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Sleeping Beauties: Beyond the Slumbering Vineyards and Cellars

Sleeping Beauties: Beyond the Slumbering Vineyards and Cellars

Kathleen Willcox

During the winter, the globe keeps spinning, but the world slows down. Conditions are harsh; food is scarce. Summer-fattened groundhogs, dormice, and bears take long, glorious naps in which their heart rates slow, their body temperature plummets, their breathing slows, and they lose up to one-fourth of their body weights. Hedgehogs, bats, and skunks enter a state of torpor; turtles and snakes brumate; honeybees burrow into the soil.

In vineyards, as temperatures drop and the night eats into the day, vine leaves first turn yellow, brown, then shed in the process of senescence. Without their greenery, vines stop producing energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they rely on the stored energy their roots, trunk, and branches gather during the growing season. Vines look like they’re entirely at rest, but, like ducks gliding across the water, there’s furious action happening behind the scenes. As growth stops above ground, all remaining energy is funneled toward the roots, which will grow and soak up nutrients, keep them healthy during the winter, and prepare the vines to burst forth with buds in the spring.

Like the vines, vineyards and wineries may look sleepy during the winter, but there’s quite a bit happening behind the scenes. We reached out to winemakers around the country to learn about what they get up to in the vineyards and cellar, especially during this strange and frightening winter, when everything seems somehow more and less hopeful than it ever has before.

In the Vineyard

Photo credit: Blenheim Vineyards

In Charlotte, VA, Blenheim Vineyards, was founded as a farm in 1730, with many famous owners and visitors, the most recent being Dave Matthews, who purchased the farm in 1999 and opted to transform it into a working winery. But there’s little glamorous or rock n’ roll about winter in the vineyards, winemaker Kirsty Harmon explains.

Even during a typical non-plague year, visits slow down, and she and her team “work on building and maintaining vineyards. We tie up nets, hill up vines, and once a few touches of frost have passed, we pre-prune the vines.” They also, she says, start assessing the wines and thinking about blends while analyzing acid and sulfite levels of wines destined for the bottle in late winter and early spring.

Robert Brittan, the winemaker and owner of McMinnville, Oregon’s Brittan Vineyards, has long been devoted to the intense geekery involved in the pursuit of making great wine. He left the iconic Napa estate Stags’ Leap Winery after 16 years as winemaker to make Pinot Noir in funky cool-climate sites, not something a glory-chaser usually does. Brittan, unsurprisingly, is unflinchingly practical as he looks toward the next year. He and his wife Ellen work as a team, with Ellen managing the business end and Robert managing the vines and wines.

Robert & Ellen Brittan | Photo credit: Brittan Vineyards

“The most important activity right now is pruning because that sets us up for the next vintage,” she says. “We’re also assessing the health of the vineyard, looking at soil nutrient levels to figure out the appropriate cover crops needed for the coming season. And it isn’t glamours; we will also spend time maintaining our farm equipment.”

They have a lot to review because while fires didn’t damage Brittan’s vineyards, their crop in 2020 was “very small as a result of shatter during bloom caused by rain events.” All told, they harvested less than half the usual amount and will be able to produce 1,000 cases, as opposed to the average 2,500.

Santa Barbara’s Crown Point Vineyards, founded by Roger Bower to create distinct Bordeaux blends and single varietals with New World farming and winemaking techniques, goes into a deep data-crunching mode during the winter.

“We review practices, see what worked or what was improved, look into research and development and decide what we want to trial next year,” says winemaker Simon Faury. “We also look at plant health and adjust cover crop based on what we see, and start ordering materials, posts, plants, select clones, and rootstocks for future blocks.

Crown Point vineyard soils | Photo credit: Crown Point Vineyards

Hamel Family Wines, which grows grapes organically and biodynamically in the Sonoma Valley and Moon Mountain District, all eyes are on the vineyards, where time-consuming hand-labor and forethought is essential for a brand that eschews chemical intervention and even extra water.

“This period is a very important one,” says John Hamel, managing director and director of vinegrowing at the winery. “We rip the vineyard rows to de-compact and fracture the dry soil and allow for the winter rains to drain deep into the soil and allow the roots to explore and find air, water, and nutrients in the fracture. We rely on the natural seed back in the soil to grow a cover crop, which allows for a high density and an extremely diverse set of plants that adds back biomass at the end of the growth cycle.”

