Archive for the ‘Vine/Wine’ Category.

Farmer Stuff and the Drought in California

Here is from the NYT that notes that agriculture uses 80% of the water in California:

A recent report by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that agricultural water use could be reduced by up to 22 percent if farmers more carefully scheduled the watering of crops based on weather and soil conditions and if they used the drip irrigation systems that deliver water directly to the roots of plants. Some progress has been made. About 38 percent of California farmland was irrigated by more efficient systems in 2010, up from 15 percent in 1991. But far too many farmers still irrigate by flooding their fields.

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy because it is accurate.  I have a small 3-acre vineyard.  It is all on drip irrigation and with the help of my county, I have instrumented my vineyard so I know moisture content of my soil at 6 places in my vineyard down to 4′ (the assumed location of where the grape plant gets most of its water).  Because of that, and the heavy red clay soil I grow on, there has not been a need to irrigate yet.  Grapes produce better fruit when they are stressed so based upon my moisture sensors, I stress them, then water.

So where are the rest of my fellow growers in the State?  Back in the 1980s where water was cheap and now they think they are entitled to it.  It is kind of funny in a way.  They are a very conservative bunch who generally think poor people are on the dole, and they are so on the dole with your tax dollar subsidized water.  You’d think they would look in the mirror once in a while. But they are patriots growing food for the nation. They are entitled. See my Jason Bourne blog.

Happy Friday


Growth in the lower vineyard on 6/6/2014

This evening I am going to have a salami sandwich and a Syrah and enjoy the company of she who must never be mentioned here, sitting on the patio. Hope you do something similar to celebrate our short stay on this planet. My day started at 5 with planks (I hate planks), crunches, leg lifts, and yoga. That followed by three hours thinning in the vineyard. Still have to weight lift and then I feel like I got something done.

Work in the vineyard is going very slowly. This is the last go round of thinning and pushing shoots up through the wire. This last go around is grueling because the shoots are large and tangled, you have break off laterals to open up the lower vine to air and sun, and then make sure the long shoots fall on the afternoon side of the trellis (morning sun on grapes, and afternoon shade). The picture below is one I took to show the progress of the work.


Thinned on the uphill (morning sun) side and long shoots cascading down on the down hill (afternoon) side.

Here is a picture of the just set Syrah grapes opened up to some sun in the morning:


Open up setting fruit in the lower part of the trellis (Syrah)

I won’t comment on politics today because, well, nothing ever changes with Republicans finding fault with everything, but no ideas to approach the challenges that face us. Well that is not entirely true, but their ideas drag us back to the 19th century.

So I am out there in the vineyard before the sun gets too hot ripping off shoots, getting frustrated at breaking shoots I want to keep, and struggling to untangle the mess, slipping on the steep terracing, and along comes a little cat I have seen out in the vineyard from time to time. I guess he decided with all my cussing, I needed a little love. When you think about it who doesn’t? It helped. Never underestimate the power of a little friend to brighten your day. Carpe Diem.


Vineyard cat (probably lives with our neighbors) who decided I needed a break and a little kindness. It was a welcome break with this friendly little creature.

Vine and Wine


Growth in the vineyard, 5/31/2014. If you look closely you can see the Grenache on the left, Mourvedre in the middle, and the Syrah at the bottom of the hill (Counoise in the foreground).

Vine – Used to be Vine/Wine Friday but I get behind. The picture above shows you the growth in the vineyard this week. It is over my head and I have been busy thinning (removing unwanted growth and shoots) and spraying for mildew which is probably a waste of time with the dry winds we have been having, but who wants to take a chance. Knock it down now and you have the rest of the summer to not worry about it.

The growth this year is vigorous, even more so than last year. The plant pushes out shoots where you don’t want them and on the shoots you do want, pushes out laterals that have to be thinned off. This requires walking through the vineyard, plant by plant, and thinning. See the picture below.


Thinning and pushing up through the wires. Still needs major thinning at the cardon to expose the grapes to morning sun to ripen (later in the year).

The plants are heavy with “potential” fruit and I am already seeing early flowering on the grapes. Yep, grapes flower and they pollinate via, wind, bugs, bees, birds, whatever. The picture below shows what the “flowers” look like and you have to look closely. They are the white dots coming off the potential grapes. The white specs on the leaves are mildew spray. Next is fruit set and I won’t know how I look for real until about three weeks from now. If all of the potential fruit sets, I am going to have to drop fruit in a major way because the plants have way too much fruit. No, Virginia, the idea is not to produce the most fruit you can, but quality succulent grapes. That requires reducing what is hanging and balancing leaf cover to crop.


