After you plant a grapevine, how long does it take to harvest the grapes?
The quick answer is 3 to 4 years. Planting grapevines usually takes place in April in Pennsylvania. After the first growing season, when the plant goes dormant in November, the vine will get cut back to a few buds, almost to the ground. During the second growing season, the vine is allowed to grow as much as possible, but all the grape clusters will be removed. We want the plant to put its energy into developing its root system and becoming strong instead of ripening grapes. The following winter, the vine will be pruned back to the fruiting wire, which is about 3 feet off the ground. During the third growing season, canes will be laid down along the fruiting wire to form cordons, and depending on the strength of the vine, some grapes will be kept and allowed to ripen. A full crop of grapes will then be harvested following the fourth growing season. All good things take time!
Do Japanese beetles affect the grapes?
YES, they sure do. I thought this would be an appropriate question for July since the first of the Japanese beetles arrived in our vineyards this week. In many years we can ignore them because their populations are small and they only do a little damage to the vines. The last two years, however, have been absolutely horrible with regards to the beetles and it looks like 2008 may be another bad year. How much damage can they do you may ask. Well, if we don't kill them, they can completely strip a vine of leaves. Without leaves, photosynthesis cannot occur and the vine cannot ripen the grapes. Unfortunately, nobody has found a natural solution on a commercial scale that has been very effective on the beetles and we need to spray insecticide when the populations get too high. There are so many beetles that after spraying, you can walk on a crunchy carpet of dead beetles in the vineyard which is quite disgusting!
Do really cold temperatures affect the grapevines?
Yes, they can, depending on several factors. The first is the type of vine; cold-hardy hybrids can survive lower temperatures better than vinifera. But, certain types of vinifera can survive lower temperatures than others. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon vines are more cold hardy than Syrah vines. Another factor is how much time the vine has had to acclimate. If the temperatures drop too quickly in November and December, before the grapevine has had a chance to get used to the cold, more damage can occur. Other environmental factors include how much stress the plant has had during the growing season, how well-drained the soils are, how much air movement can happen around the plant, and how much insulating snow is on the ground.
Do very warm temperatures in the winter affect the vines?
60 degree days in the middle of the winter are great for us humans, especially when we have to work outside, but not so great for the grapevines. Just as the vines acclimate to cold temperatures in the fall and early winter, the vines must also acclimate to warm temperatures in the late winter and early spring. After the first killing frost that happens usually in late October or early November, the vines go into dormancy where they remain until budbreak in the spring. If the temperature gets too cold, too fast the vine does not have a chance to acclimate and may suffer bud damage or even death in extreme conditions. In the spring, typically April, as there are many days with sustained temperatures over 50 degrees, the vine gets ready to come out of dormancy. The risk with high temperatures in January or February is that the vine gets ready to come out of dormancy too early and then winter returns with plummeting temperatures; this results in bud damage to the vine. So when warm weather strikes before normal in January or February, we can only hope that winter doesn’t return with a vengeance!
How are the grapes picked?
Our volunteer pickers know the answer to that question – all by hand! In many parts of the world, large machine harvesters are used where the grapes are shaken off the vine. Grapes can be harvested very quickly when machine-picked but the disadvantage is that everything gets picked – there is no opportunity to cull out unripe or rotten fruit like there is when hand-picked. The main disadvantage to a machine harvester, however, is the cost. Only larger vineyards can afford to use them. Hand harvesting is done with clippers or grape knives and the entire cluster is cut off the vine. A good picker can pick about ½ ton in an eight-hour day. Compare that to about 5 tons per hour picked by the machine harvester. Picking for us here in Pennsylvania starts at the end of August and will go until after frost. So far this year we have picked most of our hybrids including the Steuben that gets used for Autumn Blush, the Foch and Chancellor that gets used in the Harvest Red, and the Seyval Blanc and Cayuga White which gets put into the Soleils Jumeaux. Vinifera that has been picked include Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. We will probably pick our Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc and Gewurztraminer this week. Varieties like the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chambourcin typically will not get picked until after frost, in late October or early November. Once we get a hard frost, all the leaves will turn brown and fall off the vine which makes for very easy picking!
How do we decide when to pick the grapes?
