wire while the vines are dormant. Our field crew is out doing pre-pruning, the last weeks and the much needed rain has delayed the start of final pruning, to avoid Eutypa problems. We try to prune starting in February on the hillside at Soli Deo Gloria in West Gilroy and then work through the Chirala & Behlmer Vineyards and finish up on the flat at Coop, Estate and Athena's Vineyard to minimize frost risks. We hope to have budbreak and shoot growth after the last hard frost of the season. With this years drought, its especially concerning as we want to get the vines growing while we have cooler weather and need to balance risks.
Today's rain, a steady soaking at 0.07 in/hr on the estate weather station will go a long way to moving the cover crop along and keeping the vines healthy. We will need to irrigate earlier if we don't get our normal 10 inches of rain by April 1st, and there is concern that the reservoirs are low and that wells may go dry. Each vineyard has a well to support it, but they all pull from the local acquifer, and if it runs too low we will have to adjust.
On a cheerier note, we were gratified to win a silver medal for our "Lioness" blend at the SF Chronicle Competition, and to have our 2012 Cabernets from both Soli Deo Gloria and Athena's vineyards score high marks at the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley panel blind tasting. The new wines are well received by those who taste them and we're happy to bring them out. At the Barrel tasting yesterday we had several cases of futures sold, and over a hundred people come through the winery.
This weekend was tranquil at Lightheart Cellars, we were closed and were able to spend time with our family and enjoy a traditional feast. Hoopefully you wre able to spend time with those you love as well. Tranquil is of course a relative term when you have a winery, and projects to accomplish.
We sourced an additional tank and 20 barrels we needed to age the additional 5000l of wine we finished up with, including Joan driving the flatbed up to Sonoma to fetch the barrels. Preparing the barrels is a sequence of soaking with an oxidizing cleaner, then rinsing and soaking with Suflites and Citric Acid to prepare them for use. As is typical there's one or two that leak and need to be tightened up with the hoop driver. We will transfer the wine over the next weeks and store it away for the winter.
Additional projects include painting the forklift and building a re-usuable windscreen for the tasting room, with a startup of farming as well. With the first rains its time to get the vineyards ripped, tilled and seeded with cover crops.
Our fourth commercial crush, and its been a big stretch. Last year we harvested and processed about 20 tons of fruit from 6 vineyards, selling a little here and there to home winemakers and trading for some cabernet. This year we harvested 64 tons and processed over 40 from 8, selling to home winemakers and several commercial wineries, all with the same basic crush equipment our 4 year old hobby model destemmer, a few pumps and the two Speidel 180l bladder presses.
We harvested Alicante, Barbera, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Colombard, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Merlot (3 vineyards), Mourvedre, Petite Sirah (2 Vineyards), Rousanne, Syrah (3 vineyards), Tempranillo and bought Pinot (2 clones) and Chardonnay from Carneros.
Our only capital addition this year was a variable speed pump, easing barrel filling as it has a remote control that lets a person stand at the barrel and manage the pump, freeing up a body to do something else other than man the switch.
We started harvest on Sept 6 on the Athena's Vineyard Merlot and picked our last fruit Petite Sirah from the Chirala Vineyard on the morning of October 6th. Overall is about 3 weeks earlier than last year due to warmer weather during the spring and summer. At times we had three crews working in separate vineyards, and had to rent a flatbed truck and extra RTV to keep up.
Seeing a 16 man professional labor crew from Quality farm labor picking 8 tons in 4 hours was a bit daunting, they literally were picking faster than we could load the 1000 lb bins onto the flat bed for a while.
It was all assisted and made possible by good help; our employees who worked to support the pick crews, our intern Filipe who's looking at post high tech business choices, and of course the pickers. A hearty thanks to all, looking back it seems a blur, moving equipment, bins and people around the south county in the dark to setup for picks and driving fruit to Bonny Doon and Watsonville.
