Irrigation: the oxycontin of American Viticulture

From John, March 30th, 2019
old non-irrigated vine

old non-irrigated vine

It makes everything feel good but it is terribly addictive and the health of the patient is always compromised. I am talking of course about irrigating vineyards in North America.

Certainly Europe would have to be considered the progenitor of American viticulture and their vineyards are largely dry farmed. And in the beginning, and until quite recently, vineyards in America were also dry farmed.

So what happened? After the famous Steven Spurrier Tasting in 1976 (won by Stags Leap Winery and Chateau Montelena), investment in vineyards started pouring into the Napa Valley and California viticultural areas in general. With that money came bankers and accountants demanding return on their investments. And to ease the pain of those hefty financial transactions, vineyards began irrigating.  With irrigation, vines could be in production in 2 years instead of 5-7, yields could be increased and the quantity of sugar in the grapes could be pushed to previously unknown levels.

Note that nothing has been said about “quality” here. As yields went up, quality went down and as sugars went up, California wines became known as high alcohol fruit bombs. By comparison the beautifully crafted wines that won the Paris Tasting in 1976 were all around 12.5% alcohol. You would be hard pressed to find a Napa Valley wine today that is less than 14-15% alcohol (unless it comes from one of the remaining dry farmed vineyards such as Frog’s Leap).

In Europe, if one introduces irrigation to one’s vineyard, one immediately loses rights to an appellation because rainfall (timing and quantity) is a basic component of terroir. Irrigated vineyards have no more terroir than a hydroponically grown green house tomato.

The Oregon wine industry basically copied the California model approximately 10 years later.  In our case, a tasting of Burgundies vs Oregon Pinot noirs took place with wines from our 1983 vintage. And again, with the fame garnered by the results, money poured into the Willamette Valley tethered to grandiose schemes for irrigating the new vineyards. The results have been largely the same with a plethora of high alcohol, fruit-forward wines.

The good news is that there are still plenty of dry farmed vineyards in both Oregon and California. Though they constitute a minority of the plantings, they are certainly producing the best wines. Many of these vineyards are represented by the Deep Roots Coalition.

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Grafting (without the corruption)

From John, February 27th, 2019
John bench grafting

John bench grafting

a field grafted Pinot noir vine

a field grafted Pinot noir vine

Here in winter of 2019, clearly there is a whiff of graft in the air!  Though what they define as “graft” in our political arena is quite a different concept from what “graft” means at Cameron Winery.  In late February or early March, you can usually find us engaged in our form of graft.

Why graft grape vines?

Most of the world’s wine is made from Vitis vinifera, a species of grape native to Europe and Asia.  While it is certainly possible to grow Vitis Vinifera on its own roots, most viticultural regions now have infections of Phylloxera (a pesky little American root louse that literally devours the roots of our beloved vinifera vines).  In response to this microarthropod, our friends in France long ago figured out a way to deal with it.

If one grafts a shoot of Vitis vinifera (a “scion) onto rootstock derived from native North American vines (which are resistant to the little louse), “Et voilà, le travail!”, a viable vine results that can grow in the presence of Phylloxera.  Of course that’s just the theory.  The reality involves a number of different approaches to the subject. 

How do we do it?

In Oregon, we commonly “bench graft” winter cuttings from dormant scion and rootstock in order to propogate new vines.  It is a bit of an art to line up complimentary scion and rootstock “sticks”, make a cut in one and complimentary cut in the other (think of a positive and a negative) and put them together.   After joining the parts, we lay the successive grafted vines in a box of moist perlite and keep them warmed at 70F for approximately 3 weeks.  At the end of that time, a healthy callus has knitted the two halves together and we immerse the rootstock in rooting hormone, then in potting soil. The whole “plant” is put in the greenhouse to await budbreak of the scion and growth of roots below from the rootstock.  If the resulting vine is healthy, we nurture it throughout the summer and plant it in vineyard the fall.

