Our View from the Tractor.

The View from the Tractor.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby (1925)

Ah, working the tractor.  What do we see when we’re up there?  Sure, the mind wanders, and you might think it dull work, but its an opportunity to scrutinize each vine while traveling at 3 miles an hour.  Here’s one lacking flowers, another that’s dead, still another covered with shoots, all looking fruitful, so positive and full of hope.  You make a mental note and inexorably move on, at once going forward and looking back.

We spent Saturday at the Central Virginia Wine Festival in Glen Allen. a northern suburb of Richmond, then high-tailed it out of there to be able to get a fungicide spray in the vineyards on Sunday.  It was the perfect day for it — not windy, mild, pleasant to be outdoors, though sitting on the terrace with a Mint Julep in hand while watching the dogs chase squirrels across the lawn and idly thumbing through a magazine would certainly have been preferable.

The vines are at a stage where all appears possible, that great things could happen, or a tragedy.  All stages in the life of a vine seem critical: bud break and bloom especially.  At bud break, the possibility of frost threatens catastrophe, with the potential loss of the entire crop.  Another threat is the climbing cutworm, which if unchecked can be equally destructive.  An ill-timed rainstorm during bloom causes its own kind of havoc, which may result in irregular berry set, though in the scheme of things, this isn’t too bad because the resulting loose clusters can avoid disease.

The worst of the winter is behind us (unless you are reading this from Colorado and Wyoming, which just had up to three feet of snow in some parts earlier this week), and It is too early to speculate about the hurricane season, so all there is to do is keep disease at bay and hope for temperate spring weather.

Viognier Tag.With the new vineyard, we want to get the vines off to a good start with at least three sprays that incorporate the foundation Biodynamic preparation known as B.D. 500, otherwise known as horn manure.  Its application is believed promote microbial activity in the soil, which in turn allows the plants greater access to nutrients in the teeming life below ground.  Practitioners recommend spraying the ground, but we see no reason not to have a foliar feeding of the vines, so we spray everything.  We also add fermented horsetail tea, which is a powerful antifungal agent.

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is a plant source for silica, which is believed to harness solar forces, thereby discouraging mildew.  It sounds crazy and the fermented tea smells very bad, but we swear by it. The plant is made up of silica, potassium and calcium.   Shortly before bloom we will add to our standby fungicide spray mixture of sulfur (which helps protect against powdery mildew) and Manzate (a magnesium based fungicide, which combats downy mildew) B.D. 501, horn silica, which is powdered quartz, and is believed to improve photosynthesis.

This was our first pass through the new vineyard on a tractor.  A first visit is always cause for anxiety, because you don’t quite know the “lay of the land.”  In time you come to appreciate and anticipate every dip and furrow and can adjust accordingly, but in a new vineyard its all vigilance and caution.  It didn’t help that our trusty New Holland vineyard tractor was in the shop, so we had to manage with a full size loaner that came equipped with a front-end loader, so navigating is extra tricky.  We usually navigate every other row, but not in this monster, which lacked the turn radius of our tractor.  Its a wonder we haven’t taken out any posts maneuvering this thing.

And with that, we are left wishing for even more time to accomplish everything we set out to do, and need to do.  Going forward, looking back, re-assessing and planning.

Down the Grow Tube.




A Cool, Wet Spring Means Phomopsis.

Bud Break

Bud Break, 12 April 2013.

Ah, spring!  Winegrowers have a different spin on that old ditty:  “April showers bring May . . . Phomopsis.  More specifically, Phomopsis viticola, otherwise known as Phomopsis cane and leaf spot.  The weather this spring has been perfect for it — cool, wet days with relatively cool temperatures in the range of 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  We haven’t seen it in our vineyards for about four years, but this past week the tractor was being serviced so we had to miss spraying fungicides one week.  The infection seemed relatively small — just a few patches — but it must be controlled.  One can expect to see it anytime after bud break, which this year occurred around April 12 in our part of the world.

Readers of this space probably don’t care for the ugly details, but those interested in learning more can turn to any of several sources: Virginia Tech’s Online Guide to Grapevine Diseases and the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program are excellent, Cornell University has theirs, as do most every other university agriculture program.  The bottom line is it ain’t pretty, and if not controlled, it can ruin your crop.

How do you fight it?  You treat it the same as all of our other loveable fungal infections: downy mildew, powdery mildew, botrytis, black rot — with a fungicidal spray, applying once a week or so or after a heavy rain, being mindful of the limits specified on the label for the application of that particular product in a particular growing season.  There are a range of products effective against it, such as copper and sulfur (for those focused on organic production), but our personal favorite is a Dupont product called Manzate, which contains manganese and zinc.  The rules for its application vary by location and crop.  In California, for example, it is illegal to apply Manzate to grapes after bloom, yet east of the Rocky Mountains you can apply it up to 66 days before harvest (referred to as the “pre-harvest interval,” or PHI), yet for squash and melons, the PHI is 5 days.  Go figure.

