Page Archive for the ‘Family Stories’ Category

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As we get ready for another busy spring season of new wines and budding vines, I’m faced with an unforeseen conundrum.  It comes in the form of a nine pound baby girl named Frances, and the seeming lack of hours in a day to do what I used to do.

Those who have read this blog would know me as a hyper-focused creature of habit, eagerly devoting my time to barn and field.  In my defence, the task just draws you in completely – to the point where it consumes much of your thought and attention should you let it…and I do.  I’ve managed to convince myself that this is the only possible way to make good wine and damned be the person or thing (aside from my dogs) that gets in the way of this ultimate pursuit!

Enter the cuddly conundrum.  My wife, Tanya, and I recently decided to start a family and were blessed with a healthy baby girl on March 19th, 2017 – the ultimate reality check.  To say that my priorities have been altered would be an understatement, but not quite in the way that I expected.  At a time when I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed and stretched thin, I somehow feel more capable than ever to summon the effort required to produce the best possible fruit that our land will allow.  Little Frances has no idea that she’s already had a positive impact on the way I approach farming and life.

Perhaps it is a renewed sense of stewardship for future generations or perhaps it is just adrenaline.  Either way, I feel more inspired to work hard and less restrained by previous fears and uncertainties.  This is entirely due to the support of those around me:  Tanya, my parents, retail staff, vineyard crews and our beloved “Five Rows Faithful”.  I know I can count on them to keep the barn humming, even when I’m at home being a Dad.

So no need to worry, the wines will get the same attention they always do – you’ll just have to sit through a few baby pictures to get a taste!

FrancesBarn

 

 

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Harvest 2016

Am I a writer or am I a winemaker?  Is my time better spent writing a blog post or thinning Syrah?  These are the types of burning, legacy-defining, useless questions that plague my thoughts over the grueling days of harvest.  I believe it to be an innate method of stress deflection to have internal debates about completely nonsensical topics.

The debate continues:

I will be forever grateful to my friends Barry and Leslie for encouraging me to start a blog chronicling some of my family farm stories.  However, none of this would have come to fruition had I not become a winemaker first.

From the earliest days of creative writing in grade four, I had an affinity to tell stories – but hated taking the time required to sit down and type them out.  I do not possess the patience to write a book.

I am definitely a better writer after consuming a few drinks.  Ironically, being a winemaker requires a laser-like, sober focus to achieve best results.

Easy growing seasons in the vineyard make for boring stories and difficult writing (if not boring wines!).  Thankfully, Niagara NEVER has easy growing seasons and 2016 has been a prime example.  If you weren’t lucky enough to have have old, deep-rooted vines or access to irrigation equipment, your winemaking skills were put to a serious challenge.  Everyone loves a wine with a good back story.

Some of my best wine-related writing will never get seen by the masses.  It is confined to my private cellar notes and yearly harvest log, which read like great tragedies.  I tend to be a “pessimistic optimist” whose emotions rise and fall with the daily fluctuations in weather.  Frustration and vulnerability ooze from the wine-stained pages.  Conversely, the winemaker in me strives to never let them see me sweat.

In the end, it becomes obvious that all aspects of my job are dependent on one another for me to achieve success.  I take comfort in this thought, feeling fortunate to have such a fluid job description.

Writer.  Winemaker.  Vineyard Philosopher.

Some of my recent thoughts on the 2016 harvest can be seen in video form here.

 

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

As a general rule, I don’t enjoy being judged.  I’d much rather blend into the background like a chameleon and go about my business unnoticed.  There are exceptions, however, and when we got the letter that our family vineyard had been nominated for the 2016 Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence award, I realized that the time had come to get over this phobia and submit myself to potential criticism.

The specific block in the spotlight was our Clone 169 Cabernet Sauvignon, located just steps outside the barn door.  It was planted in the late 90’s, using “traditional” Lowrey methods:  Dad on the tractor and my Mom and I pulled behind on the planter.  The Lowrey method relied heavily on the ability of the tractor driver to maintain a straight line, and the jury is still out as to whether Howard Jr. inherited his father’s eagle eye and steady hand.  This was before the days of GPS and laser-guided planters – and one look at the hither and yon vine spacing is more than enough evidence of that.  It is also worth pointing out that proper and consistent end-post angles were not yet fashionable in the 90’s.  You have to remember this was the the decade of frosted tips and crooked posts.

So needless to say, I was greatly relieved to find out that the Award of Excellence was not based solely on aesthetics.  An esteemed panel of judges would scout the field at certain points during the season to evaluate vine balance, fruit maturity, disease pressure, crop level, and harvest ripeness parameters.  Being a Cab Sauv block, our biggest challenge in Niagara is getting enough heat to ripen the fruit, so I did my best to thin the block to a level that would give each vine a chance to ripen its crop load.  Thankfully, the late summer and fall of 2015 provided just the conditions we needed.