The second method of grafting is called “chip budding” or “T-budding” and is done on mature vines that already have a healthy root structure.  In this case, the growth at the head of a mature vine is cut off and a scion bud is inserted into a cleft or “T” cut into the remaining trunk.  The little bud is carefully wrapped by tape wound round and round the trunk until it is secure.  In a few weeks the bud will have formed a callus with the rootstock and will begin to grow.  This is an excellent method for changing the type of vine that one has in the vineyard.  For example, at Cameron many years ago we made the mistake of planting Dijon clones.  And now, 20 years later, with healthy root structure resistant to Phylloxera, we are slowly grafting over these vines to old Burgundy clones of both Pinot noir and Chardonnay. We lose one year of productivity but then are back in production with superior grapes!

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Some unexpected effects of climate change

From tEr1, October 25th, 2018

One of the Culprits

For the non-propagandized, global warming is an obvious and real phenomenon.  But how it is manifesting itself can sometimes be subtle and discomforting at the same time.

Clearly hot dry summers are becoming the norm in Oregon which, by late summer, can stress the vines.  In 2018 the rains essentially stopped by the first of May and only resumed fitfully in early September.  Though we had ample rain during the previous winter and spring, by the end of August, moisture was only to be found very deep in the soil.  For older vines this was not a problem but it of course played havoc with younger plants.

On the subtle end of this phenomenon, a warm winter failed to knock back the vole (small, burrowing mouse-like rodent) population that inhabits part of the underworld of our vineyard.  With ample food stocks from the wet spring, the population exploded.  But as the hot summer left the ground cover parched, the now thirsty and starving voles started to go after young vines, stripping them of foliage and then devouring the rest of the plant.  When they had finished wiping out young plants they took after 35 year old vines, gnawing around the bottom of the trunks for food and moisture.  By the time September came around with some welcome rain, many of our valuable old vines had been girdled and were dying.

Hopefully some of our old vines will recover by sending up shoots from ground level in the spring, but likely many of them will not.  Hawks, owls and our cats have been busy taking down the population so we are optimistic that the issue will not repeat itself next year.  Fingers crossed.

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A Primer on Pinot noir Genetics

From John, December 3rd, 2017

Pinot noir (and Chardonnay to a lesser extent) is well known for consisting of a multitude of clones. You may ask “what is a clone?”

Within the Pinot noir genome are a number of variants which confer differences in things as diverse as how the vines grow (droit and fin), size and shape of clusters, vigor of the vine and so on.  Within the Pinot noir genome are both chromosomes and free circular pieces of DNA called plasmids, both of which express genetic characteristics. The combination of all of this genetic material is what constitutes a clone.

The origin of plasmids is not particularly clear. Agricultural scientists like to refer to these pieces of genetic material as viruses but that is most likely a simplification. Pinot noir is thought to be genetically unstable and this may in part be due to changes (mutations) in the structure of the plasmids.

Over many generations, farmers in Burgundy have selected new clones that occasionally pop up in their vineyard…a vine with smaller clusters, or tinier berries, or darker color for instance.  They then propagate those clones and, if the wine improves, those clones become a long term part of the massale (the selection of disparate clones) in that vineyard. This huge selection of genetic diversity within the great Burgundian vineyards has certainly contributed to the justifiably stellar reputation of these vineyards.

In the 1950’s, agricultural scientists both in California and France discovered that they could “sanitize” vines by destroying the plasmids in dormant Pinot noir and Chardonnay plant material by subjecting the cuttings to excessive heat. Because plasmid DNA is much more heat labile, it can be destroyed while the chromosomes remain. The resulting plant material produced vines with simpler clusters of large berries and generally more vigorous growth characteristics.  These new “sanitized” vines are referred to as “indexed vines”.

I would argue that with the genetically-modified large clusters and large crops, the resulting wines are significantly inferior to wines made from the original non heat-treated vines.  The controversy over “indexed vines” continues to this day.   Now, if you want to purchase new cuttings from purveyors such as UC Davis, they must be indexed in order to be shipped to Oregon. It is a classic battle between industrial agriculture which strives for more production through genetic manipulation and small family farmers who want to produce quality food from old proven cultivars.

In my 35 years of experience, I have found that wines made from indexed vines (such as UC Davis 108 Chardonnay and Dijon PInot noir and Chardonnay) are just not as good as those made from old original clones.  I encourage new vineyards to consider this when choosing cultivars to plant.

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Introducing 2014 Massale!

From John, November 28th, 2017

Introducing our newest creation, 2014 Massale of Pinot noir.

