A personal perpsective of life in our Virginia vineyard... Christine Wells Vrooman



A Vineyard's Christmas Poem

They sleep, our vines, this Christmas Eve
Beneath a heavy cloak of snow
Where stillness reigns a tranquil night
And moonlight casts a celestial light
Into the dark 
Woods and vineyard rows
And the white breath of sheep
Lifts to the air and vanishes
Chewing their cud, they huddle
Their color changed against the snow
How did this snow find its way
To these mountains
That I love
When from the heavens did last week fall
A Winter solstice snow
And wrapped our world in Christmas
A mountain all aglow
Where under this moonlit night, a blanket of white
Hushes majestic forests still.  And tall, silent trees
Lay down their shadows, long and black
Upon the silent white
In this blessed silent night
A peaceful world that softens a heart
Into love
A love that finds its way into all...
That is near
Feeding the earth and vines planted here
Dig deep, dear roots
And when you awaken from 
This Christmas snow
Deeper still
To this earth that gave you life
To this place where you were raised
This place
Where heaven and earth join
This place we love

May the peace of this mountain Christmas snow fill your hearts
this day and always.
Merry Christmas to All!


Celestial Gift Over Ankida Ridge

This evening the full moon rose over the vineyard.  I fortunately had my trusty Nikon D80 with me, as well as my tripod!  And this is what I captured... I think it was created by the full moon reflecting off the cloud's reflection.    Beautiful!

And a bit later, more celestial images over Ankida Ridge.
What priceless beauty.


I read the next day that the reason for this spectacle was a high amount of ice crystals in the atmosphere.  I am so thankful I happened to step outside to witness it all.  


"La Lutte Raisonnee" and Sustainable Farming

Vines in the Balance
Well, here we are at the end of our second year of growth, and we find our vines' sizes to be as varied as the days of the seasons up here on the crest of the Virginia Blue Ridge.  We hope a winter's rest will help to balance them out a bit...  give the weaker ones a chance to get better footing, and when the warming earth and lengthening days signal them back to life, they will catch up with their bigger counterparts and we will have vines that are more equal in size.  That would help us come harvest time, when the ripening and sugar levels of the fruit would be more uniform as well.

We have several vines that just don't  want to give in to winter's nudge.  Their leaves, yellowed and tattered still cling to the vine.  Best they go to sleep on their own now before a hard winter's freeze comes along.  They would then face the risk of being damaged if the sap is still flowing through the plant.  I like to think they are just enjoying life so much.. just wanting to soak up that sun and warmth before they take that long, cold nap.  Can't say I blame them! 

A Micro-climate to Love
We have yet to experience a frost up here this fall.  At our elevation of 1700 feet,  our spring and autumn mornings are often as many as 10 to 20 degrees warmer than down in the valleys below us.  And the summer afternoon highs usually hovered around 5 degrees cooler than our lower counterparts.  We give thanks to the valleys below!
This little micro-climate of ours is good for our vines and has added even more sweetness to our life up here.  What a treat to sit out on the deck in late autumn with a morning cup of coffee in shirtsleeves, while looking at the low-lying fogs and frosts in my eye's view. If only our nemesis Black Rot would go on its merry way.

La Lutte Raisonnee
While reading about the vineyards of France recently, I stumbled upon a phrase to which I have grown fond... "la lutte raisonnee".  Beyond the fact that I love the sound of the words, the rhythm of the phrase, it is a term that I think can define our farming philosophy and practices.

This intriguing phrase refers to those vineyards that are farmed as organically as possible, but when confronted with a problem for which there is no organic solution, the vintners take action to prevent the loss of their crop.  This dilemma creates within the vintner a struggle, knowing he must compromise on his ideal so that he can save the crop.  This dilemma and subsequent action is defined as "the reasoned struggle".   There is no governing body, no association, no label that can be stamped, "La Lutte Raisonnee".  But for me the term offers a sense of camaraderie, a definition, a sense of association with others who struggle to maintain a balanced environment but who accept there are times we have no option other than to strengthen our weaponry, albeit for just one little battle, that will allow us to win the war.  And so next year, unless some proven organic recipe comes along in the meantime that will conquer BR, we will practice our own "reasoned struggle"... our "la lutte raisonnee".