Flowering of the Grenache. White specs on the leaves are mildew spray.

For the next week or two I will be focused on thinning plants (laterals and unwanted shoots). Try to be out in the vineyard by 6 am and out by 10 am to avoid the sun. Sometime in there I will have to start weed-eating to trim where the mower missed so I have a nice neat vineyard for the summer. No, it never ends.

Wine – My recommendation for wine is quite simple, A Bumgarner Petite Syrah while it lasts. She who must never be mentioned here and myself went over to his winery this afternoon for a tasting of the Petite Syrah coupled with Tri-Tip, Lamb, Portobella Mushroom with cheese, and blueberries with chocolate. It was magnificent. I have no idea what you people out there do with your time on a Saturday afternoon if you don’t live in wine country. Carpe Diem.

Vine and Wine


Lower Vineyard, Thursday 21 May, mowing completed and two rounds of thinning.

We are having rapid growth in the vineyard so unless something monumental occurs to me, I won’t be posting this weekend. I just finished another round of thinning and pushing the shoots up through the wires in the lower Syrah, sprayed out the lower vineyard for weeds in the rows, mowed the vineyard (actually I had that done). Now I need to thin and push shoots in the upper vineyard, spray out up there for weeds, spray the entire vineyard for mildew, and then thin the Grenache and Mourvèdre. Oh, and then I need to weed eat out the vineyard where the mower missed.  Then another cycle of thinning and pushing through the wires (in the trellis). About mid-June hell spring will be over over.  And you thought growing grapes was fun.

I Almost Forgot – Wine Grape Survey


Upper Vineyard Syrah Rapidly Growing

The California Grape Survey for 2013 indicated that there are 878,000 acres planted in grapes (broken down into wine (570,000), table grapes (105,000), and raisins (203,000). Here is the stuff I find interesting.
The most acres in red wine varietals in order of number of acres:

  1. Cabernet Sauvignon (86,258)
  2. Zinfandel (48,638)
  3. Merlot (45,269)
  4. Pinot Noir (41,304)
  5. Syrah (19,019)

My Grenache came in at 6,137 acres and my Mourvedre (Mataro) came in at 1,022 acres planted. Most new plantings in 2013 were Cab ( 2626 acres) and Pinot (1,028 acres).

The whites broke out this way:

  1. Chardonay (97,970)
  2. French Colombard (22,723)
  3. Sauvignon Blanc (15,444)
  4. Pinot Gris (13,752)
  5. Chenin Blanc (5,967)

My Viognier is sitting at 3,038 acres, an up and coming grape. Roussanne (340) and Grenache Blanc (334) are still small plantings in the state. Most new plantings in 2013 were Chardonay (1,517 acres), and Pinot Gris (362 acres).

Just thought you would want to know.

Vine/Wine Friday (Sunday)


If you haven’t figured it out Vine/Wine, if you say it fast 10 times, becomes fine wine. Anyway, it is the start of another growing season. Now mine starts a little later than the folks in the Valley, and Napa and Sonoma. Last year was a weird banner year. A warmer spring, an early harvest, and even dropping a ton of fruit to focus flavors in the remaining clusters, a high yield. So this year could be anything and I guess if you haven’t figured it out, what a grower does is simply try to adjust to what Mother Nature serves up. But sometimes Mother Nature can be a bitch and this year will be a challenge with the drought.

But enough whining (wining?). I just want to celebrate spring and a new beginning. It is the cycle of life that we are an integral part, and gives us one more chance maybe to exceed our bounds and reach for greatness. It is the great thing about seasons, we have our winters of discontent and a spring where hope does really spring eternal. Then there is summer where we struggle toward our goal of balancing Mother Nature, and finally fall when we find out if we have succeeded. So one more chance to maybe grow that perfect grape for that perfect glass of wine enjoyed with friends. Or as Henry the 5th (Shakespeare) told us, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more … ”

For those who want to know what goes into that perfect glass, at least in the field, here is what is being done this spring. Everyone knows about the pruning, but we do it in two phases that starts our growing season off a little earlier up here (3000′), a long pruning, evidenced in the photo and then a short pruning to select the buds for this years grapes and shape the vines. The vines have grown and moved and many have to be re-tied. Pruning debris has to be moved into the center of the rows to allow the mower to pulverize and recycle it. There is always some erosion damage and that has to repaired.

