Page Archive for the ‘Field Notes’ Category

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

It is difficult to sum up an entire growing season in a couple of words, but I’d bet if you asked a bunch of Ontario grape growers and winemakers to describe 2016, the bulk of them would quickly reply, “hot and dry!”

That will be the narrative going forward, but obviously there is much more to explore about this fascinating season.  I learned many things in 2016, most of which the hard way.  There was no precedent in my memory bank for such prolonged dry conditions, especially when the weather forecast seemed to feature a constant 60% chance of precipitation five days from now.  Front after threatening front would approach and break-up at the escarpment, splitting north and south of St. David’s and leaving us basking in sunlight.

I was reticent to use irrigation early in the season and this proved to be a tactical error.  Having completed a Master’s Degree in Viticulture entitled  “Examining the Effects of Deficit Irrigation on Cool Climate Chardonnay”, you’d think I’d know better.  When we finally decided to water our vines, it was inevitable that a chain would break on our traveler cannon and the town would impose water restrictions…our drought continued.

The first lesson learned is that you are flying blind if you don’t take steps to measure vine and soil water status to gauge stress.  It was pointed out to me that this is second nature in BC, but foreign to many Ontario farmers.  We tend to think of a drought as something that pops up every five years or so (2007, 2012, 2016), but perhaps it will prove to be a climate change related trend going forward.

Thankfully, the older vines didn’t seem to mind the stressful conditions and continued to thrive.  Younger vines, those plated in 2009 and later, showed signs of stress even with supplemental irrigation.  Bloom phase is a critical point in the season to ensure the vines have adequate water and nutrition.  The lack of early rain in 2016 meant that any spring nutrition added in the form of fertilizer and manure could not percolate down to the roots at bloom, ultimately leading to poor fruit set.

Another observation from this past year is that some blocks have not fully recovered from the winters of 2013 and 2014.  Replacement of dead and damaged trunks has left these vineyards unbalanced in terms of vine status, nutrient allocation and ultimately vigour within each row.  More evidence is the increase in crown gall virus, which can be caused by cold temperature splitting of trunk tissue.

The effects of the drought may actually have a short term silver lining.  In 2016, winemakers were thrilled to see lower crop levels, smaller berry size, moderate vine stress and little canopy growth after veraison – all of which being favourable conditions for crafting premium wines.  If the aromatic intensity of the 2016 whites is of any indication, we have may have something to be very excited about.

I’m sure 2017 will present its share of surprises and challenges, but I definitely intend to be more proactive when it comes to the water and nutrient status of my vines.

 

Friday, June 12th, 2015

I find it very easy to put off writing when faced with a multitude of vineyard jobs and the constant opportunity to chat with friendly visitors.  Interesting topics float in and out of my brain as I squat to carefully tie up the precious suckers offered by winter-ravaged vines of Sauvignon Blanc, but putting wine-stained finger to keyboard seems a chore at the end of a long day.

So why do I feel all charged up tonight?  It’s got to be that vineyard green!  There is something about the vigour exhibited by grapevines growing in June that gets my blood flowing.  Vines that seemed all but dead months ago now brim with green shoots to the point of needing a good thin.  I can barely keep up with the growth, but the vines are ahead of schedule and into bloom a full week earlier than the last couple of years.  Even the deluge of early June rain can’t dampen my enthusiasm!  Anticipation outweighs setback at this stage, as the inevitable diseases have yet to rear their ugly spores (talk to me in a week and I’ll likely be singing a different tune).

There are exceptions – sobering reminders of the harsh winter and a catastrophic worst case scenario that was all too close to becoming reality.  Perhaps that is what makes those rare fruit-bearing vines so inspiring.  Syrah, Pinot Gris and Sauv Blanc will all likely be 50-75% down in crop level, but thankfully the majority of vines are still alive and throwing suckers.  Sourcing fruit from those varieties will be a challenge for all Ontario wineries this vintage.

My current glee could also be traced to a rainy day racking session earlier this week.  I was able to get an intimate look at all 2013 and 2014 reds as I siphoned them out of and then back into their cosy oak homes.  Some of them were a little unhappy to see me so early, but most were WAY more polished than I anticipated (insert huge exhale here).