When it was announced at the Cuvée ceremony last night that we had, in fact, been named recipients of this award, I was struck with many emotions.  To be on the stage with my Dad, being recognized for something that we had done together will be something I never forget.  Looking out on the crowd of people, I realized many of them had been directly responsible for my choice of career and it reminded me how fortunate I’ve been to receive their guidance over the years.  Perhaps there was also some validation for doing things the old fashioned way – a small vineyard, a father and a son (Lowrey methods notwithstanding).

Green Thinning

 

Ripe Cab Sauv

 

 

 

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

battle scars

As yet another memorable harvest draws to a close, I delight in sharing some of the bizarre things that have crept into my exhausted mind over the last couple of months.  It can be a grind at times, so pulling back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the lighter moments keeps me from taking it too seriously.

While conducting a final cull of rotten berries in our original planting of Pinot Noir early in September, I found myself uttering a few choice words at these cursedly tight clusters.  It culminated in a rather aggressive flick attempt with my clippers to remove a rotten berry which, in turn, produced a wild spray of acidic juice directly into my face.  This moment surely sums up the give and take relationship I have with these old vines, a relationship that began to take human form.

In fact, as I wiped the burning juice from my eyes, I surmised that these five rows are like the brother I never had.  We are of similar age (although I am slightly older and wiser) and we have grown up on this farm together.  We compete for my parents’ attention and can get very jealous of one another, yet our individual success is completely reliant upon the other.  There are epic fights, but if anyone else is critical of my Pinot vines – I’ll kick their ass.  We always have each other’s back because our tangled roots run ever deep in this soil.

While pacing around the barn on a weekend that saw a forecasted 15-20mm of rain balloon to a record 86mm, I realized just how tied to the weather my mood becomes during harvest.  A rainy day may as well be the end of the world in my mind.  Everything is planned around them, you can’t do anything during them, and nothing good ever comes as a result of them!  I become consumed with regrets:  Should we have picked earlier? Did I just ruin everything good I’ve done all year by letting them hang through a hail storm?  How long will this field take to dry out?

Conversely, when the sun is shining – so am I.  Strutting around the farm with a wide smile and time enough for everyone, I ooze positivity.  It doesn’t get any better than walking through a block of ripe, clean grapes knowing you could pick them whenever you like.  I taste each berry thoroughly and make a mental note of which vines and rows will make the cut this year.  As you are probably aware, this happens with extreme rarity.

More often I’m faced with a scenario akin to the following:  We finish pressing Pinot Noir and I finally have a chance to get out and take a good look at the Riesling.  I walk over to the block and think to myself, “Ahh, the patience of Riesling…I can leave them to the end every year and they never let me down!”

It only takes few minutes to realize I’ve waited WAY to long to thin out these vines and now I’ve got a tinderbox of Botrytis on my hands.  I flash back to those times during the year when I’d walk by the Riesling and pay them but a fleeting glance before moving on to more pressing concerns.  Perhaps I knew deep down that the day of reckoning would come soon enough.

It is reminiscent of a scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee is faced with saving all the pets from a burning pet store.  Of course he saves the cute puppies and bunnies first, each time running past the terrarium of snakes with a look of terror that I know all too well.  The scene ends with a hysterical Pee-Wee running out of the store with fistfuls of snakes and collapsing to the ground.

Before I know it I’m covered in a sticky lather of sweat and juice, hurriedly extricating botrytized clusters of Riesling with my bare hands and high-stepping to the end of the row to hurl them into the headlands…

Crazy, you say?

I know you are, but what am I.    (P.W. Herman 1985)

 

 

 

 

Monday, July 7th, 2014

It occurs to me, as I hit a few golf balls into my Cabernet Sauvignon early on this Sunday morning, that we’ve evolved into a rather unconventional winery.  I don’t know what triggered this random thought – perhaps the vision of a Winemaker more intent on grooving a sand wedge than racking barrels…warped priorities indeed.

Admittedly, I’ve morphed into a “rainy day” Winemaker of sorts, as there are just too many jobs to do in the vineyard when the sun is shining and field conditions are ideal.  It is on those rainy days when I employ some techniques that most would consider uncommon (certainly not smart) oenological practice.

I’ve learned the hard way that gravity-siphoning Syrah, on a tipsy ladder into two barrels simultaneously, will most assuredly lead to a violent Syrah volcano that is not discriminate about where it splatters.  This is especially problematic when your winery space is also a retail store lined with finished packages.  Those “specially stained”, collector’s edition bottles are now reserved exclusively for family and friends.