Also newly released are our 2013 Nebbiolo and 2015 single vineyard wines:  Clos Electrique Rouge and Blanc from our estate vineyard just outside the winery door and Abbey Ridge Pinot noir and Chardonnay, from our friends at one of the oldest and best vineyards in the state of Oregon.  2015 was a warm year, but our vines said “you call this hot?”.  Their deep roots gave them everything they needed in the cool earth well below the surface to make elegant wines without, well, breaking a sweat.  We think you’ll love them!

 

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Jackson Pawlick 2001-2017

From John, November 1st, 2017

It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our best dog ever, Ms Jackson Pawlick, vineyard and delivery assistant, hiking and running companion and source of endless entertainment for 16 years.

Although she had humble beginnings in Estacada, she was an Einstein of dogs.  She knew over 50 words, her favorite being “cheese” but she recognized many important phrases such as “go get son of a bitch” (her squeeky George Bush toy), lets go to the river,  the names of everyone in the family & the winery.  Jackson was a running phenom easily covering 5-6 miles in Forest Park if asked to do so.  She practiced yoga on command (down dog!), fetched the New York times every morning, but perhaps her coup de gras was “spazz out”, a amalgamation of 4 favorite tricks, spinning around, rolling over, speaking and finally downward dog.  More than anything she was a unique personality, a sweet soul, a loyal friend.

She was pre-deceased by her best friend, Guido and is survived by our new puppy Linus, Julian’s corgi P. Middy and the extended Paul-Wadsworth family.  We hope she is eating cheese in doggie heaven.

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2017,  A Classic Oregon Vintage

From John, October 26th, 2017

Now that the Nebbiolo has been harvested, there is time to reflect on the vintage just completed.

With abundant rainfall in the Spring and early Summer along with moderately cool temperatures, we knew that 2017 could well be a different sort of vintage than those which we have experienced over the last 5 years.  Bloom was pushed to the latter part of June, and if one defers to the classic Burgundian formula of 100 days from full bloom to harvest, then it becomes clear that an October harvest is in the makeup.  And, indeed, October it was.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s as well as in the early years of this millenium, harvest in the Willamette Valley fell for the most part within the confines of October.  October is when the nights get cold and the days moderately warm.  This allows slow even ripening and the retention of ample acidity in the fruit.  Higher acidity dictates a slower, controlled fermentation since yeasts are a bit sluggish when the pH is low (acidity high).  As a result, the must ferments at a bit lower temperature and sits a bit longer in the fermentation vessels before it is ready for pressing.  This happy confluence of events generally means higher tone aromatics and the extraction of a bit more structure in the wines.

Add to the above, perfect weather throughout the vintage and absence of any disease in the fruit. A fabulous set of 2017 wines is in the offing.  Stay tuned.

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A Natural Wine Begins in the Vineyard

From John, May 10th, 2017

The quality of a wine has everything to do with the health of the vines from whence that wine comes. And the mileau within which the vines grow has everything to do with that health.

From the cover crop that grows throughout the vineyard to the microflora in the soil, everything exerts an influence on the final product. Even driving a tractor in the vineyard can compact the soil, affecting aeration and drainage.  This in turn impacts the growth of microflora beneficial to the roots of the vines.   Therefore, at Cameron Winery, after winter pruning,  we remove all of the prunings from the vineyard by hand so that we do not have to introduce a tractor with an attached mower or flail to chop them up when the soil is wet and more compactable.

Influencing what grows in the vineyard (besides vines) and where it grows is a critical part of the process of creating a healthy environment. While we seed with various types of cover crops (clover for nitrogen, buckwheat for phosphorus mining, mustard for drainage and killing nematodes, to name a few) controlling their growth under the vines is always an issue.

We have generally opted over the years to hand mow underneath the vines although this is incredibly labor intensive (see photo).

The alternative, which a majority of vineyards tend toward, is the use of herbicides, of which Roundup (Glyphosate) is by far the dominant player.  Glyphosate is a class 2A carcinogen according to the World Health Organization, and has been linked to several types of lymphomas.  In the soil, there is evidence that glyphosate is quite toxic to soil bacteria and therefore also inhibits nitrogen fixation by cover crops such as clover and interrupts other important microbial activities in the soil. At Cameron Winery, we are clearly not fans of Roundup and are clearly committed to looking for alternatives.