We are finishing up pressing over the next weeks, with our wines having had a prolonged maceration & soak and slower fermentation by intention. This year Jane is trying to limit the maximum temperatures to preserve more of the aromatics, so the reduced amount of yeast takes longer to convert the sugars to alcohol as it has to reproduce more generations, and the heat released is spread out over a longer time.
We've had to restack our barrels to fit all of the new wines, going to a pyramid or hexagonal stacking, where the barrels are sitting in alternating positions as shown on the left. We need the extra space as we crushed about 80 barrels worth this year and have a 600 sq ft space to fit it all. Sort of like playing Tetris with 500lb blocks at racking time. had to restack our barrels to fit all of the new wines, going to a pyramid or hexagonal stacking, where the barrels are sitting in alternating positions as shown on the left. We need the extra space as we crushed about 80 barrels worth this year and have a 600 sq ft space to fit it all. Sort of like playing Tetris with 500lb blocks at racking time.
Doing this sort of thing in your late 50's is that duality of being amazed that you can, and amazed/resentful that you need to, It really has highlighted the amount of brute labor needed, to move bins, shovel fruit and toss barrels around.
Fortunately we will be buying a used forklift that might actually be able to fit into the barrel room. Our neighbor to the west is shutting down his feed store and has an old Navy Surplus lift truck, Its not pretty, but we can fix that easy enough with some paint and a new seat. Rumors of "Lightheart Pink" have been floated. (see racks above)
As we wrap up Crush, and our aches fade, we'll have the satisfaction of lots of new wines to cellar and bring to release. We're very excited about the new varietals, and the vineyards we have been tending are coming up in quality and yield.
Harvest is always an interesting time of year. From planning the picks to the physical work of moving 1000 lb bins and shoveling fruit its a consuming wearying process. That's why we call it "crush". Not only for the transformation of fruit into must, but for the transformation of people into tired grumpy automatons. Somewhat akin to "hell week" at a boot camp or other rite of passage, instead of DI's barking at us, we have customers worrying about whether they should cancel the pick, and fruit samples that tested at 25 brix on Wednesday that suddenly measure 20 on Saturday.
We are sleep deprived, worn out and dealing with uncertainty, all of which makes a person snappish. Yesterday, we had three picks going off a 0630 (dawn is 0640) and a missing pickup truck. Simple mis-communication, it was at a different vineyard 15 miles away. Driving the roads of Santa Clara County in a 16 ft flatbed with three pickers stacked in the passenger seat before sun up is a memorable experience, instead of them being safely strapped into the rear seats of the pickup.
Watching another pick crew of 16 guys bring in a ton every half hour is almost intimidating, as one guy can't load bins on a short lift gate that fast. Vindication from the difficulty of the two twenty somethings who retrieved the errant truck brought the last bins in the nick of time and then loaded the second wave of 4 tons while struggling was bittersweet. For a 57 yr old I am doing pretty well, unfortunately, that doesn't replace the missing forklift which the rental people did not have.
Then there was the rain. We normally don't get rain in September. Its part of our climate. We do get rains in Oct-April, and we don't want to have rains before harvest as the bunches get soaked, the water gets trapped inside and we can get rot on the tight clustered varietals if they don't dry.
So rain makes pickers, growers and customers nervous, nobody likes to work in the rain, it makes the vineyards slippery, and is unpleasant at the least. So we cancelled picking for today, as the showers of yesterday were cyclical and it was not clear that we would get enough drying. Perhaps that was an over reaction, but the break will help, give the crews some rest, let the fruit have another week to mature, and give the customers a chance to get over their worrys.
For myself, its nice to be sitting inside at Dawn, and not out setting up more picks. I'll go punch down in an hour or so, we have 3 tons of Cabernet coming in today from a grower who didn't cancel. That will fill up another 2-3 fermenters leaving us with 1 or 2 available. Good thing we bought another 10 for this season. If our 2 tons of Martini clone Pinot comes in we'll have to press off the Merlot to free up some space.
Vineyard care has many aspects, there's the relatively violent tasks of tilling and spraying, accompanied by the roaring of a diesel, the cameraderie of a picking crew, and the nearly silent handwork of pruning, leaf stripping and shoot thinning.
