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



Nature At Work, Along with Man and Sheep!

Disgusting, But Oh, So Cool! While searching for a sweet, ripe Black Cherry tomato in my little salad garden in the vineyard, I stumbled across some branches totally stripped of their leaves.  Immediately, I looked under the closest leaf to the bared area and sure enough, a big ol' fat tomato hornworm.  Now if you've never seen one, you are in for a visual treat. Tada!
These nasty caterpillars can do great damage to a tomato plant in just a few days.  Now of course, we don't spray insecticides, thus these little beasts can roam freely.  But, because of our insecticide-free environs, so does a lovely little parasitic wasp from the Braconid family of insects, not of the "stinging wasp" family.  They are our friends, because as you will see in this image below, they inject their eggs under the skin of the caterpillar.  The eggs hatch inside, turn into larvae and feed off the viscera of the worm, literally sucking the life out of the destructive critter.  Eventually the larvae work their way outside where they pupate and emerge as a grand, new army of Braconids, ready to go out into the gardens and vineyards of the world and devour such pests as aphids, beetles, caterpillars, even those nasty stinkbugs.
Canopy Management
The importance of a properly maintained canopy can not be overstated, especially considering our environmentally sensitive approach to viticulture. The "canopy" is that portion of the vine from the fruiting area near the bottom of the leaves and all the leaves above to the top of the vine.  Sunlight and air MUST flow freely through the vines, their leaves, and around the fruit itself.  Although when the berries are young, we try to expose only the morning side to the sun, pulling off the leaves surrounding the clusters on the east side of the vine.  This gives the tender fruit an opportunity to "harden off" a bit before exposing them to the hotter, more intense afternoon sun later in the season.  It is a time-consuming process, but an easy one.  We did however, get a little more help than we had planned one week.  I noticed several areas that had been totally stripped of their leaves, both sides, precisely in the "fruiting zone", leaving the clusters to hang freely in the sun.
The grapes were not disturbed (aka eaten), as they had not yet begun the sweetening process, known as veraison, where they begin to turn color and the sugar levels (Brix) rise.  The sheep had been brought up to graze the vineyard perimeter, but were confined behind an electric fence. (We have yet to re-attempt the aversion training to the leaves).  And then I spotted the evidence.  Aha!
Notice the tell-tale sheep's wool wrapped around the wire here?  As it turns out, the electric fence was not working properly and they were coming and going as they pleased behind our backs!  They actually did a perfect job of leaf-pulling in the fruit zone if both sides could be exposed. Some vineyards in New Zealand use them specifically for this purpose.  I might try to refine the timing next year and see if we can use them for this purpose.
I managed to find another source of help to work by my side one day, a bit more reliable in his discernment of east and west.  These three-year old hands did a perfect job, and you can see the seriousness of the work in little Owen's face as he moved from one end of the row to the other, pulling just the right leaves.  My little companion...xo

Advancements to the Cause
Slowly, but surely, I sense a true movement taking hold for a more environmentally sensitive approach in vineyards here in the East.  An article in a recent issue of "Wines and Vines" magazine, a trade journal for the industry, spoke at length about the meeting I attended in Lancaster, PA on sustainable viticulture.  The author discusses in greater detail some of the issues I touched on in an earlier post.  For further reading:  http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=75503&htitle=Solutions%20for%20Eastern%20Winegrowers
And here in Virginia, the owners of one of our most highly regarded wineries, Veritas, have turned their eyes toward the philosophies of organic and biodynamic viticulture.  In his most recent newsletter, our dear friend, Andrew Hodson, speaks refreshingly of his willingness to apply some of the earth-friendly approaches to farming their vineyard,  to nurturing the soil, and being stewards of their land.  I certainly am no expert in either organic nor biodynamic farming, but I am passionate about the principles behind the philosophies. I believe in being kind to the earth, in feeding the soil rather than depleting it, and in keeping a balance in our little bit of this beautiful earth... the soil, water and air, that feeds our vines.... and our bodies. 
Andrew's delightful and informative newsletter:  http://veritaswines.com/newsletters/currentnews.htm

Sharing a beautiful spot on this Earth

Willow Tea Anyone?
In the intriguing world of biodynamic sprays, there is an interesting assortment of concoctions that assist the vines and the soil below to enhance life in the vineyard.  Biodynamics is a homeopathic approach, only proportionately minute applications are used.  As I mentioned, I certainly am not an expert in the field.  A few years ago I sent my sister, Cindy, to a biodynamic workshop to learn about this "slightly mysterious" approach to farming practices.  She was reluctant, but eager to learn more about it.  Over that weekend, she experienced and learned enough to come away enthused and convinced in her mind that the principles behind biodynamics are worth applying in our vineyard.  My way of thinking goes about like this..... If one thinks of the role the moon plays on the forces of the earth, pulling and moving entire oceans I suppose other celestial bodies could play a role as well, albeit a much more subtle force. And don't we inject minute amounts of vaccines into our bodies so that our system develops the desired response of immunity?  The left brain, skeptical part of me questions the validity of many BD practices, but I suppose when centuries ago someone first starting talking about the planet being round rather than square, people were skeptical as well. Until we develop the technology to prove new theories, I suppose it is healthy to be both skeptical and to have an open mind, which is where I am.  I rely on Cindy to study the biodynamic calendar and inform me of what to spray when, based on the lunar and celestial cycles, and the purpose of that particular spray, which is the basis for timing of all biodynamic spray applications.
So, what is this Willow Tea?  In my readings and conversations, I had come upon the use of this tea, not only in biodynamic farming, but for general farming use.  Willow is a source of salicylic acid, the base of common aspirin.  The theory is that this will stimulate the SAR response (discussed in my previous post) to generate cellular protection and increase flavors.  So last week, we picked some bark and leaves from one of our willow trees, a tree we planted to mark the year our first grandbabies were born, three years ago. We let the willow tea soak overnight, strained it and stirred it for the required one hour.  Then we sprayed it on the fruit.  How do I know if it works?  All I know is that my fruit is healthy and disease-free, and we are a nearly organic vineyard with dense planting.  In Virginia!  And if biodynamic practices are good enough for one of the greatest vineyards in the world, Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, it's good enough for me! 
You might enjoy this very interesting and informative article on SAR, salicylic acid and Willow Tea:  http://www.bluestem.ca/willow-article1.htm
Off to go pick some more willow bark now!  Ciao!

             Owen and Kaegan
       Under the Willow Tree, 2007

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