Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine


Leprechauns in the Vineyard – A Diary of Going Organic

Shinn Estate is in their first year of obtaining their organic certification. Barbara Shinn shares her progress with us.

4/10/10 Just when I think I have figured out something about Mother Nature, she outsmarts me again and humbles me in grand fashion. It happened today on April 10 at exactly 10 am. After a week of record heat in the 80’s and even 90’s I decided to walk the rows of vines and see if there was any sign of bud swell. Not only were there enlarged buds but our four year old Cabernet Franc vines had full-on leaves. This was bud break about 20 days early! My emotions ran from delight to complete fear at the same time. I was delighted that a huge head start on the season had begun, but incredibly fearful in the fact that we could most certainly get a morning frost any day now which would kill the young shoots. No shoots means no grape clusters – which means no wine. And, I am certainly not ready for the season to begin. I was counting on these last three weeks of dormancy to leisurely get the farm equipment in working order.

4/17/10 Accosted. As I walk through the restaurant to the ladies room a winemaker is standing at the bar. His girlfriend and I start talking about bees. The winemaker and I chat about this coming growing season. I mention that we are in our first year of the certification process. He glowers and says “If you are not certified you have no business talking about organics on your farm! Get certified and then you can spew your holier than thou attitude!” Wow. These comments all came from someone who is a conventional winemaker and grower. This is a classic example of the predicament in agriculture today. Once a region continues to farm conventionally for decades, the crisis of chemically intensive farming is no longer remarkable, it is looked upon as simply a condition of the region. Consequently, it is the threat of change that is looked upon with suspicion.

4/20/10 Now is the time to begin feeding the vines. The soil is warm and the microbes are awake, ready to feast on the fish, seaweed, carbon, potassium, and sulfur I give them and transform it into plant available nutrients. When I began farming, it was explained to me that since the vine roots did not become active until late May, fertilizer applications should not begin until around then. Chemical fertilizer, if applied too soon will leach out of the soil and therefore not be available to the plant. Feeding a vine naturally as opposed to chemically is a whole other process. Natural feeding of the vines begins much earlier. I am first feeding the microbes that then provide food for the vines, so as the microbes begin to awaken in the warm spring soil, the time for soil work has begun. Next week I will drip my first dose of compost tea, fish hydrolysate and seaweed.

Getting to this point has not been easy as all of these materials have to be organically approved. Using materials that have the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) label makes sourcing these materials easy, but not all of the products I have been using over the years are OMRI approved so I have to have detailed information as to how they are made. I have collected dozens of pages of spec sheets on each material and have submitted them to my Stellar and Demeter certifiers. I have even had to go so far as to contact the mine from which my spray lime comes to ensure I am using 100% limestone to buffer some spray solutions. Actually, navigating the process has been very interesting; my relationships with the people who supply my materials have taken on a new dimension of cooperation.

4/21/10 Now, 10 days after budbreak, the nightly lows show no signs of a killer frost but the demands of the vineyard are upon me like no other year. April is the month I test all of the vineyard equipment and make sure it is in working order. The first failure was the flail chopper which proved to have a frozen collar on the PTO. Carlos my vineyard assistant, decided to take it apart with the help of Anthony our winemaker and with a few bangs from a hammer had it ready to hook up to the tractor. Next was the sprayer which was simply dead. The pump was running but no electrical power. I took that off the tractor and will deal with that later. Next was the mower; an Italian design with Italian instructions for troubleshooting. I don’t speak Italian. The mower we use is pretty unique; we mow the row middles and also mow under the vines in the same pass. Two satellite mowers flank the middle mower and swing in and out between the vines, maintaining the meadow that grows throughout the vineyard. The problem is that we broke three sensor arms within 24 hours. This is bad. No replacements. The sensor arm is what kicks back the satellite mower heads and gracefully maneuvers them around the trunk of the vine so that we don’t mow over the vine, killing it.

My equipment dealer assured me I would have the replacement in “6 weeks as the boat from Europe was leaving in a few days.” Great service this guy gives me. So I email Italy (in English) and they apologize for the problem and will send 2 sensors this week. In the meantime, we rigged the mower with shorter spare sensors and took off some springs and Carlos is smiling and mowing all day.

4/22/10 Finished mowing and hooked back up the sprayer to figure out what is wrong, and the sprayer is miraculously working. I moved on to the irrigation to test it out and all was in working order except for a few drip lines with leaks, two sub-mains whose valves won’t open completely and the injection system which will not inject. The injection is a simple hose attachment that allows me to get a suction going so I can add the fish, seaweed and compost tea to the well water as it goes on its way to the vineyard. No suction, no food for the vines. Then, through some nudging by my irrigation guys I realized I simply reattached it backwards this spring so the inflow was switched with outflow…which resulted in no flow…sometimes I feel so dumb.

4/23/10 That all too familiar moment of bewildered distress washed over me today as a person who was interviewing me for an article on Biodynamics in Edible East End started off the interview with the question “So do you talk to leprechauns in the vineyard?” How could I possibly continue taking this interview seriously? How can I not explode? How can I not walk out of the room? I am in fear of what this person is going to write.

4/26/10 Finally I am at peace with the vines and the advent of the spring greening. Today was the perfect day for applying the horn manure, fish and seaweed to the vineyard floor. It was cloudy, rainy, almost a full moon, and a soil day on the calendar. I began assembling everything by 7:00 this morning, pumping out 20 gallons of the fish hydrolysate while beginning to stir the compost preparation in my bucket of water.. Around 8:00 a new grower from upstate New York surprised me with a visit asking detailed questions about organic feeding and vine maintenance for his first year. These visits are so inspiring because it means the community of natural growers is increasing and a local network is beginning to become established. I was stirring the compost in two buckets and pumping gallon after gallon of fish into other buckets all the while giving him formulas for organic mildew control. It all seemed so matter of fact but at the same time so momentous. Later as I rode my bike through the vineyard switching the drip system from zone to zone, and adding the seaweed, fish and compost to the well water the vineyard seemed to wake up all at once. The smells of spring intensified, the baby green leaves became washed in a moment of afternoon sun, and flocks of blackbirds sprang from row to row eating newly hatched bugs. Just as I was finishing, another rain shower passed through drenching me and I welcomed the cold water feeling as though I was as much a part of the vineyard as was the soil and the vines. This will be a good year. If a gentle Spring creeps through as she is doing right now, a quiet joyous season will ensue.