Then we get bud break and early shoot growth. That is time when you remove unwanted growth and select your shoots for best position, future growth, and quality grapes. It is where that expression the vineyard is fertilized with the footsteps of grower comes from. You spend endless hours out there choosing, and pushing grapes shoots up through the wires or removing shoots you don’t want. Maybe some spraying for powdery mildew, but that is what spring for me is all about. Carpe Diem and hopefully with a nice glass of wine, or as I like to say, life is short, never drink swill.

Vine/Wine Fri…Whatever


Vine:  The end of another harvest on a very different year than I have ever experienced before. The spring was very dry, one of the driest on record in the region, but warm.  So we have very early and vigorous bud break and shoot growth.  This was a year where because of the sequester, my consulting for DoD contracts were few, so I was field labor.  Prunning and mowing was done by labor, but then thinning,weed control, pushing the vines up through the wires, and spraying in early June for powdery mildew was done by me and keep me busy through mid-July.

Early growth in the Syrah

Early growth in the Syrah

One note here.  Since I rolled my ATV last year with a sprayer mounted on the ATV and saw my life flash before my eyes, I hand sprayed all the vines in the steeper areas. With a Tyvek suit goodles and mask, this is a great weight reduction program, not to mention, keeping my heart rate lower, not fearing for my life.

Plant development and veraison was early and the other really surprising thing was how little irrigation was required even after a very dry spring.  Most blocks got one cycle and that is all.  The plants just never appeared stressed at all, and new growth keep pushing late into summer.  The summer itself was mild with not that many 100 degree days so it was a very good growing season.

Mourvedre Harvest on cool morning

Mourvedre Harvest on cool morning

Upper vineyard Syrah with Viognier mixed in

Upper vineyard Syrah with Viognier mixed in

Usually after veraison there is about 100 120 days until harvest.  Up here that could be longer as we wait for the tanins to mellow.  That was not the case this year as the seeds quickly browned and the tanins ripened.  Acid did not decrease as fast giving us an ideal early harvest.  Usually my last block is the Mouvedre in very late October or early November.  They were picked this year on 30 September.  We usually harvest in four blocks starting with the upper vineyard syrah, lower vinyard Syrah, Grenache, then Mourvedre stretching over about six weeks.  This time everything went in four weeks earlier than ever.  This was an experience across California which put a premeium on vat space for juice in wineries as it was all flowing in at the same time.


Syrah Harvest on another cool morning

Oh, and my yield, even though with the robust growth and we thinned considerably, was the largest I have ever had, at close to 6 tons. Everyone I talked to said about the same thing, remarkable fruit, early development and harvest.  So the year is over and as evidenced by the picture, it is time to enjoy the spoils of harvest and think about next year and a new beginning.

Wine:  On wine, well there are so many good ones, and this area that I live in is getting more and more developed and discovered.  So I will leave with this thought.  Many of us are accused of being a wine snob as we taste, sniff, criticize, and describe our experience.  But the reality is only you know what a good wine is, because in the end all the matters is how it taste to you.  Think of the act of wine tasting not as some competitive activity to prove what you know, but a systemized way to make you stop and smell the roses.  When you really taste and enjoy a wine, you are focused on it, how it feels, smells, looks, and the various compexities it presents.  It is just too bad we don’t do that with many other experiences in our lives.


Glorious Fall and the Watcher. Carpe Diem.

Vine/Wine Friday

New Growth in the Syrah, and a new start

New Growth in the Syrah, and a new start

Okay it has been awhile so I thought I would bring you up to date on the goings on in the Vineyard.

Vine: It has been a rare and real spring out here. The last couple of years we have had cold springs with late frosts. It snowed in the end of May last year. But this year it was a textbook spring and I don’t think I have ever seen one this beautiful. Everything, unlike the last few years, bloomed at once and early. Bud break on the grapes (it goes in phases, with the last being the Mourvedre) happened fairly early and we are pretty much out of the frost danger time since everything is pushing shoots with continued warm weather forecast. Growth has been prodigious on the vines with tons of suckers (buds and shoots all over the plant that are unwanted and have to be removed).

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Vine/Wine Friday

Lower Vineyard from the bottom of the hill – 9/14 2012

Well this has been missing in action, mostly because I have covered most topics over the years, but I thought I would bring you up to date on this year’s crop mostly in pictures.  If you are interested in a year’s cycle, go to Lightner Vineyards and view the pictures.