At the Ecofarm Conference this year, we were introduced by noted root specialist Robert Kourik (the author of Roots Demystified) to a method of mulching. Newspaper is placed under the vines as a base on which we place chipped up vine prunings (see photos below). This is in the experimental phase at this point but we are hoping that it can replace mowing under the vines at least in part.  We are also experimenting with no-till techniques to help preserve soil biology, a topic for a future rant.

In the end it is clear that truly healthy vineyards as well as other forms of healthy agriculture require a lot of love and labor. But I can tell you that nothing is more enjoyable than working in and being a part of a healthy vineyard.

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A Wee Rant About “Natural Wines”

From John, January 8th, 2017

Keeping abreast of natural winemaking.

Keeping abreast of natural winemaking.

Wine has always seemed to me as the most natural of substances. So it comes to me as a bit of a surprise that a whole new genre of wine, “Natural Wines”, has been created.

To be sure, there is a plethora of manipulated and manufactured wines out there, but even they come from real grapes fermented by real yeasts. So I intuit that the creation of the “natural wine” classification is a reaction to the addition of concentrators, micro-oxygenation, coloring agents and the like to modern winemaking. And, to be sure, I share the disdain for this increasingly large collection of manufacturing techniques.

But let us be fair in our evaluation of this new genre: it is, to be sure, a narrow and arbitrary classification meant to suit the marketing needs of whoever is using it. For example, when I see a cloudy wine and am told “Oh this is a natural wine”, I am compelled to retort “I can’t think of anything more natural than gravity…maybe the winemaker should have waited to rack his wine for bottling!” And when one encounters a wine which is oxidized, yes this is a natural process, and to be sure there are some great wines that are made with oxidation in mind (eg Radikon and other wines from the Collio as well as of course Sherries). But in many other cases oxidation or smells of fingernail polish remover or brutalization by a lactic acid bacteria infection emanate from poor winemaking practices.

A winemaking practice which is “modern” should not necessarily be considered outside the realm of “natural.” There are in fact a good many “modern” practices which are both organic and sustainable and can be utilized to make beautiful vibrant wines. Rejecting these practices is a bit like rejecting a naturopathic or traditional cure for a sinus infection because it is not “natural”.

And I will admit to occasionally producing wines with some of the preceding faults….the difference is that those wines go down the drain in my cellar, not into the bottle.

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Water Stress in Oregon!?

From John, November 17th, 2016

While the 2016 growing season had its share of late summer hot weather, it was not as hot a growing season as in the previous year.  However, water stress was another issue.  By late April not only were we experiencing unseasonably warm weather but the ubiquitous Oregon rain mostly came to a halt as well.  The rain that we did receive after that was either of short duration or was soaked up by the cover crop which had been stimulated to grow by the warm temperatures.  And the ground simply dried up as the season progressed without significant rain.
In the case of our vineyards at Cameron, we have over the last several vintages engaged in a practice of no-till, instead simply mowing the covercrops.  The idea is to keep carbon fixed in the soil right where it is since tilling sets in motion microbial degradation of carbon to CO2.  Most vintages this will work fine but in an extremely dry and warm vintage, the vines end up water-stressed.  Partly as a result of this, the berries did not size up as much as we thought they would, so crop levels were a bit low.
The saving grace for the entire 2016 vintage came in early September when we received a significant rain event just prior to harvest.  Since rain water is absorbed to some extent directly into the fruit, the spongy, slightly dehydrated berries rehydrated to a perfect turgid state and we were in business.  The end result of all of this is a cellar of very concentrated wines (due mostly to the small crop) which are wonderfully balanced (due to the beneficent rain).  So get ready for a brilliant 2016 vintage of small production down the road!

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Irrigation: the oxycontin of American Viticulture

It makes everything feel good but it is terribly addictive and the health of the patient is always compromised. I am talking of course about irrigating vineyards in North America.

There’s More... >
Grafting (without the corruption)

In early winter, you can usually find the folks at Cameron Winery engaged in the “art” of grafting. If you want to know “the why” and “the how”, then please read on!

There’s More... >
Some unexpected effects of climate change

Global climate change is an obvious and real phenomenon. One of the ways it is manifesting itself in our vineyard is subtle and discomforting.

There’s More... >

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