Pruning is a relatively solitary task, even if there is a team, as it requires focus, to select the cane, pick a site and make your cut. Given the capabilty of the electric pruners to cut the 12ga wire, you need to be looking for that and keeping fingers out of the way, even with the safety circuit and left hand conductive glove system. Thus its an ideal task for reflection, akin to raking a zen garden. You work at a pace that is comfortable, the limit more your ability to process the images and decide on cuts, than to move your limbs tp execute them. Its ideal for those of us who have variable attention focus, what the world may call ADD. Waving a kilogram of powered cutter around is enough to keep your attention, and the slow progress down the cordon coupled with the change from last years canes to the newly prepared vine is pleasing aesthetically.
Given a nice clear day with few scattered clouds, brilliant winter sky and crisp air its invigorating to the spirit, and time seems to flow by. With 15 acres to prune, and an average rate of 10 hours per acre thats a lot of opportunity for reflection. We've only just begun this year, and we have to time our efforts to avoid frost after budbreak, so after a few experimental acres at our big Cabernet Franc and Merlot Athena's vineyard, we will switch to the hillside at Soli Deo Gloria and work on the Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot there, as the frost risk is much less when the cold air can run off via gravity and not pool on the flat.
Farming is generally considered hard work, at least by those who have done it. Even in the 21st century there is a need for some physical strength to do the regular parts of the job. And then there is the more extreme requirements, such as when you have a tractor sunk out in a field.
Such has been our misfortune twice so far in the last weeks, as first the Kubota BX2660 tractor was dug in while using the hilling disc.
And then the RTV Utility Vehicle was stuck up to the axles while Joan was taking a census of missing vines.
At least we're getting better at extracting them, investing in a "farm jack" and a 4000 pound pull come along as Joan is using here, to pull the 1500 lb RTV out of the hole it had dug.
One would think that after the first time we would have learned, after all it was the same vineyard, albeit at opposite sides, and with different operators. However this vineyard has a variable clay strata that traps water and the gound does not necessarily show the saturation until you are sinking in. Once we get a bit drier, we'll take our new Ripping shanks and try to break through the clay, or if that's not deep enough, the hydraulic Auger to drill "drains" where we had pooling.
In between the two events, we actually had some time to be "Lighthearted" and restored a pre-World War II disc that may have been animal powered to working shape, and painted it our Logo Pink, just because we could.
If we manage to stick the disc, at least it will look prettier when we have to dig it out.
Toiling in the Vineyards:
We had a brief hiatus, between hilling up the rows of the big vineyards there was Christmas and New Years, when nothing more taxing than viewing the cover crops and rebuilding a disc happened. Now its time to head back out and resume the cycle. Tomorrow we will start weed suppression and pre-pruning at Athena's Vineyard, taking the bulk of the dead canes off with a hedge trimmer and spraying Glyphosate (commercial Round-Up) under the wire to reduce the weed growth. Alex and Derek should be able to just about do the whole vineyard in a day if they move along, there's 8 miles of wire and they would need to walk both sides of it or a 16 mile hike on flat ground while carrying tools.
The smaller vineyards get their turn next, as we prepare for the pruning later in the winter season to delay budbreak in the spring to when the risk of frost is reduced. We will work every Saturday from here through October, and probably have Joan working some weekdays as well doing tractor work such as more hilling and ripping to reduce compaction.
Somewhere in there we need to get the Kubotas over to C & N Tractor for oil changes, lubrication and general check overs and check the mower, tiller and sprayer for wear and tear as well, rebuilding anything that needs it for the upcoming season.
This year we want to be a bit more pro-active on some of the hand labor chores, so we'll need to work with Miguel and the hombre's to set up for shoot thinning and suckering early and to keep up with the weed suppression on a more aggressive schedule to allow irrigation inspections to be more effective.
Its becoming a real job. Next month we'll participate in the WIneries of Santa Clara Vineyard Day on February 7th at Sarah's Vineyard after attending the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.
