Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

The Wisdom of Home

A perceptive winegrower takes notice of subtle cycles in the vines: the cracking of the soil in the winter, the spongy flex underfoot during a thaw, the first germination of undergrowth in spring, and the swarming hatch of beneficial insects as summer approaches. Knowing the importance of this daily evolution towards ripening, a respectful winegrower allows nature to create herself, surrendering to the life and death cycle, and letting the vineyard’s wisdom define good and bad on its own as a living individual.

I have dwelt on these thoughts all winter as I remember past vintages. Why are some years plagued with death and rot and some years blessed with rivers of ripe juice fermenting into luscious wine? Is there good and evil in the vineyard? Do I intervene too much or too little? What should be allowed to grow and what should be stopped from growing? Why does my gut instinct tell me to let the weed seeds germinate and to find beauty in them? Is there importance in the pure primordial spark of energy in a germinating seed, a weed that will not produce anything harvestable for my wine? Could those sparks of energy migrate into the vine, and the fruit and the wine?

Science says no, but my vineyard says yes.

Centuries ago every culture believed pure dynamic energy was the origin of all matter. The warmth and light of our Sun was adored and honored in art, worship and everyday life. All life, all matter and all wisdom came from the creative and elemental forces at work within the astral Sun and became manifest on earth in everything physical. Good and evil forces, astral clarity, earth, air, fire and water elements commingled and sacrificed greatly to endow pure energy with matter. The ancients understood this and did not need any further proof. The Mysteries spoke for themselves.

It is remarkable our modern science has come to the same conclusion as the ancients have. Einstein’s prediction E=mc2 shows on a mathematical level that all life and matter does indeed originate from energy, and that time, weight and mass are not constant, an equation that physicists now believe to be true. Unfortunately wisdom, creativity, and elemental forces had to be omitted from the formula. It seems those entities can’t be assigned a mathematical symbol and fit into a string of numbers yet Einstein knew something more was there. Even when he constructed the elemental table he had to leave blanks, predicting that they would eventually be filled in, which they have been. If we peer closely enough into his formula for the origins of matter we see the crevasse of Mystery.

As spring approaches and the dandelions open their golden heads and the filigree of chickweed covers the vineyard floor, I see the season’s first sparks of energy feeding the fire of fall ripening and the intrinsic inherent nature of energy. Thank you Einstein and thank you Ancient Peoples.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

He who seeks knowledge of living things
First tries to drive out spirits wings;
In his hands the separate parts lie dead-
Unjoined, alas, by spirit’s living thread. – Goethe – Faust – Mephistopheles, 1

Barbara Shinn co-owner, with her husband David Page, of Shinn Estate Vineyards is the vineyard manager on the estate. Shinn Estate Vineyards is located in Mattituck, N.Y. on the North Fork of Long Island.

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Defiant Nature

The vineyard is just finishing bloom, the flowers smelling like a mix of jasmine and honeysuckle. Pitifully, the perfume is fleeting, tamped down by an untimely rain that lingered much too long. The days of rain during bloom made nature seem defiant and cruel. Somehow the vines and I will persevere, pollinate, and set fruit. The sun appeared this week along with its much needed heat, waking the vineyard up from its stoicism that it has silently slipped into. I have joined the vines in a quiet resolve to get through this moment of uncertainty, having faith that the summer solstice will be the advent of hot sweltering days of sun. I am longing to sweat, to feel sunburn, to be thirsty.

When in flower the vines are dichotomous, being in both a vegetative state and a reproductive state. Their canes grow rapidly stretching skyward while at the same time the flowers pollinate and will soon be our wine.

The vineyard looks wild, swarming with our honeybees, poppies, sweet yellow and white clover blooming, black birds zooming in and out, and ospreys (our fish hawks) lighting on the end posts and eating the fish they carried in from the Long Island Sound.

I say to the grapes, “Grow and be fruitful”.

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Weeping Vines

There is a moment every spring when the vines weep. It only lasts for a day or two and it has just now begun. Warmed by the spring sun, their sap begins to flow upward from the trunk and out to the tips of the fruiting canes. Eventually as the sap arrives at a pruning cut it will drip out through the opening, catching the light of the soft spring sun and fall to the ground. The flow is so fast that as I scan a few acres of the vineyard I see hundreds of droplets falling from the canes in a dance; round sparkles of nature. It is like a gentle rain dripping from the fruiting wire falling only two feet to the ground.

