We’ve all heard that story about the young boy whose beans got tossed out the window and sprouted overnight into a massive green stalk that reached into the heavens. Unfortunately, no vineyard owner has ever gone on record as having any such luck. Rather, the cultivation of a vineyard and the raising of grapevines is a meticulous, time-consuming and often expensive process, an endeavor that can bear the fruit that makes fine wine, or just as easily end in disaster. A few weeks ago, we look about in horror as a grape farmer and breeder lead us through his thirty-year old vineyard that had, just this year, succumbed to a late freeze. The thick, gnarled vines, once glorious and productive, lay dead and graying; the only option was to pull them up, replant, and pray that the weather might be more favorable in the coming years.
As we continue our series “From grape to glass,” we returned to Black Wing Vineyard, one of the vineyards owned and cultivated by Vine Street Cellars, not far outside of Omaha in Glenwood, Iowa. After the early spring pruning of the vines, a tremendous amount had happened to prepare the vineyard to be productive in the coming summer months. If you’re interested in how a simple vine loaded with grapes becomes a glass of excellent wine, then the following steps are important to take note of.
Much of what is done to prepare the vineyard is of a preventative nature. It would seem that grapevines have no shortage of natural enemies, and the severe weather of the Great Plains is only one of them. All manner of flora and fauna are attracted to the vines; weeds strangle them or steal their nutrients, insects eat the leaves or bore into the vines themselves. Deer, birds and other creatures eat the fruit or destroy the leaves, and so forth. Thus, to successfully inspire even a healthy grapevine to be productive is nearly constant work.
After the pruning, more pruning had taken place, followed by burning the cuttings. Then, the big guns came out. Even in relatively small operations such as this one, heavy equipment including tractors are required, as much of what is done to prepare the vines for a productive summer includes spraying. Of course, this can only be done on calm days, as strong Iowa winds would make accurately spraying next to impossible. In the late spring, as the vines began to awaken, the vineyard workers sprayed lime sulfur mixed with water, adding nutrients to the soil, and also serving as a natural insecticide. Already, the emergence of phylloxera, which take the form of wart-looking bumps on the leaves of the vine, could be seen. The phylloxera, if not treated properly, will bore into the cane of the vine during the winter, often killing them off completely. For this reason, further insecticides may be required. Alias is a chemical that can be used. “Alias turns the vine into a weapon,” says Ramsay Ahsam, surveying his Edelweiss vines. “Once it’s sprayed with Alias, any insect that tries to eat the plant will die.”
Weeds are another serious threat to the livelihood of grapevines. They can suck the nutrients from the earth, and and larger weeds such as poison sumac are liable to compete with the grapevines for space, and can choke them out if they are not taken care of. For this, Round-Up is used — the same stuff you’d use at home, but more concentrated. Ramsay Ahsam informed us that they mix a pre emergent called Solicam in with it, and together they effectively control most of the weeds.
But it is not only the destruction of pests and parasites that is accomplished by spraying. Fertilizers are also applied, and there are no shortage of options available. To determine which fertilizers to use, soil and petiole samples were taken. Though no doubt many farmers merely “wing it” or apply rather general, all-in-one fertilizers, in the case of Black Wing Vineyard, Iowa State University collected the samples to analyze in their labs. Other options would include collecting the samples and sending them off to labs to be analyzed. However it is done, these analyses are crucial, as they indicate both what is present, and what is needed, and enable grape growers to meet these needs. Ramsay AhSam walked us through the process. In response to the results they got from Iowa State, they knew to respond to low PH levels in the soil with sulfur. Nitrogen was also needed in their soil, and was applied painstakingly to be sure it did not come in contact with the leaves as it would burn them and harm the plant. Nitrogen makes the canopy grow bigger, increasing the yield.
Ramsay looked thoughtfully out over the vineyard he works so hard to maintain. “We could spray others things,” he said pensively, “Iron, copper — but it’s just not in the budget right now.” While a planed acre of grapes in rural Iowa may not run the half a million dollars it would cost in the Napa Valley, it is nevertheless easy to see how the chemicals, the equipment to apply them, the manpower, the land, and so much more can add up quickly.
Unlike insects, deer, turkeys, voles and many other pests cannot be sprayed with chemicals. To combat these creatures destroying their vineyards, many owners get creative. At Black Wing, dryer sheets will be hung, giving off a familiar, soap-like smell that can only be attributed to humans. “The deer especially hate that smell,” reports Ramsay with a smile. An air canon will also be employed regularly, making a loud noise to frighten away potential grape-munching fiends. Large beach balls with eyes were once placed around the vineyard as well. “It worked for a little bit, until they popped,” says Ramsay, smiling as though to suggest that this was the obvious conclusion to placing inflatable toys outside in a vineyard. The raccoons will be live-trapped, distress calls will be set up to scare away small birds, and who knows? Likely many other things will be tried as well, all to ensure that people, rather than animals, are the ones to consume the fruits of all this labor.
But pest prevention is not the only preparation taking place in the vineyard this spring. In addition to the regular maintenance of the trellises that support the vines, there is also the matter of training the growing vines. As the nitrogen helps the canopy to flourish, it must be trained to grow upward. For this, Black Wing Vineyard is equipped with multiple forms of trellis. VSP, or “Vertical Shoot Positioning,” is a method that enables the trellis to move with the growing vines. The thriving green vines weave up through a wire that can be moved upward with the vine as it grows. Tucking is the process of keeping the vine contained and moving upward with the wire. Once it reaches the top, the tucking ceases and the combing begins, helping the canopy to flow outward and down from the top, and to remain untangled and thinned so that sunlight can reach the plant and be absorbed.
As we return from the walk, we begin to eye the orchards, and Ramsay notices us doing so. “It’s hard enough to take care of grapes,” he muses, “but we have fruit trees, too.” The trees at Black Wing include a hundred apple trees, of the sort that are use to make hard ciders, as well as five cherry trees. “Cherry wine?” Mark asked, raising his eyebrows. “Maybe pie,” replied Ramsay, chuckling.
After our latest visit to Black Wing Vineyard, during which we were thoroughly daunted by the amount of time, work, and equipment was needed to take care of even a relatively small amount of grape vines, we swung by Vine Street Cellars, located on the cute town square in Glenwood, and had a glass of our favorite wine they make — the Chancellor. The strong, fruitful nose is almost reminiscent of a port-style wine, though the wine itself is relatively low in alcohol, and the taste, balanced with slightly more fruit than tannin, mild acidity, cherry and currant flavors (at least to us), was wonderful, and it reminded us why people go through all of this work to grow good grapes. It’s to make great wine. As Vine Street’s winemaker Mark Perry told us once, it doesn’t matter how good you are at making wine if you don’t have high quality fruit to work with. Knowing this, we are able to more fully appreciate the immense amount of work that is being undertaken by Ramsay AhSam and all of his cohorts at Vine Street Cellars, as well as at small vineyards all around the Midwest — and all around the world. A great glass of wine isn’t a beverage nearly so much as it is a work of art. That’s why it is a special thing. That’s why we’re paying such close attention to how things get from grape to glass.