May All of Your Weeds be Wildflowers

Biodiversity in Vineyard Management:

Beauty, Structure, and Micro-Biomes

  Oxeye Daisy growing wild below Marquette vines in the north bloc at McCabe's Brook Vineyard

Oxeye Daisy growing wild below Marquette vines in the north bloc at McCabe's Brook Vineyard

Winemaking may evoke images of barrels, of full tanks and grape skins floating in a seething mass of fermenting wine. But just as often as we may think of process and aging, we picture the sprawling rows of vines that stretch over sunny hills, contouring their every crest and trough. The bucolic image of the vineyard is one that almost automatically evokes a sense of a slow-paced mediterranean life filled with tradition and simple rituals punctuated with long lunches where a glass or two of wine isn't frowned upon, but considered culturally appropriate.

When we zoom in, though, the poetry of this sun-parched and romantic agrarian lifestyle transforms. Our perspective changes from one of generalizing a lifestyle to the specifics of how many small components accumulate and collaborate to create a micro-biome that does more than just produce one of our cultures most revered alcoholic beverages. 

Here at Shelburne Vineyard we've made it our mission to look at the details of our land and how we manage it that affect both the microscopic scale of the soil health around one individual vine and on the macroscopic scale of both our local environmental health and our global climatic health. 

  Queen Anne's Lace grows copiously around our vines

Queen Anne's Lace grows copiously around our vines

In our field, the practice of cultivating or promoting growth around your vines or between the rows is known as Floor Management. This is a broad term that describes both the laborious and time-consuming practices of cultivating flora in the vineyard as well as the passive practice of promoting endemic flora to proliferate in and around the vines. 

New England has a plethora of vigorous and prolific undergrowth. If you've ever passed through Vermont in July or August, you'd know how dreadfully your allergies can flare up. The sheer volume of wildflowers contributes to a dip in air quality in the summer months that can leave us unhappy and a bit drippy. For us at the vineyard, however, these plants play an integral role.

There are a number of reasons why one allows for these misunderstood "weeds" to creep up and down the rows. For one they provide biomass that helps stitch together our soils and prevent erosion. When a vineyard is managed conventionally, rows are often mowed down to the soil below. This exposes the soil to the potential for wind erosion and reduces its ability to retain moisture. On top of the potential for increased soil erosion, trimming your rows down to the bones creates a more porous membrane through which any chemicals introduced into the vineyard will pass more easily. Finally, the biomass from a year of wild growth will eventually pass and become the decomposing materials that will reintegrate and nourish the soils for the years to come.

  A Monarch Butterfly perches on Bull Thistle

A Monarch Butterfly perches on Bull Thistle

In addition to contributing to soil structure, the endemic flora creates a safe harbor for other beneficial organisms to flourish. These include insects, microbial organisms, and mycorrhizal fungi. Microbes and mycorrhizal fungi are both hidden beneath the topsoil and aren't apparent to the human eye. But when it comes to the benefits it imparts to the soil and the vines themselves, their usefulness is outsized.

Mycorrhizae are the fine mesh network of fungi that exist in symbiosis with the root networks of plants. These networks have existed for hundreds of millions of years and have been aiding in plant nourishment since the dawn of time. They aid in water, sugar, and mineral absorption and have the ability to transport nutrients across plants through their broad hyphae networks. 

Microbes are a litany of microorganisms that serve primarily to decompose the biomass that we cultivate between vineyard rows and make the nutrients available for re-absorption. 

The mechanism that a diversity of endemic flora contributes to fungal and microbial diversity is linear; more variety begets more variety and a diversity of micro-assitants is going to promote general soil health and contribute nutrients back into the soils of our vineyard. 

  Yellow Orb Weaver (Argiope aurantia) lays in wait at the center of her web

Yellow Orb Weaver (Argiope aurantia) lays in wait at the center of her web

General predatory insect presence in any gardening or agricultural operation is considered auspicious. Arachnids in particular, which fall further up the food chain, are welcome additions to the vineyard. They're impact on various beetle populations that chew through canopy cover is a positive one. These handsome helpers would find themselves less at home without the additional cover provided by the undergrowth.

Economic incentives are built into a naturalistic approach to floor management. Fewer tractor passes in tilling and mowing means lower carbon emissions and fewer dollars spent on the labor to maintain the rows. This natural reduction in overhead is a welcome one especially as harvest rolls up and we want more resources to complete harvest professionally and expeditiously. 

The presence of more competition in and around the vine also reduces the vigor of the canopy. Especially in the case of the hybrids we grow, these vines can become unruly when left to their own devices. A small amount of strain in and around the root structures of the vine lessens the vigor of the vines' annual vegetative growth a reasonable amount. 