Vine:  It has been an interesting growing year, one of the better.  We had a much dryer spring so the vines got a little earlier start without destructive frost.  They seem to be compensating for last years small crop by producing big well formed bunches.  We did an early leaf thinning and vine shaping program (exposing the morning grapes to sun and giving them shade in the afternoon by having the shoots draped over the afternoon part of the trellis).  We suffered no sunburn this year and that was primarily due to more even temperatures without big swings and heat spikes.  I tried to spray twice (but suffered a rollover accident with my ATV on my steep slopes) and there is little mildew because of the warm temperatures and good breeze.

Syrah with the shoots thrown over the afternoon side of the trellis, grapes hanging underneath

About early August we did a round of fruit dropping primarily in the Mourvedre since this plant loves to over produce.  Like all other fruits, they have to be thinned so you are focusing your growth and maturity into a balanced crop for optimum flavors.  We did a little leaf thinning in the Grenache, but you have to be careful because the Grenache color will bleach out and you really want darker fruit.  It appeared to me that veraison was late this year, mid to late August, with the Grenache just finishing up.  Yet the ripeness of the grapes came quite quickly (brix, acid, tannins).  We have already harvested the upper vineyard Syrah and Viognier, and the lower vineyard Syrah will go next week.  I would guess the Mourvedre and Grenache have three to four weeks to go.

I lost a couple of plants this year, so I will do some replanting next year.  Most probably to  oak root fungus.  There are no known root stocks that are resistant to this common disease in forested areas so you just dig out the plant, treat the soil, and hope you got it.  It only occurs in my Grenache.  I did finally find a better way of handling pruning debris this spring and that is to simply pull it into the center of the rows and hire a guy with a flailing mower to chop it up in the yearly mow.  Saved me about two weeks of work, but adds to the cost of my little vineyard if you don’t count my labor.  Anyone who wants to seriously grow grapes needs a tractor, sprayer, and flailing mower.

Part of the Upper Vineyard bounty this year. I think I got about 3/4 of a ton up there.

Beautiful and bountiful Syrah this year on one irrigation cycle



On irrigation, this also was a little strange.  Even though we had a far dryer spring this year, I only irrigated once (drip, about 100 hours per block).  I guess with the more even summer temperatures the soil held more moisture.  Note that every vineyard is different and you just have to learn what works in your soil and micro climate.  The Grenache and the Mourvedre will get a second watering (now) because they are going to hang longer.

Grenache Rows

Head trained Grenache with plenty of fruit









Finally there are the gophers who have done a ton of damage and it will just be a busy time once the soil gets soft again to find their main tunnels and poison. Overall, I think at least up here, you can mark 2012 as a very good grape year.  Last year was spotty, but this year, I think it will be one of those years.  Of course you won’t be able to taste it for 3 years (if it is done right), but it will be worth the wait.

Head trained Mourvedre needing about 3-weeks to mellow out the tannins before harvest

Wine:  Well I can’t really summarize all the wine I tasted this year, but I will let you know that I think our little patch is slowly being discovered.  The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article that El Dorado is one of five grape growing regions to watch (Regions on the verge:  5 California wine growing regions to watch).  Note the picture of Ron Mansfield in his tractor on the front.  Ron is the guy

Mourvedre looking beautiful, but the tannins are still bitter and will need about 3 more weeks of hang time.

who talked me into this.  The other was an article in the Sacramento Bee about one of my favorite wineries (and the people who first bought my grapes until they had their vineyard fully up and running), Holly’s Hill (Tricky Grenache, Expertly Presented).

One note on wine styles.  A Syrah is not a Syrah, a Rhone blend is not a Rhone blend.  My point here is that different regions do different things to their wine to imprint their style on it and these can make the difference between a great wine and a poor one.  It also fixates your taste and preferences on a particular style.

I was in Napa last weekend on my Hog Island quest.  Hog Island is an oyster company that has three outlets, one in SF (Ferry Building), one in Napa, and one at their oyster farm in Tomales Bay.  If you have a dozen oysters at each place you get a commemorative cap which I am closing in on.  Anyway, our server noted my status as a grower of Rhones and brought me one of his favorite blends from Napa to taste.  It was quite nice, but over oaked.