The eccentricities do not end there.  I’m not sure how many Winemakers must arrange daily tasks around their mother’s laundry schedule, but I’m willing to bet there are only a few of us.  You see, water pressure is of the utmost importance in cleaning both tartrate-laden oak barrels and Wilma’s linens.  Despite these limitations, the wines get made and our whites are still bright.

Those visiting our barn on weekdays can attest that it doubles as a very large dog house.  A stickler to routine, my days are planned around letting my dogs out at a quiet time when they won’t bother our guests.  I treasure these few moments of leisure and serenity…

That is until my one-eyed King Charles Cavalier x Chihuahua, named Bella, becomes seemingly possessed by a Tasmanian Devil.  It usually begins with her running really fast in large circles (one-eyed dogs tend to do this) eventually setting out on a wild foray into the vineyard despite my attempts at verbal restraint.  Onlookers sit back and enjoy the spectacle, often marveling, “Look at her go!”  And go she does.  I’d like to say that I play it cool and never get sucked into chasing her…but that would be a lie.  Picture Forrest Gump chasing a weasel.

A more fitting winery mascot would be hard to find.

Bella

 

Monday, December 16th, 2013

As massive black clouds of starlings swirl ominously overhead, contrasting against the pure white snow, I retire to my cosy barn to reflect on the year 2013.  I fear these flocks no more because the barrels and tanks are full, finally put to bed after what seemed like an oddly long growing season.  The apparent quality of these young wines fills me with hope.

I won’t lie – there were certainly moments of doubt, well chronicled (if not over-dramatized) in previous entires of this blog.  It became increasingly frustrating as we waited and waited for the fields to dry out and for eventual flavour concentration in our late-ripening varietals (Riesling, Cab Sauv and Syrah). Thankfully, frustration can sometimes yield immense satisfaction.  This was reflected in the purple toothed grin I saw on my Dad’s face while tasting the freshly squeezed Cabernet Sauvignon directly from the press tray,  “You could bottle this and drink it right now!”, he exclaimed.  Easy now Pops.

Winter allows for the completion of some jobs that I treasure most as a Winemaker.  A recent day spent racking the 2013 whites filled the barn with the most splendid aromas – I was in Sauv Blanc heaven!  Equally excitng were the blending trials featuring the soon to be bottled 2011 reds.  As early blends begin to take shape, I’m becoming more convinced that the 2011 vintage has a chance to be one our strongest across the board.  It rivals 2010 in aromatic intensity and is perhaps more approachable even at this early stage.  Easy now Son.

As we enter the winter months and start to sharpen up the pruners, we’ve decided to close the barn for a couple of months to catch our breath.  This will allow me plenty of time to get the new wines ready to bottle in the spring.  I wish to thank all who have visited over the past year and contributed to our most successful summer to date.  It’s hard to believe our barn has been open for five years now and I look forward to more great visits and more new faces enjoying Five Rows wines in the year to come.

A couple of traditional events that we are planning for the winter are a Winemaker’s Dinner at Treadwell’s and Cuvée 2014.  Details for these events will follow in future posts.  Happy Holidays to all!

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

It is not the most glamorous time to be a grape grower.  I’m reminded of this in the midst of a downpour, as I trudge through shin deep mud on my way to cut rotten bunches out of barely ripe Riesling.  I pull my hood tight and turn on my radio headphones in hopes of a distraction from the gloom.  “There will likely be snow next week,” the announcer says as I slop past many tons of yet to be harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  Icewine anyone?

It’s been that kind of year.  As farmers we’re quite accustomed to being at the mercy of mother nature, and have in fact been spoiled by six consecutive years of decent growing conditions – with a couple of real beauties sprinkled in!  It’s rare in any type of farming to have more than a few good years in row.  Hence, you’re never as rich as your best year and you’re never as poor as your worst.

At times like this it’s important to remember that you can only do everything in your power to give yourself the chance to produce premium fruit.  I’m confident we’ve done just that and I still believe it a possibility to craft great wines from these grapes, albeit with less room for error.

My parents remind me of the “old days” when wet vintages seemed to be a little more common.  Tales of stuck harvesters and trucks  – and fields so saturated with water that the only choice was to hand pick and hand load (no tractor!) whole vineyard blocks thick with fruit.  It stands to reason that in wet years the crop is usually much heavier and far more difficult to harvest.

