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



Oh Winter, Dear Winter... Wherefore art thou?

Chardonnay Bud Break, April 21

In the flash of a moment...in the snip of a thousand vines, spring has fallen behind and thrown me into the thicket of summer. I still am trying to catch my breath. Pruning, tying, more pruning and tying. Rain and more rain.. sun and more sun, long stretches of both... served up by Mother Nature in portions to her liking. She is so humbling.

The vines have taken on a life of their own, rushing through infancy, toddlerhood and now dancing wildly into their untamed teens. Snip, snip.. let's slow down a bit now. Let's channel our energy, structure ourselves with some direction here. I prune off the clusters of lower leaves. I choose from the many shoots growing up from the base of the trunk. Which of you will survive this final cut? I tie to the stake the chosen ones, and I will come back in the weeks ahead, when they have grown up to reach the trellis, and lay each chosen cane down on the wire. During these weeks, I get help from sister, Cindy, who drives from Cincinnati and spends days at a time sitting by my side, clipping and tying. And hubby, Dennis, comes on his days off from the animal hospital back at the Beach and helps when he can. But the sheer number of vines (nearly 3,500 of 'em) and the minutes required by each one...

Before I can get back to lay each of the canes on the wire, they have outrun me, outpaced me, looking over their shoulders at me with a snicker and a giggle.... and alas, I cannot keep up.
They grow before my eyes. They leap to the sky. I fall to my knees...

In the midst of this, I discover yet another treasure out here in our far away place. Neighbors. From down the road they come, to my rescue. The Martin brothers, Arnold and Burton, and our ever-faithful helper, "Berto". To me, they are my "knights in farming armour". They come to the vineyard armed with generations of farming knowledge, boundless energy and a work ethic as thick and rich as their heritage here in rural Virginia. Their hands, sturdy and rugged. Their desire, strong, to learn the way of a vineyard. Their stories of their years raising "backa down in that holler". Their honesty, humility... Their loyalty....

With my trio's tireless help, we work together to tame the vines. Before we can get to all of them, they have grown wild. In the images below you can see that in mid May, they were growing steadily and uniformly and at that time I thought all was well... hmm.

Within four weeks, they had climbed way past the fruiting wire, heading straight to the skies above. The middle rows in the image below have been pruned back to the two canes that are laying on the wire. From here the new shoots on these canes will head upwards from the wire and will become the "canopy", filling out the spaces between the upper wires and creating the zone of photosynthesis that will nourish the plant.

But we finally bring them under control. They settle in and begin to grow in the direction that is best for them, and us! What would I have done without "my knights"?

The Birds...

I listen to the bluebirds chattering to their young, the indigo buntings filling the air with their song that is as distinctive as their bright indigo color. I repeatedly stumble upon sparrow nests in the vines themselves, once catching the actual birth, as a newborn sparrow wobbled its featherless head, the light blue shell still resting atop it like a birthing cap.

We put up a Martin house in early April, in hopes of attracting a new brood of Martins upon their migratory return to our area and points north. Every day I watched for them. Would they find this little spot in the middle of a mountain range? One day while pruning the chardonnay block, I heard a familiar, nostalgic sound above me. I looked up. A Martin! It swooped, then soared, and swooped again then left. Would it return? Two days later, again, I hear that familiar chatter from my childhood years on Lake Erie where everyone had Martin houses on the lake. Would these martins be content here, without any sign of a lake? Within two weeks they were building their nests in the house. Their young now are peeking their heads out of the hole, waiting for their next meal. They are very protective of their young and when we work near their house they often swoop low over us, chattering briskly. Nipper, beware!

And so we have our first family of martins who have claimed our vineyard as their ancestral home. Insect feeders, they are said to eat over 2,000 insects each day. I hope they have an appetite for Japanese Beetles. I expect their annual arrival any day now.

