June 24, 2013

Flowering 2013, part 2: Eola-Amity Hills

After the lovely early morning stop at Armstrong, it was on south to the west side of the Eola-Amity Hills growing region to Crowley Station Vineyard, the first of three sits I work with in this excellent sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley.

Crowley Station is nicely situated vineyard on a southwest slope, fairly exposed to the cool Van Duzer winds that shoot through a gap in the Coast Range. Sure enough, even on this mild Sunday morning the cool breeze was notable as we walked the rows.

Despite the relative low elevation here, around 300-400', those winds make this a cool, slower to ripen site. Because of this, I expected flowering wouldn't have begun, but sure enough, flowers. Many flowers. Not like Armstrong but clearly advanced  and immediately suggesting to me that Armstrong is no anomaly. This is shaping up to be an early year.

From the top of the original block of Pinot Noir clones 114 and 115 at Crowley Station Vineyard, dry farmed, pretty old school. And that hay bale stacker in the neighbor's field is pretty cool too.

Flowers! This was one of the more advanced clusters but still, most plants had flowers already.

Looking back up the hill and the cover crop in every other row, things are moving along at Crowley Station. Looking forward to our second year working with this fruit. Next visit I'll try to get a shot of the soil - an interesting mix of very old (millions of years) ocean sediments - complete with fossilized shells here and there in sandstone - and the occasional piece of decomposed granite carried here in the Missoula Floods in more recent times (15,000 years ago, give or take).

Then it was over the hill to the east side of the Eola Hills, the heart of the AVA where you find Zenith Vineyard. Our rows are on a rocky knoll midway up the hill, originally left unplanted because there "wasn't any soil," according to grower Tim Ramey (relaying the words of the prior owners the O'Connor family).

The soil is a mix of Missoula Flood sediments, very thin in this specific block, over hard sandstone, a few blond chunks of which you can see in this picture.

Here's a view looking down the hill in our rows of Pommard clone. Again, there is cover in every other row but notice how much shorter the growing shoots are here compared to the other vineyards. Tough soils made great wine, and you can see how the vines just don't have a lot to work with here. Which is great.

Getting down at vine level, you can see how far the vines here have to go to fill the trellis wires. This block never has a lush canopy, but again that's fine - we're growing grapes, not just leaves.

Somehow I missed a shot of flowering clusters, but you get the point. On this warmer eastern side of the Eola Hills, I expect things to be a little more advanced, and sure enough there were more flowers here than Crowley Station, fewer than Armstrong. Still, lots of progress for early June.

Then it was on to the final stop, Bjornson Vineyard higher up in the Eola Hills on wildly different soils.

First, on the way, I couldn't help capturing the hay rolls, England style but very common here too. There's something serene around the way they lie in the field, but maybe that's just the city boy in me talking. These rolls don't represent work to me.

Ok, now at Bjornson and what a view. We're around 500' now in the Eola Hills, a few miles north of Zenith and surrounded by vines - one neighbor is Seven Springs vineyard - and higher up the hill Christmas trees farms. I describe Bjornson as a saucer, not quite a bowl, with an aspect to the southwest. This view is nearly due south toward Salem and the southern Willamette Valley.

Here's a view looking up one of the block, this the Wadensvil clone that I got a bit of last year along with my usual Pommard. Young vines and bushy already, with cover in every row still to push the vine roots deep.

Bjornson is higher than my other sites, which typically means a bit later ripening. The Van Duzer winds that make it over the tops of the Eola Hills flood down on this site, making for intense but still Oregon delicate Pinot Noir with exceptional acidity, even in warmer years. Sure enough, flowering had barely begun here. This shot was typical of what we found this day. Lots of inflorescence (pre-grape clusters), not a lot of flowers and definitely no fruit set yet. That's fine, it's so early and we don't need everything ripening at the same time if we can help it.

What about the soil here? The Bjornson family is excavating for a winery site on the property, which lets us see a fresh cross-section of classic Nekia soil. What's that? Essentially one to two feet of very red clay over easily fractured but otherwise pure volcanic basalt rock. Compare that to the more famous Jory soil, similar except for having several feet of clay over the basalt. Nekia is super thin and seems to give a more powerful wine than I get from Jory soils but still with the delicacy that great Pinot must convey. I love it, and Bjornson is a vineyard to watch.