When I see this beautiful moment I remember an ancient Mauri story about why the sky rains: Many of us are familiar with the Earth being referred to as Mother Earth, but if there is a Mother, where is the Father? The Father is the sky and the totality above. The rain that comes from Father Sky to Mother Earth is symbolic of the powerful love between them. Father Sky gazes down to Mother Earth and feels so lonely for her beauty that he weeps and offers his tears to Her, creating the blessing of nourishing rain.

I feel that this story is the same between the vines and the earth. At the moment the sun has assured all living creatures that spring has emerged the vines look back upon the harsh winter and the frozen earth. They weep for the four months of loneliness that they have spent silent and apart from the earth that is their mother. And they weep for joy that now they are together again teeming with life.

Right now, as I sit overlooking the vineyard at 6:00 pm, the sun is beginning to soften and drop closer to the tree line. The color of the light is a buttery spring yellow so different from the lavender and grey of the winter evening. In a few weeks time the vineyard floor will be golden with millions of dandelions reflecting the spring sun and suddenly budbreak in the vines will happen.

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Small Creatures

Waking to the ice storm this morning makes me humble. Winter has won. Three major storms in three weeks have left the vines sealed in ice, the earth securely blanketed in snow and drifts as high as the fruiting wire. Yesterday, the pelting ice began at noon and by 3:00 my vineyard crew had to call it quits; they were covered in a crackling layer of frozen sleet. Now, 20 hours later, the vineyard is crystalline, beautiful in its ephemeral icy gloss. I can’t imagine how a March thaw could be in store just 6 weeks away. While the white snow is beautiful, I am dreaming of the flowering vineyard floor in the spring.

This past fall we made special preparations in the vineyard for our cover crop to prosper. We planted new clover and chamomile seed in the rows in anticipation of the arrival of 50,000 honey bees. David and I will begin to keep bees this May hoping to make a good home for two hives. It is pretty daunting to think that I have the know-how to take care of such a complex “nation” as a honeybee hive, but with the wise guidance of two beekeepers in New Paltz New York, Chris Harp and Grai St. Clair Rice, the bees will hopefully forgive us our lack of experience.

Last weekend David and I drove up to the Hudson River region to attend a class that Chris and Grai taught centering on their quiet gentle approach that they have towards living with their bees. Chris was careful to let us know that at times the bees will exhibit their superior knowledge of all things great and small here on the earth and beyond. He taught us so much about these gentle creatures, their incredible stamina and their importance to the nature spirits.

Looking out the window now I wonder how I will feel this time next year with my first season of beekeeping completed, the earth dormant above the soil and the bees deep in their winter cluster of warmth.

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Ancient Ways Carry Purpose

This past week, while discussing with my tasting room staff the ability of plants to sense things invisible to the human eye, we also addressed human and plant emotions. Someone asked if the vines got mad when we harvest the fruit from them year after year. No, I don’t think the vines become angry. Bewilderment might be a better term for this situation. I truly believe the vines must wonder what we are doing and why we are doing it, yet year after year the vines produce the fruit we yearn for.

In essence, perhaps, they trust us. And in return I must earn that trust. I have learned that a part of earning this trust is to give back what I take. As I have done this over years our farm has become a peaceful place to grow and make our wine. The spring summer and fall months are easy times to present the vineyard with tidings of appreciation in the form of blooming cover crops, compost teas, and other preparations honoring the unseen in nature. But in the cold of winter the gifts seem more austere and most times consist of a meditative walk through the vines appreciating the beauty they present through the subtleness of nature.

One day this week, a fog had been softly laying over the vineyard and the surrounding farm fields all morning and well into the afternoon. To the west there was the smallest break in the sky where a glimmer of yellow sun was visible making the fog below it seem almost silver. Nothing moved. The vineyard had paused, another layer of quietude upon the steady dormancy of winter.

I took a walk in the vines and enjoyed this ephemeral moment: the sienna colored canes, the charcoal black trunks and the sound of the geese flying over hidden by the fog. As I walked down a row of vines droplets of condensed vapor clinging to the tendrils surrounded me and caught the gray light. It was as if thousands of little glowing sculptures were glistening everywhere in the vines. I then remembered what I would be doing today, January 6th.

