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2013 will undoubtedly go down as one of the more bizarre harvest seasons in Oregon wine history. September was mostly reminiscent of late Fall weather (in a decidedly rainy year!) then October crept in with perfect Springtime weather.In England, these warm golden days of October are referred to as St. Luke’s Little summer in honor of the Saint’s Feast day.
A good farmer tries to remain undaunted by whatever is thrown at him (her). In that vein, when the miserable harvest weather turned into golden October, we decided to do what we normally do in the Spring: cultivate and plant! In our possession were nearly 1000 young vines which we had grafted and rooted in March/April of this year and then nursed through the summer growing season.
On the east side of our property is plot of land which had previously been a hazelnut orchard. The orchard had been cleared 2 years ago and planted with various cover crops to re-nourish the soil: first was clover to provide nitrogen and then buckwheat to assimilate phosphorus and make it readily available to other plants.
Though our winemaker friend,John Thomas, tried to convince us that we should plant a spaghetti orchard, we looked at the young vines consigned to their grow tubes and decided against his suggestion, tempting as it was. Normally young vines are carefully protected in a greenhouse through the winter months since we are busy making wine in October and it is too wet to plant after that. This year, the soil dried out enough to cultivate in mid-October. We staked out the vineyard on a 6 X 6 ft grid, Tom drilled holes, and Teri made up a concoction of fertilizer and mycorrhiza which she and Dan dispensed into each hole along with a gallon of water. Meanwhile Johnselected the clones to be set in each row and “voila” a new section of Clos Electrique was born!
No matter what your political persuasion, I want you to be aware that the radical right of the Republican Party is adversely affecting our business in major ways. From their anti-immigrant diatribes meant to chase Hispanics back across the border, to their inability to grasp climate change and now their tantrum regarding “Obamacare”, these so-called Tea Partiers are hurting American wine producers in major ways.
Let us begin with the vehement anti-Hispanic hysteria of the last decade aimed at workers who have come across our southern borders illegally (because they have never been presented with any legal means to do so). These people need work and we in the agricultural industry need workers. But because of the absolute nastiness and I would argue racist behavior of our self-proclaimed American patriots, there is now a net exodus south of Hispanics. As a result, vineyards up and down the West Coast are experiencing a shortage of workers. This means that when epic storms arrive, as we have seen recently here in Oregon, we cannot get our grapes picked in time. Admittedly House Republicans are trying to rectify the situation by adding 800,000 federal employees to the work force but I doubt that they have much prowess in picking grapes!
And speaking of epic storms, we are experiencing ever increasing quantities of such events due to climate change. Now I know that these right-wing ideologues “do not believe” in climate change, evolution or gravity but that, unfortunately, does not mean that these phenomenon don’t exist. What it does mean is that we doing nothing to deal with a problem of our making and it is having increasing impact on agriculture everywhere.
Add to these impediments the current fit being displayed by House Republicans and we are forced to deal with yet another bump in the road to running our business. In order to even bottle a wine, we need to have labels approved by the Commodity Classification Branch of the Treasury Department (which is currently shut down). Assuming that the government is reinstated soon, there will be a backlog of label requests meaning that it could be months before approvals come through. Add to that the price of my new French oak barrels which are going up daily as the dollar slides in value against other world currencies, and you get John Paul’s latest rave!
Given the present enthusiasm over pink wines, it is hard to believe that there was a time in the very recent past when my best bet at selling pink wine was to put a picture of Ché Guevera on the front label and call the wine “Vino Pinko”. Now, thankfully, that has all changed. Rosés, ramatos, rosattos, pink wines or whatever you want to call them now have an ardent following and so they should.
These wines bridge the gap between white and red wines and may be more versatile than either of the other two. If made properly they can possess the acidity more common to white wines with some of the texture commonly found in reds.
And to make them properly requires some skills above the norm for making most wine. That is because “balance” is more difficult to achieve in these wines given the contact with the skins which will extract sometimes bitter phenolics (tannins) without the more forceful flavors inherent in red wines to offset them. It becomes a game of restraint versus extravagance; pulling out sufficient color and texture while leaving the wine buoyant and fresh at the same time.
Too often producers of pink wines overburden them with sulfur dioxide and kill the freshness. Or they extract too much color and tannin and leave them in no man’s land between rosés and reds. In the other direction they shy from extracting sufficient color and texture and leave them in a place where they are in actuality more blanc de noirs than rosés.
