vineyard

A New Year

vineyard morning winter pfalz

Mid-January, – and our first trip to the vineyard. The saw suggests it is going to get physical. We are cutting out the vines that got killed off by a disease called ‘Esca’ last year.  Altogether not a very atmospheric trip. Which is why I am posting pictures from a different wine area altogether, the Pfalz. Here, during a recent early morning run, a winter run in T-shirt, I could observe every possible stage of winter vineyard work: from vineyards that did not see a harvest, to others already cut and pruned, to others cleared out entirely: I hope our Esca-related vine cutting will not look as dramatic!

vines ripped out

In Search for a Harvest Date

A harvest date has to be found. Yet the grapes seem to be unusually pinnikity in agreeing such a date. I have been through similarly indecisive situations with friends where weeks go by and no ‘mutually agreeable date’ materialises, but with grapes?

A change in existence awaits the grapes when our scissors approach, this is clear. But what is it they want to maximise on before that date? Three extra weeks of playing ‘Grand Theft Grape-o”, that they would not have had if the ‘grape pregnancy test’ had displayed ‘RIPE’ now? Or are they on the brink of offering up THE solution for the financial crisis, with Merkel travelling to a distant vineyard to hear them out?

Or are these just made-up excuses? Reminiscent of how friends might cancel on you (sorry, we can’t make next week, our babysitter broke his leg demonstrating how to jump into a puddle)… And the real reason…. could beeeeee…. that … sugar levels are yet too low…. and acid levels are yet too high….. (like in 2010)?

measuring sugar levels last weekend: 60 is not enough. Plus: it tastes of vertjus!

measuring sugar levels last weekend: 60 is not enough. Plus: it tastes of vertjus!

You decide. Admittedly, the picture offers a clue. Yet, as I wander through the rows, I sense there is some communication happening between the grapes: Exciting! –  I give them the benefit of doubt, thinking they want to communicate with me, let me know, genuinely, genuinely, why there’s nothing ripe in sight, with October looming round their corner.  I picture them gesticulating wildly in explaining their thwarted efforts and it puts a tear into my eyes.

But it turns out the efforts of communicating were not aimed at me, but on keeping ‘strike-breaking’ grapes in check, if the current lack of ripeness can be likened to a strike action, in the same way London underground staff might tackle the issue of, not sugar levels, but payrise.

It appears that a section of grapes on the western side of the vineyard had shown signs of ‘going for it’ and dressed up in some ripe skins. ‘Headquarters’ on the eastern side saw this and saw the ‘days left as grapes’ diminishing. So an order was put out to bring those western grapes back in line. But since the ripening process cannot be reversed, more drastic measures were needed….

What shall I say, … the grapes on the western side suddenly looked definitely different, but not the way we would all like: they looked like they had been replaced by Matterhorn-shaped mould cones. Just mould, – nothing grape-like left in them. An unparalleled sabotage act, blatantly inflicted by the secret service of the grape-government, infringing the right to be a grape, the right to ripen, substantial grape-rights infringed in a way we thought could only happen during a detention at Heathrow airport.

How the disobedience was spotted by HQ in the first place, from one end of the vine rows to the other, and how the ‘remediating’ botrytis-poison-arrows were carried to the western end, I will never know. The vine rows flow in gentle V-shapes, so you cannot see the end of the row from the starting point.  The western end only reveals itself once you reach the middle of the row, giving me a sense of mini-achievement every time I have to put some TLC down those rows.

But if the grapes are able to overcome those geographical obstacles and developed a water-tight communication system between the two removed ends – a communication system way superior to whatsapp, twitter, etc -, then all I have to do is infiltrate this system and ‘change the ‘system’ (in this case, the willingness of the system to offer up a harvest date and thus the willingness to turn into ripe grapes) FROM WITHIN. Easy!

If I am successful, anyone keen on poking through some sweet (- as you can see, I haven’t given up hope) mess, should be able to join us for a harvest, – possibly on 5 or 12 October. We’ll see!

p.s.: And if the idea of us communicating with grapes causes concern, rest assured that we spent the weekend doing some amazing communicating, entirely grape free, with visitors and resident artists at the Freitagsladen / Kleinsche Hoefe in Darmstadt, where we had a mini-wine-stall. The recycling art, water art, paper art, retro art, necklace art, etc is still buzzing through my head: it can buzz through yours every friday 12-19.00!

Baby News

our newly planted vines are carrying grapes....

This post was meant to be called “The good, the bad, etc”, but then everyone seemed to be talking about “the [royal] baby”. The baby, in our case, is not covered in a white blanket. “The babies” in the vineyard are the new plants seven of us planted earlier this year. And the news is that they now have babies, ahhh, sorry, they are carrying small grapes, which, after all the hard work, was an amazing thing to see.