I finally get to Jean’s Block and in the time it takes me to knock the clods of mud off my boots, the rain abruptly stops.  Halfway down the first row I fail to discover as many rotten clusters as I had anticipated and the sun even threatens to peek out of the clouds.  As I approach the old pear tree hill that is now Ravine Vineyard I start to smell the most amazing aromas coming from atop the hill.  I’m reminded of the hearty lunches that we traditionally enjoy on those cold harvest days.  With that, the glamour returns.

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Is it a Shiraz or is it a Syrah?  The debate over the name of this wine has played out numerous times around our tasting table since we released our first one back in 2008.  That 2008 “Shiraz” was a hit with our friends, but most agreed it was more reminiscent of a “Syrah” in style.

I get a kick out of this debate because it brings me nostalgically back to the origins of this grape in our vineyard.  We planted Shiraz Clone 100 back in the late 90’s at the request of Creekside Estate Winery, who were bravely setting out to turn Shiraz into a key part of their varietal portfolio and winery identity.  Fueled by the knowledge and vision of an enterprising Australian winemaker, Marcus Ansems, my parents agreed to plant the 11 rows of Shiraz that now stand tall along our driveway, across from Wilma’s lavender.

Upon planting, we quickly found out that these vines loved to grow!  They shot up like the most vigorous of weeds, making us wonder why few farmers had attempted to grow this grape variety in Niagara before.  The first cold winter would provide us the harsh answer to that question.

Just as the vines were starting to mature and bear their first fruit, we were hit with some cold winter conditions that killed nearly half the vines in our new Shiraz vineyard.  The Achilles heel of this fast-growing, high-cropping varietal was now all too clear.  Should we replant the vineyard or wash our hands with Shiraz altogether?  This was a tough call, but in the end we decided to give it one more shot.  Thankfully, the winters have been more co-operative since then and we’ve also learned a few tricks in the vineyard to help the vines overwinter better.  We switched from a Scott-Henry training system to a more simple, two-arm pendelbogen trellis.  More attention was paid to controlling vine vigour through soil nutrition and cropping levels.  The vines performed well enough to merit planting 8 more rows of a second Australian Shiraz Clone (#7) in soil with higher clay content to aid in vine development.  Both blocks are doing well to this day.

Due to the success of these Shiraz vineyards on our farm and the legitimacy brought to the varietal by Creekside (think luscious Broken Press Shiraz…mmmm!) it was a no-brainer that I would order a large run of labels adorned with “Shiraz” for my 2008 debut.  However, as it came time to blend my 2008 Shiraz – the jammy, hot (high-alcohol) and bold notes present in all of our favourite Aussie “critter” wines were nowhere to be found!  In fact, every time I sampled these barrels I felt as if I had just tacked up a horse and ridden through a fragrant lavender field, only to suddenly realize I was surrounded by blackberry bushes and Marijuana plants (for the record this has never happened…yet).  Alas, despite what thousands of freshly printed labels now proclaimed, my first Shiraz had just become a Syrah – and I didn’t mind one bit!

A second issue with growing Shir..I mean Syrah in a cool climate is that it tends to ripen very late in the season, making it a challenge to vinify in lackluster, “shorter” growing seasons like 2009.  For that reason we decided not to attempt a Syrah in 2009 as the acidity levels never seemed right for crafting a premium wine.

The opposite was true for 2010.  It will be remembered as one of the warmest vintages Niagara has ever seen.  The growing season started early and never slowed down.  Precipitation was spotty but adequate – just perfect for wine grapes.  We harvested the Syrah on October 11, much earlier than any other vintage.  Sugar levels hit an all-time high (24°Brix) and the skins and seeds showed excellent maturity.  Three rows were selected from the older Clone 100 block (#2,9,10) along with two rows from the younger Clone 7 block (#4,8).

The fruit was de-stemmed into bins, which were then sealed for a four-day cold soak on the skins.  Fermentations were allowed to start wild, then inoculated with a yeast known as “Enoferm Syrah” (an isolate from the Côtes du Rhône in France).  It was chosen for this ripe fruit because it’s known to be a good glycerol producer for smoother mouthfeel with typical aromas including violets, raspberries, cassis, strawberries and black pepper.  Fermentations lasted about 8 days with temperature peaks around 28°C.  I could tell early on that this wine would one day be something special!

Five barrels were filled following pressing.  The Clone 7 fruit was racked to a new Taransaud barrel and a two-year-old Billon, while the Clone 100 fruit was split between two older French and one American oak barrel.  The wine was allowed to mature in oak for 24 months.  We bottled 118 cases of this Syrah on March 26th, 2013.  This wine, along with all of our 2010 reds, is now available for purchase.