It reinforces what I’ve been hearing from visitors to our barn this year: each of our wines has their own distinct personality, and those differences make them interesting and enjoyable.  It’s not about vintages being “better” or “worse” than one anther, but rather entirely unique upon comparison.  That is an exciting prospect when you find yourself worrying that future wines won’t stack up to the current crowd pleasers.  One excited taster recently proclaimed he’d never met a Five Rows wine he didn’t enjoy.  The fact that he was my Dad shouldn’t really matter.  Tainted praise is still praise to hungry ears.

 

 

 

 

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Most people will never have the opportunity to spend a bitter winter day pruning their way down a row of grapes, so I feel it my duty to inform the masses about this crucial vineyard task.

Every winter, around the beginning of January, my father and I start to get serious about pruning vines in preparation of our next growing season.  There is usually a little tire-kicking before we summon enough motivation to begin in earnest, but eventually there is no more time to dawdle.  I liken it to that feeling of being comfortable on your couch on a cold day, but knowing you have get up and go to the gym at some point.

The last couple of years have been particularly challenging due to the severe low temperatures and deep snow.  The simple act of walking out to the vineyard becomes a production.  It goes without saying that proper attire is a must – warm boots and gloves, multiple layers and keeping the wind at your back are keys to stamina.  The ‘pruners’ themselves must be well-oiled and sharp (this applies to both physical tool and person).

Sometimes when I’m donning my gear, I summon my inner Han Solo and pretend I’m setting out over the snowy landscape of Hoth, charged with the duty of finding Luke Skywalker and returning him to the Rebel base.  This scene from The Empire Strikes Back is as vivid as perhaps any from my childhood, and serves as the catalyst to get me out of the barn and on my way.

As with all vineyard jobs, every vine must be evaluated individually before the cuts can be made.  The goal is to whittle it down to four “perfect” canes with roughly ten buds apiece.  They must be oriented in such a way that two of them can be tied down in opposite directions along the fruiting wire in the spring (the other two are left untied for insurance).  On passing glace it may seem that adjacent vines are very uniform, but this is not the case.  There are many subtle differences that must be accounted for:  cane diameter, bud spacing, wood density, bud viability, trunk health and residual disease.  Leaving the wrong canes can negatively impact the future success of that vine.  An experienced pruner can evaluate these variables and make decision cuts in a matter of seconds, spending little more than a minute cleaning up each vine.  The anticipation of finding those four perfectly situated canes appeals to my love of solving puzzles.

You eventually settle into a pleasing rhythm of cutting and removing unwanted wood and before you know it you are halfway down the row.  Decisions become innate and you are left alone with your thoughts.  Welcome distractions like music or talk radio can make time fly, but I caution that waning concentration can be very dangerous.  The daydreaming pruner can easily whip themselves in the face with an errant cane (painful and embarrassing), deeply cut a finger (most farmers have done this) or become prey to an overly aggressive coyote (perhaps not as common).

Often I use this time to mentally prepare for the winery jobs at hand.  Should I blend a little 2013 with those 2012’s?  Do I have enough tank space to rack and blend all my Pinot Noir barrels at once?  Is it a good idea to cold stabilize my whites while they are on bentonite?  Conveniently, it provides a leisurely way to tackle and think through logistical hurdles.

As the day wears on, it becomes increasingly critical not to let your weak mind slip into thinking about how cold you are becoming, or about the potential implications if all these buds are indeed fried, or if the vine you are pruning might already be dead due to the -23C temperatures sustained last night…

At times like this I usually hop on my trusty Tauntaun and ride back to the Rebel base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

I’m overwhelmed at the response we’ve received to our new wines and the number of keen visitors we’ve entertained over the last couple of weeks!  It is all we can do to write and apply labels fast enough to keep up.

I’ve become accustomed to putting off my vineyard work on weekends in May to stick around the barn and help the girls with tastings.  I must admit that I secretly enjoy this, as it allows me to overhear all the interesting and thoughtful reviews of my wines.  There is always a gut-wrenching fear belying my calm facade that these wines won’t live up to their predecessors.  You would think that after nine vintages of wrenching guts I might have learned to trust my palate by now, but it always takes a few satisfied customers to reassure me.

That is all part of what makes this time of year is so exciting, from the inbox full of pre-orders to the smiling faces of return visitors parading through the barn door.  The fact that people would think enough of our wines to pre-order them on spec, without even trying them first, is the ultimate in trust.  I treasure this trust as much as any award or five star review we’ve ever received.  The “pre-order” is my gold medal.