... whereas elsewhere, grapes takes a bad turn.

… whereas elsewhere, grapes take a bad turn.

That good news, however, was easily cancelled out by discovering bad and ugly news, ie seeing individual vines that looked ridden by the feared illnesses. The images in this blog show entire vines dying off or bunches of grapes that we had to cut out. The jury is still out, though, as someone told us that our vineyard looked healthy, despite these ugly images. Fingers crossed.

_MG_0123

And if this is too nature-related for you (- a friend from NY visiting our vineyard admired “all that nature”- ), you can read about “the shop” here.

Vineyard update

Our current work in the vineyard resembles a fight with a big octopus (and if you think this sounds like an exaggeration I grant you that). All these long fragile shoots (as in, the octopus legs) have to be fed into an enclosure made of wire, so as to create a ‘wall of leaves’.  A wall that will eventually be home to the grapes (blossom happening at the moment).

spot the two orange heads

spot the two orange heads

I have never tested the fragility of actual octopus legs, but the stuff or shoots we are ‘fighting’ with is pretty fragile, so, yes, there is a fair amount of swearing, if another one bites the dust.  And if we don’t break them, the tractor will: you can probably picture it quite easily how the tractor will rip off any shoots that refuse to go into the wired enclosure and instead try to crawl along the ground.  The ‘wall of leaves’ we create helps the wind breeze through, thus stopping the spreading of the dreaded fungus, and makes the spraying more effective. With any scepticism towards the spraying, bio or conventional, it seems even more important that whatever concoction is applied, it hits its targets, ie the leaves, and doesn’t just ‘enrich’ the air.

The parrots were with me for this task last weekend and seemingly split the tasks between them: Erbse was ‘in charge’ of the ground or the vine stems, whereas Marzipan preferred the leaves. While they might seem like vineyard-pros by now, they have not yet confirmed their participation in the Loerzweiler wine-festival (July 5-8, 2013).

erbse weinberg heften

Thinking in parallel years

This blog post tries to speak in pictures: Two collages showing how very different thoughts have to be applied, in parallel, right now, to the new vintage (2013), yet to develop its first leaf, and the 2012 vintage, just bottled: While the 2013 vintage currently needs the type of tlc that leaves the fingers full of mud (“Loess” is the type of ground conditions we are in) and the knees sore, the 2012 vintage has already forgotten what mother nature looked like, as it slips into the newly arrived “Green Feather Bag” (drawing of “Marzipan” and design by Sonja Schmitt). And thanks to an invitation to play boule, we had to ditch the vineyard work for one Sunday and take the new bag out for a picnic!

vineyard vines Weinberg Wurzeln

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 22.44.32

A look ahead to the spraying season

Agriculture is ugly. That was a thought going through my head as I cut the vines on a freezing cold Sunday morning, looking down onto a big human pile of sh… dropped right there. Funnily enough, the pictures in this blog are NICE pics from our first cutting session in the new vineyard, there is no ‘ugly’ picture of the encounter with the sh… on this blog. Nor are there pictures of big machines or, for example, a picture of the cleaning of a spraying machine in the vineyard. This is strange, since in the field is the only legal place to clean a spraying machine, yet it seems to outrage passersby so much, that I have been told they call the police.

Nice pictures on every vintner’s website, and on this blog, thus don’t reveal one big dilemma and potentially very emotional discussion: on the one side the strong ‘yeah, what else’-type argument that our surroundings (streams, drinking water, countryside) should be free of chemicals; on the other side the – well, also ‘yeah, what else’-type – argument from the farmers that they have to spray to protect their crop.
For me, it creats a deep unease about a process that should be the most obvious and natural: growing stuff. Obviously, wine isn’t essential, so you could get out of growing or drinking wine entirely and be done with that. But the big spraying machines covering several rows and the fog that they leave behind are equally used for essentials we eat every day.

_MG_0039

In fact, if the latest technology is used, you won’t see a big cloud of fog and the sprayed chemical will have a better chance of landing on the plants and not on your skin if you walk past, but the substance is still there.

“Just go bio and be done with it”, I hear you say. We are, and are almost there, actually. Our very long and meandered search for a new vineyard where we can do bio (which has just come to an end, yippeh!) shows how difficult it is. But this does not change that you might be walking or cycling past a spraying machine and not know what’s being sprayed, bio or conventional. Or that you only have one or two bio farmers/vintners in your area and are thus likely to come into contact with whatever conventional farmers leave behind. Or that you feel uneasy about copper and sulphur, if that’s what your bio vintner uses.

Whatever effort you look at, it’s easy to rip it apart. The cost of bio-certification, for example, is prohibitive to small businesses. So, if it is so difficult to convince consumers to pay for the extra labour that goes into bio products, how smashing will the reception be, if you tell them: ‘well, it’s going to be even more expensive, because the certification itself costs so much’.