Hamel also spreads biodynamic compost (primarily comprised of manure, oyster shells, and hay), biodynamic “teas” made from manure buried in a cow horn from the fall through the spring, and allows cattle to graze through the vineyard to ensure added fertility in the spring.

In the Cellar

Tanks in Winery Room | Photo credit: The Biltmore Company

Other winemakers do what they can to focus on sustainability initiatives—and not just in the vineyard. The crew at Asheville, NC’s Biltmore Estate removes larger-pruned materials, like old vine trunks and cordons from the fields, and adds them to the compost and mulching pile. In addition, they ransack the office, garages, and fields for all of the paper, plastic, glass, trellis wire, corks, barrels, pruning shear blades, motor oil, tractor fluids, and other assorted detritus for recycling and, when possible, reuse, vineyard manager Philip Oglesby explains. “Winter is our time to renew and prepare,” he says.

Winemakers are also knee-deep in quality control. Every winemaker likes to judge their wines by different criteria and under other circumstances, but many, like Hamel, try to assess their wines in their purest, most naked form.

“Once we finish the secondary fermentation of the year’s vintage, we like to do a horizontal tasting of all the wines while they are fresh, transparent, and do not have oak influence,” he says.

The tastings help them assess the quality and analyze how each block performed, which lets them know if there are any lurking health issues in the vineyard to address.

Nate and Sarah Walsh run Walsh Family Vinery in Loudoun County, Virginia. For them, the winter is a time for monitoring active ferments from the 2020 harvest and putting together blends for bottling, Nate explains. That’s when they aren’t out monitoring their estate vineyards, working the rows, pruning, and managing soil health.

Photo credit: Walsh Family Wine Instagram

More extensive operations like J Vineyards, which produces about 90,000 cases in Healdsburg, CA, every year, winemaker Nicole Hitchcock says that she and her team first head out to their many vineyard sites to analyze what worked and what needs to change for the future vineyard. Then they tackle a massive “deep clean” in the cellar while composing base blends for future sparklers and evaluate and bottle wines from previous vintages.

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Photo credit: Walsh Family Wines Instagram, Brian Balik

This hive of vineyard and cellar activity comes amid a horrifying resurgence of Covid-19. While winemakers are distressed, they aren’t, they say, unprepared.

“This year has been full of challenges,” says Laura Booras, general manager and CEO at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery, which grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes on the banks of Santa Barbara’s Sisquoc River for other producers and its estate. “We’ve shut down and reopened more than once, and we have reinvented ourselves more times than that. We haven’t been able to find more staff, so we are all working twice as much.”

In addition to the average load, they’re customizing virtual tastings and parties for Zoom guests and have learned that their flexibility has created unexpected opportunities.

“My 20-year high school reunion was cancelled, so I offered to do one for my class, and it was cool to connect and share my wine with classmates across the country,” Booras says.

Laura Booras | Photo credit: Riverbench Vineyard & Winery

Flexibility and constant re-evaluations of what is and could be are defining how Steve Gerber, winemaker at the boutique Ballard Canyon winery Rusack, spends his days.

“We are redesigning our public areas,” Gerber reveals. “And we’ve been doing more experimentation in the cellar. New varieties and winemaking styles are being examined, and we’re hoping to have some new wines to welcome back guests. While this has been a shockwave, it has also created new challenges and an opportunity to get creative and fully understand what we want to be.”

Brett Vankoski, the vice president and co-founder of Latitude Beverage Company, a Boston-based negociant that works with winemakers worldwide, believes that brands are only just beginning to understand Covid-19’s on this year and future years.

“Covid has disrupted the market, shifting consumer demand to retail,” he says. “People seem to be gravitating toward labels they know, but not necessarily the least expensive. Bottled wine at $20 and up is the fastest-growing segment. Because closures have decimated restaurants, wineries have had to and will continue to have to develop new ways of reaching wine lovers.”

With the vaccine already being distributed to people across the UK and on its way into American arms, it doesn’t seem as unreasonable as it did just a few months ago to look forward to what spring will bring all of us. For now, we—like the winemakers—will rest, assess, and plan.