With that trust comes the pressure not to disappoint.  This challenge drives what I do in the vineyard every summer.  In the back of my mind is the knowledge that this vine I’m currently thinning will produce fruit to make a wine that someone may already have dibs on for next year.  On one hand it’s a very reassuring thought, but it also means there isn’t much room for error!

As the first buds of 2014 start to reveal themselves one precious leaf at a time, I confidently venture out to the vineyard and strive to earn more trust.

 

 

 

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

What a curious growing season it has been to this point.  I guess it really shouldn’t be a surpirse given that this year ends in “13”.  Consistently cool and wet for the most part, but strangely no signs of disease pressure to speak of (knock on wood).  Then we are blessed with a few weeks of ideal ripening conditions precisely when we need it at veraison.  All varietals, save Cabernet Franc, are looking to be right on schedule.

The Cab Franc are likely lagging behind due to their prodigious uptake of water.  The spring/summer rains have left our vines brimming with growth – even many lateral shoots are bearing clusters of fruit!  The last couple of months have been spent paring back these layers of green growth in an effort to expose the vulnerable fruit.  The Cab Franc vines put so much energy and resource into this shoot growth that the fruit will take longer to enter and complete the ripening process.  It doesn’t help that our Cab Franc vines are relatively young and full of vim and vigour!

The task of thinning shoots and clusters has been very time consuming this season, but I can finally start to make out the post at the end of this long grape row.  As I complete each row, my Dad follows behind to hang the protective bird netting.  I must say that the sight of these nets brings me the ultimate in satisfaction.  They represent the preservation of  year’s worth of hard work and signify the end of my duties in that block until we harvest.

My mind can now shift to the preparation of tanks, barrels, crushers, presses and the like.  It’s also the time to determine which yeasts and fermentation aids I will employ to best coax out the Terroir in my 2013 wines.  The new supplier catalogues we receive each year put me in mind of the old Sears Christmas Wish Book I always looked so forward to as a child.  My eyes light up as I flip through page after page of new “toys”, each seeming to promise more flavours and aromas than the next.  I find it fascinating to think of the amount of research that has gone into refining the simple process of fermentation.  We all have our “go to” yeasts that we swear by, but I’m usually tempted to try something new every year – even if it’s just in a single tank or barrel.

If I close my eyes I can almost smell those beautiful fermenting tanks already!

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.

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

There are days when I feel overwhelmed.  It usually occurs around this time of year when despite my best efforts, I just can’t seem to catch up to the work that needs to be done.  There are weak moments (humid, dizzy moments) that I actually begin to second guess my calling.  Who on earth would be stupid enough to willingly submit themselves to the rigours of thinning grapes in this oppressive heat?

Just as I convince myself that my afternoon efforts might be better spent monitoring the progress of 2011 Pinot Noir barrels in the cool confines of the barn, I spot a cloud of dust emanating from the far corner of our 60 acres.  Cue the proverbial forehead slap…

There is an individual in the center of that dust cloud who’s work ethic is second to none.  He  skillfully guides the tractor and disk, eventually making the careful wide turn for the next row.  Four rows over, three rows back.  A pattern he has repeated time and again for the last 40 years.

I get to the farm in the morning and he’s out there – I leave in the afternoon and he’s still out there.  We may pass each other at some point during the day,  but no words need to be spoken.   That cloud of dust is his example.  My second guessing comes to an abrupt halt.  When I was younger I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to do all the tractor work.  Now I hope that day never comes.

As I sing his praises, a comical beer commercial flashes to mind and it occurs to me that my father might just be, “The most interesting man in the world” (or at least St. Davids).  Some proof:

His pre-dawn enthusiasm puts my Golden Retriever to shame.

Powdery Mildew is afraid of him.

His internal alarm clock laughs at my snooze button.

‘Hydration’ is a foreign term to him.  He drinks beer and coffee, and when he’s really thirsty…Lipton Cup-a-Soup.

He could jump-start a canoe.

He doesn’t buy new golf clubs, he buys a new wrench (mainly because he broke something and can’t find the wrench he bought last week…and he can beat you with his old clubs anyway).

Happy Father’s Day to all the early risers and “Stay thirsty my friends!”

largemouth

Monday, May 7th, 2012

For those curious about how things look in the vineyard these days I have good news…the buds are alive!  (At least 75% of them that is).  My thoughts go out to those tree fruit farmers who haven’t been as lucky thus far.  I’ve heard some staggering reports of damage in local apple and plum orchards as buds emerged way too early for their own good, only to succumb to the cold temperatures we experienced in April.  How fickle it can be.

