Farmers first, winemakers second

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Monticello’s assistant director of gardens Gabriele Rausse came to Virginia in 1976 with a degree in agronomy. “If I get beautiful grapes,” he said, “I don’t have to be a winemaker because the wine will be beautiful.” (Photo by Ashley Twiggs) Monticello’s assistant director of gardens Gabriele Rausse came to Virginia in 1976 with a degree in agronomy. “If I get beautiful grapes,” he said, “I don’t have to be a winemaker because the wine will be beautiful.” (Photo by Ashley Twiggs)

What’s struck me more than anything over the past three years as I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our area winemakers through this column, is how they consider themselves farmers above all else. No matter how skilled they are at making up for a bad vintage in the cellar, they all seem to prefer dirt, tractors, and pruning shears to chemicals, tanks, and graduated cylinders.

John Kiers comes from a farming family and planted 20 acres of vines near Staunton 12 years ago. He sells close to half his crop to local winemakers who consider his fruit so good that it walks straight into the bottle. Kiers makes 1,500 cases of wine a year under his own Ox-Eye Vineyards label, but he’s never convinced of how good it really is. “I am completely comfortable with the farming side of the job, but still lose sleep over the winemaking side of it,” he said.

An “anti-winemaker,” as Brad McCarthy, who made wine at both White Hall Vineyards and Blenheim Vineyards, has referred to himself, is a notion others share. Jake Busching, formerly of Pollak Vineyards and currently of Mt. Juliet and Grace Estates, grew up on a cattle farm in the Midwest and uses dirt as his guide. He prefers the term “wine grower” to winemaker.

When Gabriele Rausse came to Virginia in 1976, he had a degree in agronomy and knew how to grow grapes. He succeeded where Jefferson failed by grafting European vinifera with disease-tolerant native rootstocks, and in his 36 years here, has personally touched nearly every vine that now thrives in our burgeoning region.

I’d be hard-pressed to put Rausse’s thoughts into words better than his own: “To be a farmer means to deal with Mother Nature, and Mother Nature is a difficult partner. She does what she wants and she does it when she wants, but the results can be beautiful. It is actually a matter of figuring out how to deal with her. You have to be patient and observe and accept that you cannot control her. Once the grapes are detached from the plant, you become a chemist. I know that if I get beautiful grapes, I don’t have to be a winemaker because the wine will be beautiful.”

Michel Chapoutier, a son of the famous Rhône Valley producer, wrote: “To make a wine is 12 months of work in the vineyards, one month in the cellar. The wine grower is 12 times more important than the winemaker.”

The goal behind making wine is simple: to grow ripe grapes and then ferment their juice into wine. The FDA has approved over 200 additives for wine, yet it can be made—and well—with just one ingredient.

Vineyards under cover
Between a super mild winter and a positively summery March, buds broke earlier than ever this year—by about two weeks. Even in “normal” years, winemakers bite their nails every night between bud break and May 20 or so, when the risk of frost travels north.

Young shoots are very vulnerable to frost damage, so wineries go to great lengths to keep cold air from settling on the vines. A vine’s best protection is being planted on a slope where cold air tumbles downhill, but since that’s not a change that can be made immediately following a frost advisory, wineries often have a plan.

Frost warnings two weeks ago led Barboursville and Keswick vineyards to turn on their wind machines and King Family Vineyards and Mt. Juliet both had helicopters on standby (although only King Family called them into flight). Both are an expensive way to keep air moving. Wind turbines cost about $20,000 a pop and helicopters rent for $1,000 an hour, but compare that to the cost of losing an entire vintage of Chardonnay.

Fires via smudge pots, hay bales, and propane heaters are certainly a cheaper method, but not nearly as effective since heat travels upwards in a column rather than mixing higher, warmer air with vine-level, colder air.

What left our area unscathed in the end was that the dewpoint never collided with the temperature. We dipped below 30 degrees one night, but the dew point was only 24. Vines can protect themselves against temperatures as low as 27 as long as the dew point isn’t that high.

Winning the award for the most stylish protective measure against the frosts was Keswick Estate’s Courtside Vineyard, where they draped the vines with vintage Laura Ashley fabric left over from the property’s original construction.

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