This will mean, of course, we cannot qualify for organic certification. At least not next year.   But it really wasn't the certification that was so important to us, it was our desire to work on a plot of land that was not only healthy for the vines but for us, our workers, our grandbabies...  our dogs, the bees, the birds, the soil itself, the waters downstream from us.   But what good is a vineyard if there is no crop?  So if we have to spray a few times to treat this one issue, so be it.  We will spray only enough to treat Black Rot, hopefully creating minimal impact on the balance of life that hums in, under and through the vines.

Beyond The Vines... A Sustainable Farm
A dear friend of ours who owns a beautiful vineyard here in Virginia is often asked why he chose to grow grapes here and not in California.   His response.. "Anyone can grow grapes in California!"  I love that spirit that so closely aligns with ours when we are asked why we chose to grow organic Pinot Noir in Virginia.  There should, in our opinion, always be those who push the barriers, who challenge the status quo.

But we are here not only to raise a vineyard, but to raise and tend to a sustainable farm and all its creatures, great and small.  We have here a smattering of crops grown from heirloom seeds, two small orchards of apples, peaches, pears, plums, figs and more...  a flock of sheep to graze and fertilize, and in the spring, their lambs... and in late January (we hope!) offspring from our guard dogs, our Maremmas, Bella and Dan... These pups will grow up to protect the species with whom they were raised  For us, our sheep.

Sustainable... a term that has finally caught on in Virginia.  Loosely, it means an approach to farming where the goal is for a farm to be able to sustain itself on what it generates, creating a circle and cycle of life that perpetuates itself...  Respecting all elements of the farm, its natural resources and the people who work there.  I think of it as harmony, where all of life seems to co-exist for the benefit of all.  To be sustainable, a farm must generate its own compost that will cook itself into a microbial rich masterpiece that will nourish the ground under our vines and crops.  We built a pond and within months of its presence an entire eco-system was creating itself, and the sounds of peepers, toads, and frogs fill the air every spring.  We are fortunate to occasionally get a close-up view of the little creatures.

We set up housing for bluebirds and martins that feed on bugs.   Bats swoop in from the surrounding forest to snap up the nighttime insects.  We  have an assortment of working dogs, hunters, birders, guarders.. all but the guard dogs are simply (and beautifully) "mutts"... creatures who might otherwise have been euthanized had we not wrapped them under our arms and brought them into our home and onto our farm.  They now live the good life.  I love them so.   I can't impress strongly enough the value of adopting pets from shelters.  These open-hearted animals seem to know you have saved their lives and they carry an unconditional love for you for the rest of their lives.  Look at these faces.  How can you resist?

Quite a matrix of life... all living together in a symbiotic way in this little eco-system we have established, tucked into our little corner of the world.   We live together, sustaining the farm in a way that nourishes us all.

Coming next:
And how is that wine coming along in the basement??
And throughout the quiet winter months... My "Soapbox" Derby


Harvest or Bust!

A year ago spring, one of our ewes, Flo, gave birth to a stillborn lamb.  Flo seemed listless for some time afterwards, and we noticed she stayed close to the other young lambs.  I imagined she was longing for what should have been.  She had birthed several times, usually twins, so her mind and body was inclined, if not programmed, to continue on with the process of life and living, birthing, and nurturing that over which she had labored.

And so, on a much lighter level, but real none the less, Dennis and I found ourselves longing for what should come naturally after spending a year in a vineyard.   Transforming grapes into wine... that convoluted process that should be simple but in actuality is a very fragile process, that is, if one is desiring a wine of high quality and refined taste.  We decided to try our hand at it and learn what we could about the process itself.

Friends of ours had some extra Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in their vineyard, so on a Friday morning I went over and picked 150 lbs of grapes.

We hauled them back to our barn and Arnold, Berto and I set the two large tubs of grapes into a Jacuzzi tub filled with ice (I knew there was a reason I hadn't yet sold that wrong-sized tub I had bought while building the house!).

We covered them carefully, keeping them cold until we were able to de-stem and crush them the following day when the staff from our animal hospital arrived for our annual campout (Pretty convenient, eh?)

Our dear, wonderful staff jumped to the cause and pitched in with great gusto (love them so!).  We all stood around a long table at the end of the barn  under the natural light, turned up the music and made our way through 150 lbs of grapes, sorting and then de-stemming them in our little make-shift "de-stemmer".