And the Bees
In keeping with the organic/biodynamic philosophies, and wanting to create a system of biodiversity in our vineyard, I thought it fitting to find us a beekeeper who can provide us with some hives. We'd like to do our little bit to help the ailing honeybee population that has been hit with a syndrome called "CCD", Collapsed Colony Disorder, in which bee colonies around the world are suddenly disappearing. Many theories exist as to the cause of this potentially disastrous situation, from overuse of pesticides, climate changes, genetically modified crops, etc. It is our hope that in practicing organic farming principles, we can keep our community of bees in a safe environment, away from toxic sprays and in return they will give us honey from our land, our poplar trees, sourwood trees, clover and countless other sources of their sweet gift to us.

Bill, the Beekeeper
When I first set my eyes on the beekeeper that Arnold had sent our way, he was walking towards me from the top of the vineyard. With his thick wavy, white hair and his long stride, his deep, southern voice as thick as his hair, I felt I was standing on a movie set for some great southern novel. And he was bringing me my bees! A great story-teller, Bill rattled off numerous tales of his ancestors who were raised in this hollow. Oh the stories.. so many to tell. But the beehives, now, where do you want the hives? We chose a spot at the bottom, center of the vineyard. The men set the stand. Leveled it. Lifted the hives off the back of Bill's truck. Old rags had been stuffed into the openings to keep the bees inside as they traveled from his place to their new home.

Bill donned a netted cap and put on a pair of long, thick gloves. We stood back. I stood waaay back. He pulled out the rags. Bees crawled out of the hole. I imagine a bit confused. They covered the side of the hive, then one by one lifted off. They found their way to the poplar trees in bloom. Their new life on our vineyard had begun.

I kept my distance. Swarms of bees.... How many times have you been stung, I asked Bill. "Oh, thousands, I suppose". I shuttered. He looked directly at me, and with a Santa Claus-like twinkle in his eye, he lowered his chin and said, "You'll be a beekeeper yourself one day. You'll see."

Sheep Notes
Our Katahdin sheep are called "hair sheep", as their coat is more like a coat of hair than wool. They shed their winter coat each spring, thus eliminating the need to bring in a shearer. Here, you can see that Dot seems reluctant to completely shed her coat, sporting a lovely Elizabethan collar. We are still working at training them not to eat the grape leaves, so they have not spent much time amongst the vines.

Days of Sprays by the Queen of Sprays
Our superlative, dynamic, biodynamic queen, sister Cindy, has studied and studied and learned of "descending and ascending moons", and "Saturn in opposition" and "black-out days" and "root and flower days". She has studied the Stellar Lunar calendar and ordered the "preps" and stirred her brews. We have sprayed with backpack sprayers the assorted preps at the proper times for them to have the greatest effect on our vineyard and the vines, all in hopes of enhancing the health and vitality of the vineyard so that dreaded diseases and mildews and molds won't find a home here. It will take meticulous "grooming" of the plants and it will take a bit of luck from Mother Nature. With days of rainy weather, we will have days of wet leaves. And any molds present in the vineyard would just love to thrive and mulitply on said leaves. Herein lies the challenge of organic farming in the mid-Atlantic. And so how have we fared with days of rain you ask?
Not very well.
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Nearly eight inches of rain in the first two weeks of June alone. Days and days of wet leaves after a very soggy May. We have held at bay mildews such as powdery and downy with our sprays. We have rotated a variety of potions, alternating sprays of Stylet oil, unpasteurized milk, tea tree oil mixtures, sulfur. They seems to have done the job so far, as long as we can keep the canopy open so that air can flow through. The canopy in the lower pinot block seems thicker than I would like and that area gets hit by the morning sun a bit later than the rest of the vineyard. I must get down there to thin them a bit, sooner rather than later.

Spots are appearing on many of the leaves. Our research indicates we have the beginnings of a fungal disease called "Black Rot", for which there is no organic cure. We remove the leaves as they appear...a time-consuming task. Can we contain it by removing the new spores? Doubtful, but at least we might help slow down the spread. I must investigate, utilizing my greatest resource, the internet!

I head down the road, walking briskly, reflecting and stopping at my (and the dogs) favorite watering hole. I sit on a mossy, damp rock next to the rapid waters of the creek. The waters gurgle, the damp leaves of last fall perfume the air. The dogs drop into the chilly pool of water and lap up a drink as they rest. No matter what brews up there on those wet vines, all is well.

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