We at Shelburne Vineyard practice a small amount of Cover Cropping. This phrase refers to a more explicit cultivation of specific crops in specific areas for specific reasons. We practice cover cropping with ryegrass and buckwheat around our Riesling vines. When it comes to be later in the season, we are able to pass through with a scythe and incisively remove the cover crop. This will have prevented the growth of more unruly flora from settling in and makes the soil beneath the vines more pliable and accessible when it comes time to mound soil around the graft point to preserve the vines through the winter. 

All of our growth gets cut back at some point, though. Whether it be midsummer to allow for more airflow beneath the canopy of the vines to prevent moisture accumulation, or whether it be before harvest to just make it easier to move up or down the rows. That said, the biodiversity that ebbs and flows throughout the season is essential in bolstering soil health and improving biodiversity in the micro-biomes that are our vineyards.

The result? Great fruit that hasn't experienced exposure to herbicides or insecticides, yet still has survived beautifully due to the plethora of helping insects, fortifying plants, and beneficial soil-dwellers. 

  La Crescent grapes about ready to ripen

La Crescent grapes about ready to ripen

works cited
McCourty, Glen. "Cover Cropping for Organically Farmed Vineyards." Practical Winery and Vineyard

Skinkis, Patty. "Overview of Vineyard Floor Management." Extension
Interview with CJ Buzzy, Assisstant Winemaker

May Winds A'Howlin'

It was the evening of Friday, May 4th. We were hosting one of the University of Vermont's public philosophy forums discussion. The topic for the evening was a fitting one: Plato's Symposium, a discourse on objective value and what makes something like wine good. 

Lead by Michael Ashooh, the discussion was picking up. Folks were weighing in about whether knowledge enhances one's ability to determine value. As the conversation really started to roll, so did the weather. Creeping in from the West was a looming wall of clouds making its way across Lake Champlain.

  A tree lies across the fence that surrounds Shelburne Museum; a willow has some shattered limbs

A tree lies across the fence that surrounds Shelburne Museum; a willow has some shattered limbs

The rain came down hard and suddenly. In great waves the wind brought heavy rain and quarter inch hail sideways against the glass doors that flank the tasting room. It went from feeling like we were in a lecture hall to being in a ship tossed on a sea during a storm. Rain began to shoot in through the seams of the doors. The power flickered and then went out. 

Warmer weather comes with a classic New England phenomenon: Thunderstorms that come from nowhere. We anticipate at least a few a year that turn the sky green and bring on that feeling of a drop in pressure, the smell of imminent rain. 

This one was a doozy, though. And had it come a couple of weeks later than it did, we could have experienced some severe damage in the buds on the vines. When those tender shoots first start to emerge they are temporarily prone to the likes of hail and 50 mph wind gusts. 

 

  A fallen tree in a neighbor's yard

A fallen tree in a neighbor's yard

Many folks in town experienced some serious damage from the winds. The soft, damp earth couldn't hold up some of the larger trees around town. The Shelburne Museum experienced some serious property damage. We feel very lucky that we came off with barely a scratch. 

  Vineyard dog Wrigley inspects the damage

Vineyard dog Wrigley inspects the damage

We're looking forward to coming weeks of good weather and a strong start to the growing season! We'll be back soon with updates as the vines begin to grow their shoots!

February: Mud Season Makes an Early Appearance

Wrigley In Field.jpg

We here in Vermont are familiar with a notorious inter-seasonal phenomenon that we affectionately term "Mud Season." This wet and dirty time of year bridges the gap between icy winds and frosted earth of winter with the emerging greenery of the spring. It's a time where we lament the amount of crusted spatter on our cars yet can't help but get excited for the budding springtime. 

Late March usually heralds the coming of Mud Season. This year, we have a surprise preview today, February 21st. 

Don't mistake us, we anticipate the arrival of spring just as much as any winter-weary Vermonter. The gray days and frigid nights take a toll on us all as. However, being agricultural workers first and foremost we're sensitive to the drifting patterns of our local climate. And this February warm spell has us wondering. 

Whenever an early 'heat wave' hits many agricultural industries in the state of Vermont begin wringing their hands and wondering when and how to act. Most notably, our state's maple industry restarts the perennial debate of when to tap their trees. Tap too early and you risk missing the most productive sap flows and having taps dry out. 

We too can be affected by such weather patterns. It was two years ago that an early bud break of our Riesling vines followed by a late frost in the early spring decimated our Riesling crop production. It's not so much the early heat that worries us as the wild fluctuations that can come between our best efforts and a good vintage. 

February thaws happen all the time, some may argue, and they're not wrong. This particular phenomenon isn't terribly unusual. But the order of magnitude is what is so dramatic. Just last year in February of 2017, Burlington experienced their warmest day on record since 1884 when record keeping began. Today, for the second year in a row, we matched that record. Thaws in the 40's and 50's degrees are recurring. But in the 60's? This trend concerns us. 