We divided the grapes into four 5-gal food-grade tubs and added the assorted "additives" and yeast to get the grapes to begin the fermenting process.  We then loaded them into the back of my "Pathmaker" and moved them all up to the house and ceremoniously set them in the little basement room we had set aside for hobbies, extra sleeping space, etc.  We turned on a little space heater, covered the tubs and waited for the magic to begin!   In the meantime, the staff and we went off to the Annual Garlic/Wine Festival here in Amherst Co... an event we would not miss, garlic burgers, garlic kettle corn, wine, live bands... great fun to say the least!

And a Little Sheep Wrastlin' Thrown in for Good Measure! 
Even though our vet practice is small animal, we are fortunate to have a couple gals on staff that love to work with sheep, Melissa in particular!  We will be using our sheep to "weed" the vineyard, so we want to keep them good and healthy, and thus we gave them their annual vaccinations and worming meds while the staff was here.    Melissa "took 'em down" with great enthusiasm, with a little help from Arnold and Berto. With pictures being worth a thousand words, I need say no more!


What a gal!!!

And Our "Fire-ring" 
Later that evening, we gathered around the stone firepit Arnold had lovingly built for us the previous day.  There is an artist in this dear man who has never lived away from the generational family farm down the road in the hollow.  He was excited to surprise me with another of his creations, hauling a bucket-load of rock he had scoured from the woods.  He knelt himself down on the grass on our overlook between the house and the vineyard.  He busily picked out which rock he would place where, Berto helping him as he made his way around this "Fire-ring", as he calls it.  Upon completion, he knelt back on his heels, studying his masterpiece.  His eyes lit up and he clapped his hands together, "There, Now you've got yourself a good fire-ring that'll be there for a long time!"  Another creation from dear Arnold, who creates simple, mini-masterpieces all over this mountain using what nature offers up... wood, rock and his imagination and crafty hands.

Thank you, Dear Arnold!

It is hard to explain the sense of family we and our staff enjoy.  They truly are the best staff any business could ask for... really so much more than "staff".    Together with our dear Berto and Arnold here at the mountain, we have managed to surround ourselves with the most beautiful, loving, dedicated people one could hope for in their lives.  We are blessed, so very blessed indeed.

A Winery's Humble Beginnings

A little gray basement room, one window, one futon, a floor space heater, a folding table and chair... Our first Winery!!  Cute little thing, anyway!  Simple, basic, tiny... a perfect match for our understanding of enology!

Something in the Air
The smell of fermenting grapes... the warm, moist fragrance of earthly elements combined and working together to create something new.  Magical.   There is something about the whole process, especially that yeasty aroma that entrances me.  I first smelled it on Day 2 of fermentation and when I did, I closed my eyes and felt like I was wanting to remember something I could not.  It brought me to a place that I could only feel, not see, nor touch or explain.  Perhaps the connection was somewhere deep in my cellular memory.  It feels almost mystical, this nostalgic, nebulous emotion it stirs within me.  I  am ever so thankful we found our way here.

Like Watching Our Babies Sleep
Three times a day we punch down the "cap", the crushed grapes and skins that float to the top during fermentation.  This is done to prevent harmful bacteria from growing on them and destroying the batch.  We watch the clock, hoping it is time to "punch" (sort of like watching the clock in the evening after a hard day in the vineyard, hoping it is time to go to bed!).  We measure the Brix (sugar level) daily and have watched it drop amazingly fast.  Once it gets to zero, tonight or tomorrow I think, we will run the musts through a little press we bought off Craig's List  (It is in the back of Dennis' truck In VA Beach as I write this), and begin the secondary fermentation process in glass carboys..  I have been tasting the juice with each punch.  At first sweet tasting, it now tastes like wine.. a very, very bad wine.  I don't know what it is supposed to taste like at this point.  But it does at least taste like some very bad wines we have bought, so it is at least "good enough".  But this is only our little experiment anyway, like a college lab course... to learn.   So unless something happens over the next couple of weeks, (and believe me there is much that can still go wrong) we might have created something worth drinking! 

I chuckle at how we sit on the futon after each punch and just gaze at the tubs and watch the bubbles rise, fixating our eyes on them as if they were our newborn babies sleeping.  Pathetic saps we are!