However, all of these are contact products and need to be re-applied after the next heavy rain, and need to be applied again anyway to protect the growing shoots.  The inoculum overwinters in the vineyard, so a dormant application of lime sulfur is probably in order this fall and again before bud break next year.  This is also effective for botrytis and powdery mildew. Our usual practice is to combine two products in each tank mix — one that targets powdery mildew and the other downy mildew.  Fortunately the products that fight both of these are good for Phomopsis.  And for good measure, we include a tea of fermented Horsetail, as prescribed in Biodynamic practice for fungal diseases.  Whether it works or not is of course subject to debate, but it definitely can’t hurt.

No doubt Phomopsis is making an appearance in vineyards up and down the eastern seaboard this year.  This is certainly not the end of the world — we just need to be extra-diligent with our spray schedule this year to make sure we contain the infection so the disease doesn’t infect the fruit, and be prepared to spray in the dormant season to keep it from becoming established in the vineyard next year.

Six Inch Shoots, 3 May 2013.

Six Inch Shoots, 3 May 2013.

Bud Break!

Sometimes its like a race.  The anticipation builds, you see stirrings of life as the buds swell and pucker, then when you aren’t looking, the vines spring into life and unfurl their leaves in all their chartreuse glory.  It’s life affirming: yes, a fresh start is possible, in spite of the travails and difficulties of last season.  Perhaps it was drought, or the relentless rain of back to back hurricanes — all is forgotten and forgiven, for we are in a new year.

Before bud break we have, as François Bouchet so eloquently notes in L’Agriculture Bio-Dynamique (Paris: Deux versants, 2003), “The cycle begins with the weeping, almost like the birth of a child.  This is the time when the sap climbs and weeping can be noticed where the shears passed over during trimming season.  Not only does weeping produce a hint of healing, but it also presents an opportunity for an internal cleansing and a mechanical expulsion of all pathogenic spores, including the eutypoise, which could endanger the well-being of the vine.”

Meanwhile, deep within the earth the soil teems with the fungi that site symbiotically with the roots.  Now is the time in biodynamic practice to to apply the Horn Manure.  The usual recommendation for BD 500 is to spray it directly onto the soil, but we prefer a foliar application.  We make a decoction with the BD 500 Horn Manure and apply it to the vines with our first spray; this increases the vegetative reproduction of the vine, and is actually recommended by Franςois Bouchet as a method to combat the dreaded climbing cutworm.

Every year we are warned by our vineyard consultant to be on the lookout for the climbing cutworm, which are the larvae of lepidopterous species in the family Noctuidae.  This is an insect that can devastate a vine by climbing the trunk and devouring the buds from bud swell through bud break; one wonders if vineyards may have escaped the effects of this pest by commencing growth out of step with the lifestyle of the insect.

We have yet to spot climbing cutworms at Annefield.  They don’t appear to be established here.  Nevertheless, This is applied in addition to our first fungicidal sprays — micronized sulfur to combat powdery mildew, and Manzate, a broad-spectrum fungicide whose active ingredients are Manganese and Zinc, which is effective against downy mildew.  Happily the day we sprayed, March 25, is a Fruit day on the Biodynamic Calendar.

Make no mistake – we are in an early season.  The Viognier is furthest along, followed by the Cabernet Franc, then the Pinot Gris and Vermentino.  The Cabernet Sauvignon and Vidal Blanc are just now pushing.  In years past growth would have reached this stage after about April 7, which means we are at least two weeks early this year. Which is worrisome, for there is a 50 percent chance of another frost before April 4 in the vicinity of Charlotte Court House (our county seat), according to the University of Virginia Climatology Office.  Frost is particularly deadly for wine grapes because what you see here bears the entire season’s growth in miniature.  Take a microscope to the growth tips and you will find the nascent leaves and berries.  If frost takes these out, all may be lost — though some varieties have fruitful secondary buds, many do not.

Early in the morning of Tuesday, 27 March a cold snap affected parts of Northern and  Central Virginia, with temperatures dipping getting as low as 31° Fahrenheit.  As of this writing we haven’t heard of the consequences.  Lots of variables come into play here — cloud cover, wind speed, relative humidity, the peculiarities (or virtues) of an individual vineyard site — this is where cold air drainage comes into play.  We read someplace that one should look for a spot where there is a 25 foot difference in elevation between the vineyard and the lowest land nearby.  Here in the Southern Piedmont we escaped the worst of the freeze, because it was a quiet, still night, and the temperature did not dip below 37° Fahrenheit.  It feels like we dodged a bullet.