But if I had to suggest one additional effort, it would be ‘spreading the word’, maybe even ‘spraying the word’ :o). At the moment, a chemical’s leaflet that lists the side effects and is delivered with the substance is in the hand of the farmer mixing up what he is about to spray. It’s not printed on the side of the spraying machine in huge letters. If it was, would we see locals walking their dogs in full protective suit?

I was told that one vintner said that he cannot not sit on his spraying machine in full protective gear with mask, as advised by the local body, as he would lose his wine-buying customers, if they saw him. The sight of a farmer on his spraying machine in full protective gear could be one way of conveying the gist of the leaflet on side-effects. Could such information thrown out to anyone living in farming areas, or visiting them as tourists, be so explosive? Imagine waking up in your holiday flat in June or July, a peak time for spraying, only to find your host, a vintner, going off to work in a gas mask. Would you feel like you were missold?

_MG_0071

By ‘spraying the word’, I mean that if a few basics were shared, those not in the business but affected by it (because they buy, because they live there) would know what to look out for:

1) Create an understanding for the main substances used. For example, if systemic herbicides are designed to get to the inside of a plant, what does it do, if that same product tries the same with your own skin?
2) Discuss in each village at the beginning of the spraying season what residue-levels in the water system should cause concerns and where updates will be published. Arrange an active monitoring of such levels.
3) Convey an understanding for best practice: (i) If the moths (LBAM) are killed when laying eggs, you might have less fungus to fight later on. (ii) if the calculation of the mixture is done correctly, the spraying mixture should come to an end as you reach your last vine, thus leaving no residue.
4) Convey an understanding for “PIWI”s, ie grape types that need less spraying, as well as resistancies to chemicals that have developed.
5) Have signs on the spraying machines or in the fields what is being sprayed and how often.
6) Present the information in a digestible way.

For the time being, it seems to me that the lack of ‘spreading the word’ suits those still applying conventional chemicals. If you speak to a vintner and find out that in June/July they are out spraying almost every day, you realise how big the impact on the environment could be.

_MG_0024

If I had to summarise my learning curve, it would go as follows: Everyone out there trying to make a living in agriculture, or in wine more specifically, is fighting pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. That’s the little catapillars that lay their eggs and eat the grapes, any fungus that makes the grapes rot away, as well as the weeds that need to be removed in different ways, one being the chemical one. You would think that, if the chemicals used end up in our drinking water, alarm bells would go off, more so than if horse meat was found in lasagne. So I set off on an internet search, in an ideal world wanting to find information as specific as ‘in the months of x, y and z, village p reached leves above the legal limits in its water areas, due to the chemicals sprayed in that period’. I was surprised how difficult it was to find digestible information on the internet, on the damage left behind. See results from measurements in 2008/2009 (“PSM-Wirkstoffe in Oberflaechengewaesser” from authorities in this region, – unfort, the pdf does not link), these samples from 2012 and this information from 2002 (if you take into account that it’s old).

However, I think the much bigger impact on what vegs/fruits I will buy from now onwards (and that doesn’t even include looking at the drinking water and the immediate impact on your skin from whatever is currently sprayed) comes from throw-away comments from people in the business. One went like that: “A vintner has a chance that by the time the produce (ie the wine) is tested, some of the chemicals left on the grapes have disappeared, but anyone in the business of selling fresh fruits, when you can’t get the chemicals off through washing, – poor sods.” So, maybe an educated peek behind the scene, – travelling there, asking questions -, is what it takes to change one’s buying habits.

SPRAY THE WORD!

_MG_0079

What a difference two weeks make…

If you remember the autumn images from the previous post, the vivid colours, the red and yellow leaves dotted or splashed over the vineyard and its surroundings like bits of chilli and pumpkin in our pasta-lunch today, then you might understand that it took me a while to take in the change in scenery today. Yes, I knew the leaves would have come off, given the temperatures over the last week, but to witness such a sudden change back to the Pale season, the first season described in The Year in Colours, was quite a shock, – I hope you’ll enjoy the pictures below!  In stark contrast to the vineyard, the transformation in the cellar, from juice to wine, is anything but sudden (which is good!): the bubbling in the air lock is gradually getting less, we are crossing our fingers for a few more days to hope for a smooth end to the fermentation. In the US this coming week, it’s not so much a question whether Nov 6 will go smoothly, but what the results mean for the next four years: expect us to be on election results watch during one of our early morning fermentation checks.

Green feather vineyard autumn

The Green Feather Vineyard only two weeks ago ….

… and today, the fallen leaves exposing a few grapes left behind

Eiswein

In neighbouring vineyards, some harvest fun is still to come, …

Beerenauslese

… as is here!