And this image shows you why we named our heavenly place
"Ankida"... that place where heaven and earth join.



The Envelope Please

My six-week Black Rot field trials have ended... lesions tabulated, votes for our mystery product counted. The verdict is in.

First, the trial's protocol:
I observed and photographed 34 plants throughout the vineyard, 17 in the Spray Group, 17 in the Control Group (those that received no spray)
We sprayed once a week for five weeks at a chosen concentration and application rate
Each subsequent week I counted the number of plants affected by Black Rot (BR) and the number of lesions on those plants
The weather was favorable for continued outbreaks of BR throughout most of the time period.

At the end of six weeks:
Number of plants affected with lesions: Spray group - 12, Control group - 16
Total number of lesions: Spray group - 57, Control group - 102

The Test Product did result in an overall diminished amount of Black Rot in the Spray group compared to the Control group.

The Control group had several plants with a large outbreak of lesions, while the Spray group had no major outbreaks, just scattered lesions, so it seems the product is effective in diminishing the severity of an outbreak.

The Spray Group appears generally healthier.
One of the most striking observations is the near complete lack of powdery mildew in the sprayed group. We have been using an assortment of sprays for powdery all summer and have seen very little until the last couple of weeks when the weather has been extremely conducive for it. The sprayed plants have essentially no powdery on them, a noticeable difference from some of their surrounding plants.

Our test product holds great promise, although the results are a bit disappointing. Many factors could account for disappointing results: inadequate coverage, ineffective concentration, rain events, spores already having infected the plant before coverage, etc.
My feeling is that with further controlled studies and more defined spraying concentrations and application procedures, this test product could very well be a reliable prevention of Black Rot outbreaks and definitely already is a very effective product for the control of Powdery.
Perhaps if it had been sprayed from the beginning of the season, it might have been able to keep BR from developing, thus controlling the disease by preventing continuing outbreaks of the pycnidia and conidia spores that perpetuate the disease.

The Verdict
So..... The verdict, you ask. All being told, at this point, unless more outside testing is done with this product or another product comes up that has a proven track record, I do not feel comfortable enough with the product's effectiveness to risk losing our crop next year to Black Rot.
I definitely would like to see the company pursue the development of this product for commercial use. I am currently trying to connect this company with another east coast organic company to see if they can combine efforts to create the product we organic viticulturists are hoping to find. I think it has a very high potential of becoming one of the major weapons in the arsenal of organic vineyards/farms across the country if they develop it commercially. I will stay in contact with them to encourage them to bring it to market.

So, how am I feeling about all of this? Of course, I am disappointed this is not the silver bullet I had hoped it would be. And now we most likely will have to spray with one chemical next year to prevent BR from devouring our crop. But I feel more committed than ever to find the product that will allow for organic viticulture in the east. I will not give up until the product is created. If we can put a man on the moon...we most certainly can find the organic solution to BR.

We will continue with our organic and biodynamic farming practices.
Next year would have been our third year of such practices, qualifying us to apply for organic certification. So now, that three year count will have to begin another year. At least in the meantime, I know I can feel comfortable with my grandbabies playing in the vineyard, our dogs rolling in the rows, our bees and birds flitting about.... except for those three times we will have to spray for the BR. The rest of the year we will remain free of chemicals and do what we can to continue to promote healthy microbial life in the vineyard.

The day will come when we have that organic solution. I am patient and committed. My journey continues with or without BR, and it is in that wonderful journey where all of life happens.

The autumnal equinox is here. The sun has moved back far enough to the south to illuminate our eastern valley with those glorious striations of rainbow colors of the pre-dawn light.

It's all good.


Oh Dear, Oh Deer!

My day started with a foggy contact lens, my distant eye all "a' blurr". I didn't bother to change my contact... T'will be a day of squinting and stretching my right eye to see distances clearly until I do. I drove down to the vineyard and dropped off some organic herbicide, then continued down to the lower forty to pick some heirloom tomatoes and beans, and take the three dogs, Flippy, Killian and big, bouncy BoomBooom for a long walk. I smile as I watch my two seniors trot down this old country, creek-lined road, knowing how stiff their joints are, yet feeling their joy. We had to euthanize our dear neighbor's seventeen year old dog yesterday, so the reality of their age and the inevitable is heavy on my mind. But I choose to focus on the joy that is mine, at this peaceful and contented moment the four of us are sharing. Their bouncing ears and smiling faces. And tails that wag all about. I broaden my stride and my smile.