2012: Growth & Learning in Vineyards.
We started 2012 managing 5 acres of vineyard, and ended it managing 15, with another 7 pending. Thats a lot of growth to manage, and we learned a bit along the way, with some lessons of what to do better, some of what we missed and a bit of what we can forego.
Pruning and Training:
Our pruning was sucessful, we pruned to two buds every 6 inches and removed excess cordon where it existed, primarily in Coop vineyard. The electro Coupe pruners were a godsend, and will be needed for 2013. Starting on the hillside of Soli Deo Gloria was successfull, we had no discernable frost damage in the flats with the later staggered pruning there in Feb/March, but hiring out for the bigger vineyards may make sense to get the fruit to ripen concurrently.
Suckering and Shoot thinning:
Needed to be done earlier, before the shoots were so tough. Starting in June was too late, we need to do these in April/May to make better use of our limited labor.
Needed to be done was at least two passes, to reduce under the wire growth. One in Feb and one in May along with hilling up the vines in December should give less weed pressure and allow easier irrigation monitoring.
We did well in general, the vineyards we irrigiate had good fruit yields and quality. Starting a bit earlier in the 2 vineyards we had system issues with would have helped the shoot growth.
Starting system upgrades mid-season is not the preferred timing, but one does what one must as you discover the needs. Equipping the staff with the Kubota RTV and necessary supplies to allow repairs was effective. Installing filters and replacing clogged emitters will continue and further sub-regulation of pressure will improve uniformity. Over a year or two of continuous improvement we should have all systems in good shape.
The Soli Deo Gloria upgrade to driven steel end posts went well once we did some technique improvement on pre-soaking the ground. Stringing new catch wires and cordon repair will be this year's big themes to give better canopy management. We will start to upgrade Athena's Vineyard with partial catch wires to open up an acre each of Merlot and Cab Franc.
Cover Crop & Tillage:
Mustard and Clover mix was easier to seed as they are similar sizes compared to the legume mix we used last year. We plan to mow them in the spring after they go to seed, and may experiment with not tilling some rows in the fall to monitor them as a prospective permanent cover.
Using a hilling disc to create a berm should reduce weeds under the wire, and also give a hard edge we can use for the roto tiller, so that we get good contact and consistent depth. We will experiment with ripping to reduce compaction and with reversing the hilling disc to remove the berm as well.
Our spray program was quite effective, a rotation of Rally WSP, and Quintec along with 1% Stylet oil on a 2-4 week interval depending on the temperatures. Two foliar applications of "Golden Glow" with Zinc showed good shoot response.
We saw mildew only in the heaviest canopy and that was very modest. Spraying at 300 psi and alternate rows was sufficient to get good coverage.
We didn't leaf strip this year, in our California Sprawl trellised vineyards its somewhat hard to do, and in our estate VSP we simply got too busy. Putting in a labor pass would be good for better spray penetration and sunlight.
The head pruned Colombard at Behlmer Vineyard got an un-authorized hedging, by the tentant to feed the goats, and this resulted in less shoot length to drive the crop to maturity, hence a very late harvest.
We used over the top of the row netting in three vineyards, and fruit zone in one, with Flash tape elsewhere. The netting works the best, but it must be picked up before harvest, and storage is an issue for the Poly as it does not go back onto the nice tight roil.
Summary of 2012:
We made 30 tons of good fruit from 15 acres, with the help of some novice labor over the course of a year. Training the labor was effective in improing their skills, though their reliabilty was less than admirable. Starting shoot thinning earlier and a second pass of weed suppression will make it easier through the season for canopy management and irrigation monitoring.
Expectations for 2013:
With all of the vineyards now under cultivation for at least a year, we should see yields continue to improve towards 3 tons/acre as the cover crop nutrients and pruning improve vine health.
Earlier start on a few cultivation practices will be easier without a three week European trip in May and with better trained labor we should get it done quicker and more completely, using the harvest ctew for the hand work to augment our labor pool.
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