Beginning the last week in August, we collect random samples of the early grape varieties. This is done by taking grapes from different parts of the cluster, from different clusters and from different vines along the row until we have approximately 100 berries. The 100-berry sample is put into a Ziploc bag where the grapes are smashed by hand to simulate crushing. The juice is then carefully poured out of the bag, leaving the skins and seeds inside, and centrifuged to get a relatively clear juice sample. There are three tests performed on the juice: sugar, acid and pH. The seeds are examined to see if hardening has occurred. As the grapes ripen, the sugar content increases, the acid content decreases, the pH rises and the seeds turn hard and brown. As important as all these analyses are, the most important factor in determining ripeness is the flavor. Tasting the grapes and the juice allows a determination if flavor development has peaked and picking time for that particular variety has arrived. Berry sampling continues all during harvest season for each variety. Of course Mother Nature has a large say in picking time since we don’t want to pick the grapes in the rain!
How does a lot of snow affect grapevines?
As much as we hate trying to get anywhere in huge amounts of snow, we love to see the vineyards with snow up above our knees! The vines are dormant at this time of the year and the snow actually acts as an insulating blanket to cold temperatures. Some of the grapevine varieties we have planted can only withstand temperatures down to around 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, cold winter temperatures were long thought to be one of the limiting factors for growing vinifera in Pennsylvania because vines would die over the winter if it got too cold. We have not had very cold winters in recent years, but with piles of snow around, we don’t even have to think about harmful temperatures. Of course there is always a downside - pruning the vines while standing in deep snow is not all that enjoyable!
How is composting done?
How is composting done? As part of our sustainable agriculture practices, we apply compost to our grapevines instead of chemical fertilizers. Composting is an amazing way not only to add nutrients to the soil for the vines to use, but also to increase the level of beneficial microorganisms and the organic matter in the soil. We collect horse manure from our neighboring horse farms, add grape pomace and stems during harvest, and also add spent filter sheets from filtering wine in the cellar and make large compost piles in a field on the farm. The compost piles are turned over using our tractor every week or so until the compost is ready. Then, usually in the winter or spring, we apply the compost to the vineyard using our compost applicator.
We scoop up the finished, rich, black compost from the piles with the loader bucket on the tractor and dump it into the applicator. The tractor pulls the applicator through the vineyard rows and compost is shot out the side. The black compost lying underneath the vines is only in a thin layer and almost can't be seen; it doesn’t look like much, but a little compost goes a long way.
What is a teinturier grape variety?
This is an applicable question since we actually have a teinturier variety in our vineyard - it's called Foch and it is used to make our Harvest Red. Most red grapes have red skins but the pulp inside is white; the color in the wine comes from extracting the red color from the skins. A teinturier grape, however, actually contains red pigment in the pulp inside the skin. Teinturier varieties, the most well-known including Alicante Bouschet and Rubired, are typically used for blending to increase color. As a total aside, Foch is a hybrid developed by French scientists and named after General Ferdinand Foch, an Allied commander and French war hero during World War I. Internet rumor has it that the dark red grape was appropriately named because of all the blood spilled when General Foch ordered Allied soldiers into battle. What a connection!
What is happening in the vineyard during the winter?
The grapevines go dormant in November and will remain in their dormant state until budbreak sometime in late April or early May. While the vines are dormant, pruning takes place. Pruning is a huge job where each of the approximately 25 shoots per vine are cut back to 2 buds. These 2 buds contain the 2 shoots for the next growing season and there are typically 2 grape clusters per shoot. Pruning is necessary in order to maintain the size and shape of the vine and to ensure consistent productivity. If a vine is left unpruned, it will become unruly and out of control, fruit production will decrease, and the quality of the fruit will severely decline due to too much vegetation. The best quality grapes are from a balanced grapevine and pruning is essential to achieve this balance
What is the deal with the spotted lanternfly?
Everyone seems to be talking about the spotted lanternfly that made its appearance a few years ago. Unfortunately, we are pretty close to Ground Zero where this intrusive insect came in from Asia; Berks County is inundated now with this bug and it is spreading rather fast, despite the quarantine. I’ve heard reports that they have been spotted in Virginia vineyards.
