The vineyard in its overgrown state is happy and healthy. The 2021 season was a Sabbath year for us. With the exception of some trunk training necessary in the Prairie Star block, the majority of the 2 acre vineyard was left unpruned. Grapevines have a way they like to grow but that way is not often favored by man. Untended vines will continually grow from the ends making lots of leaves but little fruit. Vines gone wild may cover the ground or climb a handy tree for support. Pruning keeps the vine growth closer to the trunk, creating more robust canes, and fruit better positioned for harvest cutting. A trellis-trained vine with regular annual pruning is desirable to maintain a predictable growth pattern of fruiting canes.
So why do we have a Sabbath year? After 6 years of focusing hard on producing fruit, the vines need a little break. On the 7th year the unpruned vines create more leaves that enable them to nourish themselves. It’s a refreshing year for the land and the vines. It allows the birds to nest undisturbed in the vineyard. It gives the vine keepers a rest as well.
This year we have the added perspective of dealing with the pandemic as a business and as a society. Perhaps the lockdowns of 2020 were a type of Sabbath rest. Although it was unwelcome – once a person could relax into it – many families enjoyed special times together, playing and eating at home. Pets relished more attention from their people. Some things were left to grow wild, like grass, hair and fingernails. It was a great chance to catch up on some sleep and yes, there was a slight baby boom 9 months later.
Now we are in a transition from our rest to getting back to work. Like pruning in the 8th year, it’s a little more difficult than if we hadn’t taken the break at all. We have to change our strategy and look for the new normal.
A few weeks before we “opened the gates” I strolled through the unpruned vines. I saw so much nice fruit and sincerely hoped someone would come get the Sabbath harvest, free for the picking. My fears were quickly dispelled when shortly after 9 a.m. on opening day, September 8th, a caravan of cars arrived. People carried grapes out in buckets, baskets, bags – by the wagon load! A delightfully heavy crowd would persist for 5 days until most of the fruit was gone…and then I sadly pulled the Marketplace ad. Yet our website had promoted the event running through the 19th so we continued to welcome vineyard visitors and they continued to come through the following weekend. Generally buckets were less full, some finding only handfuls. But determined pickers amazed us by filling 5 gallon buckets right up to the end!
One bucket, two buckets, Red buckets, blue Old buckets, new buckets, Many buckets…few
For many visitors, this was their first experience picking grapes. Several families were repeats from the 2014 Sabbath! Some came alone and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Some came as mother/daughter teams. One group signed in with 13 members! Bayette George, an accomplished photographer and filmmaker, shared photos he took of his family’s adventure. When I first saw the photo above, I was concerned about the large pair of clippers being used. Then I realized how serious and focused these two were, carefully wearing their gloves and I fell in love with the intense look on their faces. Their father had captured the precious moment I hope all our visitors experience – a connection with the land and its Creator.
As people depart, the patio’s overflowing clematis provides a nice backdrop for a farewell photo. These images (and a few more on Facebook) represent only a fraction of the crowd. I feel truly blessed to have chatted with as many as possible. Some left behind various gifts of their own which we will savor and treasure. I am already looking forward to Sabbath 2028 when we can do it all again!
Our vineyard… does not actually have a gate, but the concept of “opening the gates” means that the community is welcome to come in and get grapes, free for the picking. Our first Sabbath year was 7 years ago in 2014. At that time, we had 6 previous years of commercial harvesting so we decided to follow the Old Testament principle of allowing the land to rest on the 7th year. An additional detail forbids enclosing the vineyard which would normally keep out trespassers or animals while grapes were ripe and desirable. So the full objective of the Sabbath is to let the land rest (the owners, workers and animals too) but also to provide the community with an opportunity for free food. In 2014 we announced our plans on Craig’s List and, wow – we had an overwhelming response! (Check out the Vineyard Journal, archive link 2014)
Here we are 7 years later and able to do it again. The Lord’s promise to create an abundance in 6 years proves true that we can happily forego this year as a commercial harvest. Please come join us during this time of community as we “open the gates” again.
Harvest days are fun and rewarding. But at some point, everything that went into the fermentation tank must come out and those days are long and messy. White grapes are pressed off their skins at harvest and dealt with promptly. The red grapes, however, are fermented on their skins to extract a desired amount of color and tannin. This year we pumped the young Concord wine from the high valve shown. Seeds have settled below the valve. The skins, having risen to the top, gradually ride down as the wine level drops during pumping. When the manway is opened, a deep layer of skins is revealed now resting on top of the seed layer. In the photo above, I am trying out some new gadgets. A sanitary plastic shovel cuts into the cake of skins and is a good tool for starting but I found myself reaching for the flat rake to finish. A bag of sleeve protectors were a gift from my brother-in-law, Paul, which were comfortable and could easily be changed throughout the day. And yes, those are puppy pads on the floor. We use them to absorb big spills.
The grape harvest involves a lot of hard work by many people, but I have often felt the most difficult task of the harvest for me is picking the day. There are so many elements to consider. The grapes need to be ripe enough but not endangered by birds or too much rain. Then the weather needs to cooperate providing a window of dry and preferably “not sweltering” conditions. But most importantly, we need to assemble a crew of folks available to help.