Napa likes oak and I think it hides or over runs many of the complexities the grapes have to offer.  It is a style thing.  It is also a palate thing.  If you can’t taste the complexities and structure in the first place, well then bring on the oak. But the reality is, it is what you personally like in wine that is important, not what others like.  And as I like to say, wine is for sharing.  This nice young man shared his wine with us and for that, I am very grateful.  It is the sharing that makes us human and a community.

Did I mention that I picked up a whole lamb from the butcher and my wine cabinet is well stoked, no I am stoked, it is stocked, for the fall and winter?  Carpe Diem!

Vine/Wine Friday

Chateau Lightner and the Summer Plants taking shape by she who must not be mentioned in this blog

Vine: Okay, not much to post about the vineyard since most of the work is being done by others. So I am providing you with a picture of Chateau Lightner after she who must not be mentioned in this blog has finished her handy work with the gardens. This is that delightful time of year when it is warm, but not too warm and you can sit outside at any time of day or night and enjoy the view and the vineyard, wine in hand of course.

Meanwhile in the vineyard the thinning is complete. Remember that there is two parts to thinning. One is thinning each spur to two shoots only spaced evenly on the cardon (for trellis trained Syrah and Viognier) and evenly spaced around the trunk for the head trained Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise. The second part of this is to remove leaf cover to balance grape production with leaf cover (you don’t want the roots trying to feed too many leaves and shorting the grapes), and to open up the plant to light and air to help ripen the grape and prevent mildew. This year we are trying something new, and that is removing most of the leaves on the lower part of the Syrah where the grapes hang to give them more light. The downside could be sunburn, which I suffered through year before last in the lower vineyard.

Shoots thrown over to the afternoon side of the trellis top wire, and leafs removed around grapes

Close up of the leaf removal on the Syrah along the cordon exposing the grapes













Sunburn is thought to occur when the plant has not acclimated to those blazing days (100 degrees) and get a shock. The idea is to expose the grapes to the morning sun and throw the shoots over the afternoon side to shade them. That only works marginally in the lower vineyard because the rows run North-South. But the year we had the sun burn, we had very cool weather and then a big spike of heat/sun so I am thinking with our cooler days right now, the grapes can acclimate, I hope. Studies indicate that once veraison occurs (grapes turn red), sunburn is less likely. Veraison is still many weeks offs so I am going with my acclimation theory and hope for the best. If they burn this year, I will not allow that type of thinning again.

Not much else to do, which is really good since I need to work consulting so I can afford the labor in the field. Still haven’t got my ATV back from the shop since the big roll over. I have declared war on all life in the gopher population. They are destructive little devils and tear up a vineyard. The last straw was that they got into my garden and ate four tomato plants. I have those little ….

Wine: Okay, last Saturday was the lamb roast dinner. Here is the menu and it is quite simple:

Hors d’oeuvres:  Cheese, fresh market raw vegetables cut up, tapenade, crackers, and sausages grilled. hummus

Dinner:  Salad with everything fresh from the farmers market on Saturday morning, roasted vegetables, two leg of lambs slow cooked on the barbeque, chicken for the week of heart

Dessert:  Coconut milk ice cream with fruits, nuts, and chocolate pieces

The usual suspects part II

Usual Suspects Part 1














I have a really easy recipe for leg of lamb and it is always excellent.  The day before prepare the meat by inserting garlic everywhere.  I use a little shucking knife to punch holes in the meat and then push the little devils down in.  Then marinate in fresh rosemary from the garden (if you have one), wine ( a good one like Syrah), olive oil, salt and pepper, and yes, more garlic.  I use about two cups wine and almost a cup or more of olive oil.  The wine renders the lamb fat out, and the olive oil soaks in.  Put it in a covered container and refrigerate over night, turning once in the morning.  You will see what I mean.

Lamb, slow cooked away from the heat

The Lamb’s paternal twin, the wine in order of use, except for the Petite Syrah which was used to marinate the lamb and me the day before.













To cook it use a fairly large grill and real charcoal.  If you have to use a gas grill make sure the meat is away from the fire.  I put the charcoal on one side in a pile, and the meat away from the pile on the other side of the grill near the little chimney so the smoke/heat is drawn through the lamb, but is not directly over the fire.  I adjust to about 300 degrees and cook for about 2 hours until the thermometer says 120 in the center, then take off and rest for 30 minutes and carve.  The chicken is cooked on a separate grill, soaked in peanut oil and garlic, and then directly over the coals with foil in between (under the chicken to prevent flair ups and burning.

It was a delightful evening, the food and company was wonderful and the wine, well, see the pictures.  Carpe Diem.