The perfect pink wine, and there are many good ones out there, possess beautiful tones of color from orange to salmon pink to light strawberry. They should have a hint of texture reminiscent of the grape from which they emanate. There should be of firm acidity but not at the expense of the delicate flavors inherent in these wines. In short, one should be drawn in to the wine by its color, captivated by its elegant aromas and finally conquered by its texture and lingering flavors.
To this end, we at Cameron have released (Summer 2013) an array of 3 pink wines from 3 different vintages, all fermented and aged in older neutral barrique for appropriate periods of time: 2010 Nebbiolo Pink (a late, cool vintage in which this variety was better suited to the realm of rosatto), 2011 Saignee of Pinot noir (feremented juice bled from fermenters of Abbey Ridge and Arley’s Leap Pinot noir) and 2012 Ramato of Pinot grigio (traditional Friulian Pinot grigio macerated on the skins for less than a day, pressed and fermented).
It is no secret that Cameron Winery does not use irrigation in our vineyards. It is also no secret that we are part of a like-minded group of wineries/grape growers who feel the same way (The Deep Roots Coalition). The reasons for eschewing irrigation are multifarious but are rooted in a common notion that it makes sense and is truly sustainable. One need only look south to the Russian River in Sonoma County to see the crisis that is developing around this topic. We recommend that you watch A Return to Dry Farming – an excellent film that shows how dry farming can be one solution to the current water shortages in Sonoma County.
Given that grapes have been farmed for literally thousands of years without irrigation, why is it that large segments of the viticultural community now think that it is impossible to farm without it? The answer likely comes down to money: it is generally quicker to get grapes on line and to start turning a profit with irrigation and one can achieve larger crops with it.
But what is the cost in the quality of the wine? I would argue that the cost is significant. The grapevine leaf canopies are essentially sugar factories turning out sucrose that is exported to the grape clusters. Irrigated vines are turning out so much sugar in the course of a growing season that the resulting fruit from these vineyards routinely comes in at 25-26% sugar by weight resulting in alcohols that are 14-15%. This is not wine of finesse. This is not wine of complexity.
The wines from our dry-farmed grapes typically come in at 12.5-13.0% alcohol. The yields are typically low (1.5-2.5 tons per acre) and the intensity and complexity of the wines are astonishing. These are wines that go with food.
And perhaps most important, at the end of the day we know that our vineyards and way of life will endure for the next generation. A vineyard that exists on the notion of being sustained by a disappearing aquifer or stream cannot say the same.
In the late 19th century when the European wine industry was literally imploding due to a little root louse called Phylloxera, many vignerons fled to South America and California. Fortunately for those who stayed, a viable solution was discovered and the vineyards were eventually saved.
The answer was found associated with the source of the infection, which started when native North American grape vines were imported to the culture collection in Montpillier, France. Phylloxera rode along as a contaminant on the roots of those vines but soon escaped to begin its devastation of the vineyards of France and elsewhere But since the host vines had adapted to the little insects, the solution was found in the host vines themselves.
It turns out that European grape vines (Vitis vinifera) can be attached to the roots of North American grape vines. Over the last 100+ years, as you might imagine, a large number of North American cultivars of “rootstock” have been made by crossing various genotypes (that is plants of unique genetic character). While all of these are resistant to phylloxera to a greater or lesser extent, other aspects have also been selected for. These include drought tolerance, resistance to other parasites, root depth and so on.
Since phylloxera eventually hitched a ride from Europe to the West Coast of North America, these rootstocks are as essential to the vineyards of California and Oregon as they are to Europe. In all these viticultural areas, many vignerons have learned how to join the scion (the part that provides the aerial part of the plant) to the root stock in a process known as “grafting”. Since the vineyards at Cameron contain a huge inventory of different clones of Pinot noir and Chardonnay as well as many Italian varieties, the only viable solution to expanding or replacing sections of the vineyard is to graft the vines ourselves. At first I thought “well, this isn’t rocket science” but after my first gallant attempts, I had to adjust that cogitation.
There are so many steps in the process of a critical nature that the overall success rate can often be quite small. From lining up the appropriate sizes of root stock and scion to getting the moisture correct in the perlite where callusing occurs to the temperature of the callus box to dipping the callused vines in wax at the perfect temperature to rooting in potting soil and so on. At the end of the process, one hopes to see a greenhouse full of little green shoots popping out of tiny grape vines.