Price: $50/bottle

Alcohol:  13.4%

Cellaring:  3-5 years

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

When setting out for a morning of work in the vineyard, I never know what I might encounter.  I’ve witnessed deer bounding gracefully right between our trellis wires and lone coyotes sauntering about, slyly portraying ignorance yet fully aware of my presence.

More often than not I encounter birds.  From majestic Hawks and rare Bluebirds to annoying Starlings – it runs the gamut.  I especially look forward to spring, when new life in the vineyard is not limited emerging buds and dandelions.  This past week, while tying down canes of Pinot Noir (specifically Row #7 in the Old Block),  I was fascinated as I closed in on one particular vine.

A curious place for a nest

Cautiously creeping closer, it became evident that a determined Robin had chosen one of my oldest Pinot vines as the perfect place to raise its family.  I recognized the irony in this nest full of future grape-pecking Robins staring me in the face, but I couldn’t bring myself to relocate the cosy looking abode.  Instead, I tied down the canes and snapped a few quick pictures as mama Robin chirped at me rather aggressively from two rows away.

Five Rows, Four Eggs

Future Adversaries

This is actually a common vineyard occurrence.  The most interesting discoveries are the camouflaged Kildeer nests dotting the ground between grapevines.  Mother Killdeers are seemingly fearless.  As you approach the nest she will frantically charge at you, feigning a broken wing in an effort to seem more vulnerable to the perceived predator.  In the ultimate act of altruism the mother will then attempt to lead you in the opposite direction of her nest, all the while fanning her “broken” wing.  I always get a kick out of this evolutionary trait and try to vacate the area as quickly as possible.  Inevitably, I must approach the nest as work continues in the adjacent row and the whole dance starts again.

My mind flashes to a vision of yours truly, arms flailing and yelling wildly, as Howie approaches one of my dogs on the tractor.  He is blissfully unaware, and they are all too eager to greet him.  Finally, I get his attention and danger is averted.  My inner Kildeer is satisfied.

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

Rounding up the family and heading out to a fancy dinner is a foreign experience for many farmers.  The Clampett’s…err…Lowrey’s are no exception, and really don’t get out much.  My own culinary expertise is limited to impeccably microwaved Michelina’s (down to the second!) and hastily constructed lunchtime wraps.

“Pa”, however, puts me to shame with his mastery of outdoor, open-flame cooking.  He is aloof in the kitchen, but can skillet fry just about anything over his gnarled pile of burning grape trunks.  I once saw him make perfect toast using welding gloves, a long-handled frying pan and diesel fuel.  He ended the show by flipping eggs with a one-iron (he could never hit it anyway).

Suffice it to say, we always jump at the chance to get dolled up and host a civilized Winemaker’s dinner every year at Treadwell’s.  Thankfully for the patrons, we are only responsible for bringing the wine.   Seriously, we treasure the opportunity to share this annual experience with so many of our supporters.  The signed menu, seen below, has become a treasured memento for us, growing in names each year.  It’s something we display with pride in our barn and reflect on fondly with many of our guests.

As you can see, this year’s menu was a masterpiece.  I can easily recall the distinct flavours of each dish as I write this, a sure sign of a wonderfully skilled kitchen and chef.  My compliments to James and the entire staff for the seeming ease at which they managed each course.

Of the wines I tried on this evening, the 2008 Syrah was a highlight for me – perhaps for sentimental reasons.  We decided to raid the cellar and bring our last case to share on this appropriate occasion.  The smoked duck was an astute pair, picking up on the smoky, earthy and savoury elements of the Syrah.  Many commented on how much the flavours and mouthfeel had changed since they last tried it.  The classic Syrah pepper, earth and floral elements were still there, but the once subtle dark fruit components had come to the fore both aromatically and on the palate.   It leads me to think that this wine is probably best consumed during this exciting time in its evolution (for those who still have a bottle).

The sumptuous “pulled pork” course might have been James’ nod to our participation in the most recent Pigs and Pinot celebration in Healdsburg, California.  My parents were thrilled to visit Sonoma and represent Canada at the “Pinot Smackdown”, which they managed to escape without a scratch.

We ended the night with a barrel sample of the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.  I figured this was appropriate given that Sauvignon Blanc is, in many ways, the reason we have forged such a strong relationship with Treadwell’s.  The feedback was promising with many not letting me leave without guaranteeing them at least a six-pack.

The 2012 has a ripe nose very reminiscent of the 2010, which makes sense because both were generally warm, dry years.  The mouthfeel and flavours were still a work in progress though, following bentonite fining, cold stabilization and possibly ongoing malolacitc fermentation.  As with most classy dames she didn’t want to give away all her secrets on the first date!

A heartfelt thanks to all who attended.

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