We spent a lot of time this past winter scraping off egg masses from our grapevines and have been keeping the lanternfly under control so far this year with spraying. Nobody is quite sure how much damage they can do, although there are some pretty scary reports out there about loss of vines due to these creatures sucking out the sap. Those of you who picked grapes with us last year may remember the horrible time we had with yellow jackets during picking. We believe that the sweet honeydew excreted from the lanternfly attracted more yellow jackets. I don’t think we directly lost fruit to the lanternfly, but we sure did to the yellow jackets!
We are participating in Penn State’s research on the lanternfly by hosting vineyard space. They have planted 72 screened in Chardonnay vines populated with lanternflies in order to study effects on the vines and on the fruit. Hopefully, we can help provide an answer on how to rid our land of these awful creatures!
What is Veraison?
(Pronounced veh-ray-zohN). Sounds like one of those fancy French names that nobody has a clue about! Even though it is of French origin, us English have adopted it and use it to indicate when the grapes are transitioning from berry growth to berry ripening. At this point, the red grapes start to obtain their color. At veraison, the sugars start to increase in the berries, the acidity drops, and compounds like anthocyanins, which are responsible for color, accumulate.
When is harvest?
First of all, grapes yield only one crop per year. Grape harvest for us usually starts the first week in September and lasts until the end of October. The Foch, which is one of the grapes in our Harvest Red, is the first grape variety to be picked and once in awhile it actually gets picked during the last week of August. The grapes that go into our oak-aged reds like Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are the last grapes to be picked and we typically wait until the first frost to pick them. In some years, therefore, this means that we’re picking into November. The timing of picking depends obviously on the ripeness of the grapes, but also on the weather. We can tell when the grapes are ripe when the sugar percentage rises and the acid level lowers. The seeds start turning from green to brown and most importantly, the flavors develop. The weather plays an important role because we do not want to pick in the rain or following a rain event; the grapevines will soak up the water and dilute the grapes. Rain can also cause disease issues. All of our grapes are picked by hand (as our wonderful volunteer pickers know!). Some larger vineyards harvest by machine which mechanically knocks the grapes off of the vine and collects them. And last but not least, contrary to I Love Lucy, nobody stomps the grapes with their feet after they’re picked!
Who else wants to eat our grapes – Part 1?
We have competition from lots of different wildlife for our wonderful grapes growing in the vineyard, but the species that does the most damage is deer. In the spring, the adorable creatures come into the vineyard and chomp on the young tender shoots; if they eat too much, they can actually kill a vine. More damaging, however, is in the fall when they come in and eat the ripening grapes. It’s absolutely amazing how many grapes a herd of deer can eat in one night. In 2009, we lost at least 10 tons of grapes to deer. Yes, that is 20,000 lbs of grapes!!! Not wanting a repeat of 2009, we had 8-foot deer fences installed in both vineyards in 2010. Now we watch and laugh as the deer stand outside the fence, longingly wishing for the good old days. It’s very satisfying.
Who else wants to eat our grapes – Part 2?
Last month we told you that deer do the most wildlife damage in the vineyard and we’ve solved that problem with a nice, high deer fence. The creatures that run a close second to deer are the birds. We have the adorable backyard birds like robins, doves, bluebirds and goldfinches that peck a few grapes here and there. The real culprits, however, are the huge flocks of starlings that swoop down en mass from the trees and peck many grapes at once. To avoid bird destruction, we put bird netting over every single row of grapes in the vineyard. That is the easy job. Once the grapes are harvested, we have to pull off the netting and stuff it back into the bag for next year which is the harder job. If we didn’t net our vineyards, the birds would eat all of our grapes! Of course sometimes "smart" puppies get stuck after playing in the nets and need a little assistance.
Why do we need to spend so much time in the vineyard during the summer?
People are surprised that summer is the busiest month in the vineyard since we’re not picking grapes until the fall. It’s amazing how much work it takes to grow quality wine grapes. Earlier in the summer, we did a lot of shoot thinning and positioning. At this point, the main tasks we abbreviate to THC (nothing to do with pot!) which stand for Tucking, Hedging, Clipping. Shoots need to be tucked into the catch wires, especially after a storm. When they grow too long, they get cut or hedged off the top and then the wires get clipped together to try and contain the shoots and neaten it all up. The other time-consuming task is pulling off leaves around the fruit to expose those grapes to the maximum amount of sun and ripeness. Ripe grapes = Delicious wine!