Bud break just happened in Clos Electrique vineyard, and our friend Jeremy Fenske was there to capture it. Take a look:
It is said that healthy farms maintain a balance between plants and animals. Plants obviously provide a direct nutritional source for herbivorous animals and insects. But animals also provide crucial input into the plant biosphere as well.
Here at Cameron Winery, chicken tractors chug up and down the vineyard rows providing potent nourishment to the vines. The fowl scratch up the soil and defecate their offerings in a ritual which requires moving the tractors once a day. Goats mow down competing blackberries and the barn in which they reside is cleaned out every two weeks and the enriched straw added to the compost pile.
Our hives of honey bees pollinate the array of nutrimental plants in the vineyard, allowing them to efficiently reseed themselves. The geese…well let’s be honest here…don’t do anything but they do provide comic relief which is a form of health in its own right!
Our compost piles which are constructed from wine pressings, chipped up vineyard prunings and animal waste (mentioned above) provide not only potent nutrition to the vineyard but a viable colony of earth worms as well.
In the end we provide a largely “closed system” which requires minimal input of nutrition from outside the system. This is in essence the definition of “sustainable.”
Pruning the vineyard is generally considered the least enviable of tasks. Since it necessarily occurs in the winter when vines are dormant, pruning in Oregon is associated with cold, wet, muddy conditions. There is not a glove invented that will keep your 10 digits warm throughout the day.
So it is no surprise that in many vineyards, pruning is generally delegated down the economic ladder to its lowest rungs. And yet Teri and I with our higher degrees and Tom and Dan with accumulated expertise as sommeliers and in all things pertaining to the cellar happily don rain gear and muck boots and trudge out to the vineyard nearly every day this time of year. Actually the word “happily” might be a tad too positive on many days, perhaps best replaced by “determined”!
I think that pruning is one of the most important tasks that we accomplish each year in the vineyard: it allows us to mechanically separate the weak vines from their stronger neighbors, pruning each according to its vitality. Days and weeks out there with the vines allow a slow, methodical survey of the vigor of the vineyard, helping us to identify areas that might need additional compost or specific cover crops. Specific clones will tell you this time of year whether they were pruned and trained correctly last year or whether different methods need to be tried this time around.
There is a wealth of information sitting out there if one takes the time to access it. It is no lie that great wine is made in the vineyard and I noted early on that when I traveled to Burgundy to visit notable small domains, I was as likely to find “the man” out in the vineyard as in the cellar.
(And for a meditative analysis of pruning, please see last year’s post on “the zen of pruning”)
As the last clusters of grapes rattled through the destemmer and precious berries rolled down the shoot into the fermenting vessel, we all breathed a sigh of relief: la fin de la vendange, the end of harvest. Though in reality this signaled only the finish of work in the vineyard; the work in the cellar continues unabated.
Red ferments are monitored and the cap (skins that rise to the surface of the tank) are punched down into the frothy, ebullient must (fermenting wine). Juice recently pressed from white grapes is allowed to settle its sediment in stainless steel tanks for a few days and is then racked (moved) to barrels. In most cases the yeasts emanate from the skins of the grapes, the source of fermentation therefore being the vineyard from whence the fruit comes. As red wines finish fermenting, they are pressed to tanks for a few days of settling before being “barreled down” (racked to 220 liter oak barrels). And as the white wines approach the end of fermentation, they are topped up and will slowly finish as the cellar heads to winter.
On a quiet day with no other activity happening around the winery, the cellar is a magical place to be. Fermentation locks on the tops of all of the barrels gurgle and sing to each other throughout the dimly lit subterranean chamber. Aromas waft by…at one moment grapefruit rind from a white ferment, at another leather and blackberry from a red.
I find myself smiling. Another vintage under my belt; I have lost track of how many, but in a world that lives on comparisons and analogies, I know that this is one is special.
We have started a campaign to fund another great idea and all you have to do is give us money! To encourage your generosity, we’ve vinted up a slew of incentives for every budget. Check out our our gripping presentation by clicking “there’s more”.There’s More... >
During the golden October of 2013, a new section of Clos Electrique was born.There’s More... >
No matter what your political persuasion, I want you to be aware that the radical right of the Republican Party is adversely affecting my business in major ways. From their anti-immigrant diatribes meant to chase hispanics back across the border, to their inability to grasp climate change and now their tantrum regarding “Obamacare”, these so-called Tea Partiers are hurting American wine producers in major ways.There’s More... >