A couple hours later we return to the vineyard, young Boomer running up the entire drive up the mountainside, the two older ones resting in the back of the Pathfinder after their strenuous stroll. I had left open the eight foot high vineyard gate. I pulled into the vineyard to do a bit of spraying. My eye (blurry still) catches a rusty colored motion to my right. A fawn! Oh no. Boomer is loose, right behind me, still on the road. The fawn runs down along the inside of the eight-foot deer fence. Boomer, yipping and running chases alongside it from the outside of the fence. Then to my left another deer, the doe, the baby's mother, chasing in the direction of her baby. Boomer trying desperately to get to them, only doing his job of protecting the grounds. I give up on the deer and get Boomer, drag him into the back of the Pathfinder. I run to see where the deer are and to open all the gates so they can escape. I find the baby running along the north side towards the first open gate. I sigh and stand back. The baby turns and runs back from where she was heading. What?! Boomer! He jumped over two rows of seats and jumped out my half rolled-down window. NO! BOOMER! I scream. He obeys and comes to me. I put him back in the car, roll up all windows to just slightly open, drive the car out of the vineyard, take the keys, lock the doors. I return to the vineyard looking for the deer. I see them in the far corner. Then out from the vineyard rows dashes another young one, not quite as small as the fawn. Three of them! They were still panicked and kept running into the fence, their heads and legs at times getting caught in the wire. It was horrific. I silently begged them to be calm, to find the open gates. I tried not to imagine the worst. This video puts you there with me. Ugh.

(Warning: May be disturbing)

I spend another hour there, trying to coax them, watch them, make sure they get out. Then I see the mother try another leap over the fence, her head jambs up under the support beam as she leaps. I see her drop. I think I see her walk away, but the heavy undergrowth is too high. I can't see her. I wait. Then high up on the vineyard I see two walk from the border into the rows of vines. They are heading in the right direction. But where is the third? Did she get injured in that last jump? Or worse yet... I have to look for her.
I crawl down the steep embankment into the bushes and grasses that line the fence and begin walking the perimeter to see if she is down. I get about half way down and see a round mound of rusty brown lying in the grasses. I feel my heart pounding and move closer, pushing through a growing sassafras whose sweet scent surrounds me. I see it. Oh. Oh! A big boulder the same color as the deer. I blow out the breath I had been holding and continue, climbing over and through such high, heavy growth. Then I see ahead of me, the gray of her open mouth protruding from the grasses. I approach slowly, get close enough to finally see clearly.... an old limb staring me in the face. Again, I sigh. I reach the southeast corner. She is not there. They are gone. They had escaped.
I took my time walking back up the length of the vineyard. I rub down my calfs in case any chiggers or ticks might have jumped from the high grasses onto my legs. The vines are turning their fall color. Crickets are the only sounds. I give thanks for this ending.
I close all the gates, glance at the sky above me, whose clouds are all a'blurr.
If only I had changed that contact earlier in the day. Clear vision... priceless.
The gate will remain closed at all times. I was fortunate this time. The deer even more.


September! HARVEST!! ... Only One More Year

Harvest!.... At last! But alas, not for us!
But for the mature vineyards here in Virginia, the time has come. A year's worth of work literally comes to fruition. In Virginia, September and October are the primary months to snip away that luscious fruit from the vine... to capture in a bottle the effects of a year's worth of sun, wind, rain and soil on the vines, whose roots, leaves and fruit have fed all year on that magical combination... every year the expression unique. This variable is what makes a "vintage"... the characteristics that set apart one year from the next, from mediocre to outstanding... My guess is 2009 will be an excellent vintage for Virginia. In spite of the many rain events throughout the season, we had no late spring frosts, we had plentiful sunshine, moderate temperatures, adequate rainfall. If a vineyard was able to keep the fungal spores at bay, it should be a very good year for them. Being in the mid-Atlantic, we always have the possibility of hurricane effects that interfere with harvest. A heavy rainfall event just before harvest will add too much water to the vines, soak the grapes, possibly splitting them, lower the relative sugar content, and generally wreak havoc in the vineyard at just the wrong time. So far, so good this year. For those harvesting this week and early next week, a nice long stretch of mild sunny weather will add that last bit of sugar in the grapes, the sun offering them a last kiss goodbye. How wonderful we get to taste those sun-kissed grapes in years to come as we pour from the bottle the beautiful expression of that year's long and passionate relationship between the grapes and the sun. It's no wonder passion seems to flow from a bottle of wine.