Once the sugar and acid tests begin, we can better anticipate ripeness and the effects of weather patterns. For many excruciating days, I imagine a thousand scenarios but I eventually I am forced to action. Starting with crush pad workers, I send out “feeler” messages asking the potential crew members about their availability between this and that date. As the responses trickle back, a consensus forms and with a final nod from the weather man, the final answer emerges. Picking day is announced!
Unfortunately, there are always some who are available some days but ultimately not the day chosen…and I hate that! It’s the hardest part of the process to not be able in include everyone who is willing to help. I always hope the next variety will work out for them or maybe even next year. I would love to have you join the crew and experience picking day for yourself. Please send me an email if you’re interested!
SPECIAL HOURS: SATURDAY, AUGUST 29th 2020, 1-7 pm SUNDAY, AUGUST 30th 2020, 1-7 pm
We love to have visitors take a tour through the vineyard any time of the year. But late August is the most colorful and rewarding. Although the winery has suspended tastings for most of the summer, we encourage folks to take advantage of the opportunity to visit the grapes at their peak. Some guests enjoy a guided tour with details about each variety growing here and how they are featured in our wines. Others prefer a private romantic stroll. The vineyard also provides the perfect place for a family conversation about where grapes come from and what wine is.
Depending on who you ask, our region’s average last frost is May 10th…or the 15th…or the 30th. So it’s hard to breath that sigh of relief until we are out of that May window. The vines typically show much growth in May but the threat of frost is ever present. Frost is one thing and a freeze is another. The week of May 3rd began with a hot 82-degree day. Five days later the temperature plunged to 28 degrees plus some wind chill There are several strategies to mitigate the difference of a few precious degrees but at 28 there is nowhere to hide.
We began our pruning for 2020 in the LaCrescent block with that variety always being the first to emerge. Much effort went toward retraining some misshapen or diseased vines. New shoots were unfolding picture-perfect on newly-stretched cordons. Those efforts were thwarted by the freeze, causing this year’s growth to eventually come from different parts of the vine than we intended. Other varieties were less impacted and experienced spotty injury that still follows the existing shape. The Concord vines had not been pruned before the freeze event and remain unpruned still. It appears that the first buds on last year’s canes are the dominant growth and that is what we would hope for anyway. They will need a little haircut to remove the damaged ends which budded first. Overall this year’s harvest yield will be lower than average, but we are thankful to see the vines recovering, generating plenty of leaves to remain strong and healthy.
Often I have tried to take before & after shots of vine pruning, but the background is usually so confusing the vine is indiscernible. Approaching the ends of the rows both east and north, I tried again. This “before” picture illustrates a vine that has been pushed to the east over the years by persistent wind. This opens up a sunnier position to the left and encourages growth of canes rather than growth on the established spurs. At some point, the vine needs retrained to better utilize the trellis. The “after” picture shows a big cut where the original trunk is retired and the more vigorous new growth is trained up in its place. This method also works in situations where the trunk is damaged from disease or splitting.
The coronavirus outbreak has us all washing our hands like madmen, but sanitation in the vineyard has been a priority for many years. We have to manage the spread of crown gall caused by soil-borne bacteria by cleaning our equipment and we promptly dispose of last year’s cuttings to reduce fungus spores. These are the old challenges along with known pests and the threat of late frosts and freezes.
This year’s challenges include discovery of new pests and cold weather damage. The identification of scale on a few trunks adds to our oppression by insects. This type of scale is an insect that sucks the bark but never moves. The small discs are usually found in pairs. Their low number warranted only removal by hand. I wonder if the vine’s normal shedding of bark will dislodge them over time?
Trunk splitting is something we don’t see much of other than our lightning incident. This spring we have seen several vines declining and traced it to a split in the trunk. This was likely caused by a previous winter’s cold snap. The winter of 2019/2020 was not nearly cold enough to create the problem and last year’s growth was already affected.
It’s easy to procrastinate the task of pruning. Starting too early or cutting too short can make buds more susceptible to a late freeze. But in order to be done in time you have to start. The center photo above shows a weeping cut, a normal occurrence as the days warm up. In this instance a gelatinous drip combined with a quick change in temperature to freeze in mid-air. The week of May 4th was full of frosts and a whopping freeze event. It remains to be seen what the effects will be on this year’s productivity.
This opening line of a hymn by Fanny Crosby comes from an obscure passage of scripture near the end of Solomon’s writing in Ecclesiastes. It’s not clear what the “silver cord” is but the context is the brevity of life.
Our vineyard trellis is a 3-wire system with rows ranging from 100 to 300 feet long. Trellis wires occasionally break and need spliced or replaced. Several years ago, we had a lightning strike that oxidized the wires on 2 rows, removing their galvanized protection. These wires had eventually rusted through and needed replaced, but of course we waited until one broke this week before undertaking the project.
As we spend time on repairs, I struggle with how quickly things erode and break down. We have huge end posts made of black locust wood, cut 8″ x 8″ x 12′. Traditionally, they are thought to last a lifetime, or realistically 30 years. But we have had several already rot below ground in 16 years. An end post is a challenging repair. Many more line posts of red cedar have also rotted off and dangle, still attached to the wires but longer the ground.
It’s frustrating that things I thought were done are coming undone before I can get to the end of the original list. Time goes by faster every day and I’m getting older sooner than it seems. Solomon would remind me that life is short, things of this world don’t last, and I need to make my actions count for good.
“Someday the silver cord will break… And I shall see Him face to face and tell the story – saved by grace.“ FRANCIS J. CROSBY (1823-1915)