Fragile Buds

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Pruning in shorts?   So much for those ultra-thermal, -70°C rated  “Tarantula”  boots my Dad got me for Christmas.  They’re still in the box.  Sap is gushing from the tips of newly pruned grapevine canes and there are pink swollen buds on my Magnolia tree – it’s only March 20th.  It was officially winter…yesterday.

Vineyard managers across the region are scratching their heads while sporting cautious grins.  They should be tremendously excited about how early this growing season  promises to be.  Three weeks early is not out of the question at this point.  But our enthusiasm is guarded.  There will no doubt be multiple frosts between now and the end of May.  The extremity of those frost events and just how advanced the buds will be when they happen are nervous variables yet to be determined.

So we sit on a precipice of possible greatness.  A vintage for the ages or an apocalyptic frost event that fries most of our delicate shoot growth.  At least I can go golfing tomorrow to calm my nerves.

Shifting gears, it’s very exciting to have our 2011 Sauvignon Blanc featured in the April/May issue of Vines magazine.  To be included in the article alongside notable Sauv Blanc producers like Hidden Bench and Creekside is a thrill for us.  The photo shoot at the Botanical Gardens was a fun change of pace and really symbolizes the vibrancy of Niagara Sauvignon Blanc.  I don’t know how they talked me into a few of those poses, but you know what they say,  “When life gives you lemons…”

I’ve received numerous inquiries about the barrel sample of 2011 Sauv Blanc that was reviewed in the article, some expressing horror that they had missed a release notice.  Not to worry – all 100 cases will be bottled on April 2nd and hopefully ready for release by May 1st.  Please let me know if you’d like to reserve a six bottle case (wes@fiverows.com).

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I’m generally not an emotional guy.  Why then, am I having such a difficult time parting ways with the first two barrels that ever held my wine?

The time has come to cruelly determine which of our used oak barrels must be sent out to pasture, literally.  I’ve been through wars with these veteran barriques.  They’ve seen good wine, bad wine and everything in between.  Some have been a working fixture in our barn for eight years.  Now you must decide which old soldiers can no longer carry out their job, good luck with that!  This unceremonious send-off just doesn’t seem to befit such a valuable part of our winery.

Good oak is the winemaker’s not-so-secret weapon.  Sure they are expensive (our largest capital expense from year to year) but they are essential.  I’ve come to learn that new oak should never be taken for granted and never be used in overabundance.  Too much new oak can mask and possibly ruin the fine subtleties of an aging wine.  Restraint should always be exercised.

My attachment to each individual barrel is surely due to the small size of our operation.  Over time I become acutely aware of their “personalities” through weekly tasting and topping regimens.  Some are big softies, while others are boldly complex.  Some barrels make the retirement decision easy for me.  No amount of sterilization can rid them of the contaminants they’ve accumulated over the years, so out the door they go.  But what about the barrel who’s only knock is it’s old age and bland neutrality?  That is the dilemma staring me in the face right now.

Back in 2004, under the guidance of Creekside Estate Winery winemakers Rob and Craig, I assembled a two barrel blend of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from our vineyard.  With a pool of twelve barrels to choose from, we experimented with 50L from here and 25L from there until we all agreed upon a blend that I could confidently open a winery with.  It was decided that the wine should be housed in a couple of beautiful, two year old French oak barrels made by Burgundian cooper Claude Gillet.  The wine would stay cloaked in these barrels until 2006, when we bottled our first Five Rows release – the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon.

old soldier

Those same two Gillet barrels proved tremendously versatile with each successive vintage of Five Rows Cab Sauv.  What they lost in intensity each season, they gained in character and elegance.  This past week I racked some 2009 Cab Sauv from the Gillet twins and was pleasantly surprised at the finished product.  I didn’t hold out much hope for the 2009 Cab at this time last year, but an additional 12 months spent soothing in neutral oak really did the trick.  We’ll bottle the 2009 Cab Sauv this spring.

So there they sit after ten long years of service, empty and willing…but sadly there is no wine to fill them.  Now the decision is upon me.  No more stalling filibusters, it’s time to take these two out behind the barn and “pop the bung” for good.  I swear I’d have an easier time putting down Old Yeller.  At least he had rabies.

One day soon I’ll crack a bottle of 2004 Cab Sauv in their honour.  Few times will I enjoy a bottle more.

barrel graveyard