It may not be strictly straight, but a line connects a Salvadoran farm worker named Señor Reyes, the octogenarian British wine sage Michael Broadbent, viticulturist Fernando Franco and me. Back in the 1970s, a question about rotting beans from Señor Reyes directed at his boss’s young son led Franco, the hijo in question, to college studies in agronomy. From there, once war intruded and he left his native country, Franco became vineyard manager, first at Prince Michel in Madison County and, in 1998, at Barboursville Vineyards. And that’s where Michael Broadbent tasted seven wines during a spring trip to the region this year and about which he wrote in superlative terms for the current issue of industry-leading Decanter magazine. This was exciting the staff at Palladio, Barboursville’s premier restaurant, on the Sunday afternoon when I had lunch there with Franco to discuss his work growing the very grapes from which those wonderful vintages are made.
Fernando Franco, the vineyard manager for Barboursville, oversaw production of 520 tons of grapes last year. This year he says harvest is about 10 days off. The grapes are starting to turn from green to purple, which means harvest is about 66 days out.
You see how wine brings people together? Michael Broadbent to me: three degrees of separation!
The nominal topic of our interview was a process called veraison. In laymen’s terms, it’s the phase when berries ripen on the vine, softening and changing color from hard green to purplish—the stuff from which wine is made. Sugar starts to accumulate within the berries at this stage, so obviously it’s a pretty crucial point in the season. It hits about two months prior to harvest. Wanting to know what’s foremost on a vineyard manager’s mind at this time of year, I asked Franco. He’s in charge of 140 acres on which 13 varietals grow.
“Veraison is one of the turning points of what I do,” he says. “If you have escaped black rot and powdery mildew to that point, the grapes are on cruise control. Everything from this point on is to make sure that nutritionally the grapes have what they need to ripen.” A couple of major considerations at this stage: applying potassium and managing the leaf canopy so the grapes avoid sunburn.
Franco’s day begins at 7, when he writes out a plan and then begins to walk the vineyards. Nearly two-dozen workers, mostly on visas from Mexico and Salvador, assist him for eight months of the year, and he makes the point that vineyard management is not strictly about tending to plants. On top of training workers and bumping through the vineyard in an indestructible Ford pick-up, Franco spends plenty of time assuring the Department of Homeland Security that the bin Laden family is not trying to infiltrate the Virginia wine network. “Managing the people is sometimes more stressful than managing the vineyard,” he says.
Not that Franco is complaining. Watching the grapes change is a “joy” at this time of the year, he says. “It’s a beautiful expression of all the care I provide them,” he says. “I give the grapes caring love and they give me back beautiful wine.”
$12.5M career opportunity calls
Interested in joining the growing ranks of Virginia winery owners? Stephen Barnard, the winemaker and general manager at Keswick Vineyards confirms that the operation is for sale for $12.5 million. The intention, he says, is for the property, which includes some 400 acres (43 planted with vines) a winery, tasting room, and 9,500-square-foot house, to be sold as a “viable business property.” In other words, he has hopes of staying put while the vineyard and winery changes hands. Indeed, he has quite an investment in calling it home: This coming weekend he will marry Kathryn Schornberg, daughter of current owner Al Schornberg. The wedding will take place on the property.