A Very Tiny Harvest...
But better than none at all! We managed to find a few clusters here and there that survived the Battle of the Black Rot! At least we didn't have to worry about scheduling a crew for harvest. The power packed flavor of these pinot noir grapes was amazing...sweet, tart, rich in my mouth. Only a hint of things to come! I can only imagine a vineyard full of such clusters. It will come. And it will be a joyous occasion indeed.

The Beauty of Diversity
Because we are not only a vineyard, but a farm as well, we are at least enjoying the harvest of an assortment of organic fruits and veggies. In addition to my over-flowing rows of ripening heirloom tomatoes (about 25 different varieties with names such as Boxcar Willie, Mortgage Lifter, Black Prince, Amish Paste, Black Cherry), we are enjoying succulent peaches, pears, plums, apples, figs and mounds of summer squash, zucchini, green beans, fresh basil to make pesto, green and hot peppers, and more. The colors, the shapes, the scents and flavors... a grand finale of sorts to satiate not only our stomachs, but our memories of such a beautiful and bountiful abundance to carry us through the long winter to whom it seems we only just said goodbye.

Time So Evident
These cycles of life on the farm accentuate the passing of time. It is not a bad thing, for in so doing, I find myself clutching, but not clinging to each and every season. They all have their merits, their purpose, their own unique beauty. I cherish all the seasons. I welcome them, befriend them, work with and through them, then say goodbye, giving thanks for their presence in my life. It is all good.
Farewell dear summer. You gave me so much.
Come along now, sweet autumn.

Note: Field Trial test results due Mid-September. See you then!


The Eyes Have It!

One of the many surprises I have "enjoyed" by monitoring the vineyard so closely is my close encounters with critters seemingly from another planet! Pictures, being worth a thousand words, describe it all. Take a look of some of the secret life I discovered in our vines. This guy is called a Saddleback Caterpillar.

And all those needle-like projections sticking out everywhere can sting. Dreadful little creature! Never saw anything like this.

And this guy is known as a Clickbug. And he really does click loud enough to sound like someone trying to crack open a nut. Amazing!
The images below show tiny projections emerging from a leaftop,as if it was part of the plant itself. But upon further study, as shown in the second image, they actually are encasements for some type of larva that was so tiny it was barely visible. I have no idea what this larva would grow into.


Hints of Fall Abound

I can feel it, smell it in the air. I can see it along the "ever so slightly" lighter hued green ridges that roll down into distant valleys. And in the vineyard, things are settling down and I sense a slowing of activity in the vines. Autumn is around the bend.
Our vines are still putting out some new growth which is good for them, as all those new leaves will soak up the nourishment of the sun and send it down to the roots. Because of our earlier issue with Black Rot and having to remove so many of their leaves, we want to encourage new growth still. But by late September we will encourage them to slow down, to take a rest. To begin their winter retreat when all of their "life" is alseep, deep in their roots, deep in the ground, far from any brutally cold temperatures that could harm them. It is hard to believe I am already thinking and talking about winter, when it seems only weeks ago I was trying to keep my head above all the blast of summer demands in the vineyard. Time, you are a fickle friend.

The Trials Continue
We now enter our third week of field trials of our test product for the dreaded Black Rot. Come back mid-September for the report! These results will most likely determine if we can remain organic next year. I am compiling my data, recording my observations, photographing leaves and continuing to study the secret life of "Guignardia Bidwellii"!!... aka Black Rot!

Flowering Gone Wild
My wildflower meadow in the vineyard continues to thicken and send up new splashes of colors and shapes. The honeybees are happy. Butterflies and hummingbirds have found their way, especially my favorite, the Monarch. I am curious to see what perennial seeds buried this year in the meadow will emerge next year, adding to the splendor of it all, to the "multitude" of life co-habitating in this little bit of heaven.