June 23, 2013

Flowering at Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge

Two Sundays ago, June 9, I drove to all four of the Pinot Noir vineyards I work with in the northern Willamette Valley. My goal was to assess the progress of the growing season, and ideally to see some flowering in the vines.

Sure enough, I saw a ton of grape flowers - more in the warmer, earlier sites, but flowers in every vineyard - which surprised me a bit. Why? Because flowering normally doesn't really happen until the middle of June, and in the past three years we've been one to three weeks later than that. I know it's been warmer than average this spring, but lately one can't help but wonder if every year isn't going to have flowering on the 4th of July instead of around Father's Day. Or much earlier as we're seeing this year.

So what's the big deal about that? While there's still a long way to go this summer, once you get to the peak of flowering - and we were there in at least one of my sites - you can estimate harvest being 100 to 110 days later. That means picking at the earliest sites could be in late September, something I haven't done since 2007, 2006 and 2005 (not to equate those vintages qualitatively - just in terms of picking time).

That's sure different from our October 20 harvest kick off in 2011, and that was earlier than many local producers. We really were weeks behind the norm that year, but luckily things worked out. This year I imagine we'll be long done picking by that point, as we were in '07, '06 and '05. The good news there - the chance of perfect harvest weather is much, much more likely in late September under potentially summer conditions rather than in late October where one typically things of trick or treating in the rain, crafty kid costumes unfortunately covered by raincoats and umbrellas.

Overall, things looked great this day at all my sites. I'll post shots from Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge here, then more from the Eola Hills sites next time. Soon, I hope.

To start, the lovely early morning view from the 667 block of Armstrong vineyard, looking south toward the backside of the famous Dundee Hills across the valley.

Then the road at Armstrong coming up through the vines, for me the most classic view from this incredibly gorgeous vineyard.

The grower here has been converting to a more organic approach, describing the less manicured look of the vine rows as a bit of a "hippie" vibe. Sure enough, flowers. Perfect wild daisies that made me stop and think for a moment. I love daisies.

Down in a swale of the 115 vines, there's more water in the soil so we're leaving row cover in every row to draw out moisture and compete with the vine roots for resources. Otherwise, every other row is tilled to make sure there's not too much competition.

Ah, the morning's prize. Everywhere I look, flowering clusters. Open this picture if you don't open any other. In each inflorescence, or cluster of grapes before the flowers bloom, you can see lots of tiny grape flowers already setting. And you can see that in a single cluster, fruit set isn't uniform, even this year where flowering weather at Armstrong (as you can see) was pretty ideal - sunny and mild. A single cluster can flower over a few days, meaning grapes in one cluster can have even slight variance in maturity, and that's ok with me. Perfect uniformity is boring. Then again, variable weather during flowering can draw things over for a few weeks, leaving too little uniformity if not issues with fruit set because of wind, cold, even rain and hail that physically knocks off the flowers as they bloom but before they've set as fruit. Got that? 

Things here look amazingly good, so that I'm mesmerized more by the unexpected wild daisies that I take as another good sign, that we have an interesting summer coming and the hope of a great harvest. There's still lots of time, but I'm confident. And then there are the alien-like growing tips as I look up the hill across rows and rows, the vines growing so fast at this time of year you can also watch them change by the minute. I can't take my eyes off them.

June 05, 2013

Thank you

I'm terrible about thank you notes. There's no good explanation. I was raised well. I do know how to say thank you in person. I simply need help saying thank you in writing. It's become even more important now that I'm in the wine business.

Don't get me wrong. I admire good thank you notes, but they can seem a bit anachronistic at times. In formal situations like job interviews, it's almost like you don't have time to mail a thank you anymore. But a real thank you note, for something more meaningful than begging for a job, for true gratitude, now that is worth writing.

So why have I only recently gotten these, my first batch? I can't say. My father wouldn't be proud. He was a staunch supporter of the written thank you. But here I am, thank yous in hand at last and for all sorts of occasions, many but hardly all wine related. There are customers, retailers, restaurants, distributors, writers, you name it, so many people to personally say thank you for supporting what I'm doing. It's truly important to me to let them know what it means to me. Even more, there are thank yous to send to those I love. Handwritten, printed well, with a nice stamp, everything just right, expressing so much in words and beyond words.

All to say, thank you.