Page Archive for the ‘Vineyard Note’ Category

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of singing the song “Here Comes the Sun” to my daughter every morning, in hopes of changing the prevailing weather pattern of 2017.  I make an effort not to complain too much about the excessive rain around her, just to lessen the chance she grows up to be a crotchety grape farmer.  So, instead, we focus on “sunnier” topics and stories from glorious vintages of the past.

She has no idea that you can literally watch the vines grow this year – we must have set some kind of record for photosynthesis by now!  I can’t recall a year where every bud on every shoot is alive and thriving.  On the macro level this is a great thing (healthy vines, good crop level, replenished water table), but when you are fully immersed in this tropical Niagara jungle on a daily basis, you quickly realize the enormity of task we are up against.

The rains of 2017 have been a frightening reminder that there is no “typical” growing season anymore.  There could not be a more stark contrast between two vintages than 2016 and 2017 to this point.  Consequently, our vineyard strategies have had to be dramatically altered to account for the increase in shoot growth.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just aggressively thinning down the vines to their “normal” level, because the few leftover shoots and clusters would grow too vigorously.  Therefore, I’ve taken more of a staggered approach to thinning this year, letting vines gradually acclimate to the increase in water and nutrient uptake.  Keeping more shoots and clusters on the vine for a longer period of time can also be risky, because too much crowding in the canopy might lead to increased disease pressure.  So being out there every day thinning, scouting and gauging shoot growth is essential.

Thankfully, the disease pressure has been minimal thus far…that is until we sustained some hail damage over the past week, presenting a new challenge of split and bruised berries.  Split berries and excessive humidity are the perfect recipe for Botrytis, so we are pulling leaves and opening up the canopy a little earlier than normal to help dry up the hail damage.  For the record, I’m not quite comfortable using the B-word around Frances yet.

This season has proven to be an exercise in patience and adaptation.  I hold out hope, looking at the sunny long range forecast, that my determined morning sing-along is finally paying off!

 

 

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

 

 

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 24th, 2016

Vineyard workers sneeze in unison as the unmistakable smell of grapevines in bloom wafts across the peninsula.  Each pull of a shoot or yank of a sucker knocks thousands of pollen particles into the air – and eventually into our collective nasal passages to create one mighty “sonic bloom”.

What a difference a year makes.  I remember the abject despair with which I traversed these rows last spring, as one vine after another collapsed into oblivion.  The growing season of 2015 became more about rejuvenation than celebration in a number of varietals – particularly Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

I can’t begin to describe the relief in watching the tender suckers I white-knuckled together last season become the strong, fully-budding trunks I see before me now.  There are still failures, but not nearly in the magnitude of 2015.  Ideal weather conditions have helped get us back on track and now I can shift my focus back to formulating a plan to shape and position these burgeoning vines.

Please stay with me here as I attempt to outline a mindset that some may find perplexing.  I was a weird kid (you can debate whether this has changed) who always found comfort in a well-organized strategy.  Toys were for displaying and cataloging, not playing with.  Upon receipt of the official Toronto Maple Leaf 1984-85 Fact Book, I set out to memorize the birthdays and relevant personal facts of the entire roster, just so I could be prepared if anyone ever asked me.  Kids growing up in the Google age will never experience the joys of memorizing useless facts – like Walt Poddubny’s pre-game meal or Bill Derlago’s favourite out of town restaurant.

So here is where my head is at when I look out over the vineyard on this first day of summer: roughly 150 rows to tackle, at an average of 3 rows per day, means that I should be able to finish properly fashioning my vines in about 50 days.  Factoring in that my progress will be slower as the days get hotter and the vine growth intensifies, and throwing in the odd “wife-mandated” day off, I should be done thinning in about two months.

I’m most efficient working down each row from left to right and prefer not to leave an unfinished row at the end of the day.  One veteran move is to always work on the shady side of the row (west side in the morning, east side in the afternoon), as it will keep you cooler throughout the day and the contrast will be better for locating unwanted growth.

My traditional starting point would be the Pinot Noir blocks, but the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are showing the strongest vigour this year, with an inordinate amount of secondary shoots and an explosion of centrally located growth – all of which must go!

There is a method to this mindset, as I find greater motivation when jobs have a clear start and end point.  It is one reason why we release wines only once per year.  The wine is bottled and the wine is sold, then we start all over again.  It may be what appeals to me most about farming – every season has a harvest, an ultimate prize to work toward and celebrate upon it’s completion.

That’s enough typing for now…I’ve got three rows to finish.

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Do you have any plans for the evenings of January 10th or February 7th?  I’m hoping that nothing immediately pops to mind and you have the chance to join us at our annual Treadwell Winemaker’s Dinner.  These nights have been such a blast over the years that we’ve decided to tack on an encore gig in 2015.  Truthfully, the demand for tickets last year caught us a little off guard and we didn’t want to leave anybody out.

The dinners will feature some tantalizing Treadwell dishes paired with our 2011 reds and 2013 whites.  I will have to brush up on my knowledge of these wines, as they’ve not been present in our barn for quite a while.  I could certainly wax poetic about the freshly fermented 2014 Cab Sauv, but you probably wouldn’t want to drink that one right now.  Perhaps I will just wait until the night of the first dinner and we can discover how the wines have evolved together.  It’s always more fun to tell old farm stories than bore you with technical wine jargon anyway.

Please visit the Treadwell website for details or call James at 905-934-9797 to book your seat.  We hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

So it all comes down to this.  November is upon us and all grapes are off, save the few robust rows Cabernet Sauvignon we’ve chosen to hang until the bitter end.

They desperately cling to their yellowing leaves as the last few rays of fall sunshine hopefully find enough green chlorophyll pigments to move the ripeness needle just a bit further in our favour.  They are likely ripe enough to pick, but they are also clean enough to hang until all the foliage has been exhausted.  Every tick of extra sugar and reduction in total acidity is a welcome bonus at this stage.

It is the exact scene I anticipated earlier in the Spring as all varietals got off to a sluggish start.  We knew we would be pushing the limits to make quality wine – we had no other choice.  The thought of hand-harvesting in the bitter, damp cold of November is intimidating, but when you are so close to the end of a long season, motivation seems easier to summon and these days can actually prove to be glorious!

The most harrowing part of this waiting game is the relentless nature of the birds.  They are wiser and more brazen by this time in the season, blatantly ignoring bird-bangers and finding creative ways to circumvent our seemingly impenetrable nets.  The only true deterrent is a crazed farmer willing to spend the entire day riding around in his vehicle of choice, unleashing whatever unholy racket he can muster.  They will undoubtedly have nightmares about what these frustrating flocks are doing to their grapes, it is what drives them to be up at the crack of dawn to do it all over again.