Joe's Pond Ice Out Sign BIGGER.jpg

A comical community-based illustration of this trend is the Joe's Pond Ice Out, a local lottery where residents in West Danville take bets on the date when the ice breaks up enough for a weighted palette to fall through the cracks. While it's not endowed with the precision needed to find their way into a scientific journal, it does reveal trends.

 

ice out.png

Since the social science experiment began in 1988, it has revealed a trend of earlier and earlier icing out of Joe's Pond. Anyone having lived in Vermont since then would likely report the same anecdotally: an increasing trend of winter ending prematurely whether it be an early thaw or a petering-out sooner than expected.

We here at the Vineyard are committed to sustainability. We care for the planet as much as we care for our grapes and producing great wine. It's days like this where we contemplate our collective impact on the climate and begin to wonder what the Champlain Valley will look like in 50, 100, 500 years. It's days like this when we remind ourselves the ways in which we reduce our impact on the planet and the ways in which we can improve. 

So while you're reveling in this temporary winter heat wave, we encourage you to do the same. There are myriad ways to improve our impact whether it be more efficient showers, walking to work, or buying local produce that hasn't burned gallons of fossil fuels to find its way to you. 
 

Peace, Love, and Wine
- the Shelburne Vineyard Team

July: Hopefully the Month of Sunshine

With the passing of a soggy June, we turn to July for high hopes of some kind of sunshine here in Vermont. June was a long, wet, yet exceedingly productive month for us here at the vineyard. In a cabin-fever fueled frenzy we burst into July with exciting news.

In anticipation of some summer sun this month, we released Capsize, our go-anywhere-you-want wine in a can. Hopefully this inspires all of you to partake of glorious summer activities like hiking, kayaking, or even beach bumming (my personal favourite).

After a brief hiatus, lady Louise Swenson has returned in a new vintage to grace our shelves with her dry wit finishing with a crisp, summery smile.

In addition to those beauties, we are proud to announce the release of the 2015 Petite Pearl, a gloriously dry and moody red wine . Petite Pearl is the perfect accompaniment to curling up in the afternoon with a good book and pretty rainfall (should this weather pattern continue).

So whatever you're doing this summer, make sure you do it with some wine. We've got all your options covered!

 

Events

July 6th, First Thursday Concert Series- This month we're hangin' out with Blue Cricket. Admission is free, and this event is family friendly, so bring the kids along to boogie!

July 13th, Trivia Night- The VT Historical Society wants to know how much of a VT patriot you are. Come and test your nerding skills!

July 14th, Bluegrass and BBQ- Join us on a warm summer night for an evening of Bluegrass with the DuPont Brothers. Our lawn is open, so pop open your chairs and grab some mouth watering barbeque by Bluebird BBQ. Admission is Free and children are welcome

July 18th, Wine and a Story- Come ready to listen or with a story in your back pocket! Doors at 6:45, Storytelling begins at 7:30. Door charge is $5 and enters you to win a door prize.

June Events: Capsize Wine Can Release, Myra Flynn, Bluegrass & BBQ, Wine & Story

This year, June is absolutely jam-packed with exciting events! Please join us for these wonderful festivities that we will be holding this month:

Thursday, June 15 - Myra Flynn will be gracing us with her presence once again to serenade us while we enjoy glasses of wine. Admission is free, and this event is family friendly, so bring the kids along to boogie! Show starts @ 8pm.

Friday, June 16 - Bluegrass & BBQ is back! Tunes supplied by Old Time and Bluegrass, food supplied by Bluebird Barbecue and Fisher Brothers Farm Ice Cream, libations supplied by Fiddlehead Brewing Company and Shelburne Vineyard, and dancing supplied by you! Admission is free, the event is family friendly, and the party starts at 6pm!

Tuesday, June 20 - Wine & Story Open Mic will be hosted by Recille Hamrell and Emilie Stigliani. Treat yourself to a night of shared stories and award-winning wine. Come just to listen or share your story! Admission is $5, and you will be entered to win a prize provided by Shelburne Vineyard. Doors @ 6:45pm, storytelling begins @ 7:30pm.

Wednesday & Thursday, June 21 & 22 - Capsize Wine: Can Release! Join us at our winery and tasting room in Shelburne, VT to celebrate the release of Capsize Wine, Vermont's first canned wine! We will be selling discounted 4-packs for these two days only, so come get your wine in a can and on the cheap, fresh off the canning line! We will be open from 11am-6pm, so take home a few cans, dust off the canoe, and have no fear because "If you flip the boat, the cans will float!"