This is a special day for some farmers to honor the work the land and the plants have done this past year and to acknowledge the unseen and unproved forces that work within nature. This day is when we give the vines the greatest gift that can be given: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Reminiscent of the ancient gift kings gave to other kings to honor them, these three substances are symbolic of the elements of nature we have let prosper here on this tiny 20 acres of earth. The gold reflects deep molten earth, the frankincense speaks of air, life, and the living, and the myrrh honors the otherworld we know so little about. I have ground the gold, frankincense and myrrh into a powder and as I sit here stirring it in snowmelt the perfume from the frankincense and myrrh is heady, making the whole room smell of it. At sundown as we walk the perimeter of the vineyard we will give safe haven to the elemental spirits that give form to our vines and our wine.

It is comforting to look back in time to the ancient tradition of gifting to the kings and to bring it now to the vineyard… letting Mother Nature know that she is King.

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The Wanderlust of Wine Yeast

Anthony Nappa - Winemaker, Shinn Estate Nineyards

Laying on the compost pile, my back to the ground with eyes closed, I feel the warmth of the microbes working below me. It is as warm as a heating blanket, gentle and steady. The mound is only half built and hasn’t begun to release the intense heat of a fully working pile, but within a few weeks it will will heat up to 140 degrees and steam vents will erupt from the top making it look like a small volcano in the morning frost. After climbing down from the compost, I walk into the vineyard and lay in the clover. The ground is cold now, the microbes are going into hibernation for the winter and the great moment of mineralization is about to commence. The fiery yang of the compost lying to the south balances the secretive yin of the winter soil.

The feverish heat of the growing season is well past but now the fire of ripeness is working its magic in the winery. When Anthony our winemaker receives fruit from the vineyard he allows the indigenous yeast on the berries to carry out the work of fermentation instead of inoculating with laboratory yeast. Here is where the vineyard soils and our composting play an important role in the fermenting of our wines. The yeasts we need for natural fermentations live in our soils. Potentially, 150 to 200 different strains of yeast migrate from the soils into our cover crop and find their way onto our clusters during the ripening season. Cultivating the population of yeast for our wines is a matter of keeping the soil enriched with dynamic life, allowing the diverse yeast strains to flourish. Eventually, the yeast populates the cover crop which also plays home to hundreds of beneficial insect species. As the insects migrate from the cover crop into the grapevine canopy searching for their daily meal of troublesome insects, they inoculate our clusters with the yeast. By harvest the bloom of yeast is so abundant the white grapes have an opalescent gleam and the red berries look as if they were dusted with lavender baby powder. With over 150 different yeast strains working on the evolving wines, each will add its own unique personality to the fermentation.

Anthony is a patient man. Somehow he can mediate between fermentations that begin immediately and furiously upon picking and those that begin 3 or 4 days later. Some fermentations can last 7 days, and some 7 months. Right now we have a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon that is fermenting at 38 degrees on its 60th day of ferment. This style of making wine means nothing is predetermined in the winey yet there is no chaos. Anthony stays contemplative and mind melds with the wine. Everyday, David joins him in tasting the wine and I see them in the winery discussing the evolution of the ferments. I like to go into the winery in the morning and taste and smell alone, enjoying a moment of privacy.

A sense of quietude reins as the ferments end and the new wines macerate for weeks becoming knitted and more complex. By discarding the use of additives like enzymes, laboratory yeasts and synthetic yeast food, our wines naturally become themselves and the mysterious beauty that comingles the vineyard, the winery, the wines, and the people who create them is ours.

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Pomace and cluster stems from the 2010 harvest ready to become compost.

November 2010

The wine is almost finished fermenting. What was once a grape, a perfect circle of sugar and juice drinking in sunlight, is now transforming itself into another existence. Anthony Nappa, our winemaker instills a sense of calm from the time the first berry is picked, continuing through the capricious moments of fermentation and onward during pressing. He is busy with over 30 separate ferments, twelve of which are in small one ton picking bins. It is a time of gentle, quiet, beautiful and subtle change. I dip a glass into each warm ferment and taste the progression of the juice into wine. A few days after picking, the initial flavor of fresh fruit begins to metamorphose into a series of partial flavors, breaking apart and defining themselves. This stage lasts a couple of weeks and then, almost miraculously, the fractured parts pull back together and it begins to become a wine, quirky and nascent. A month later, with the skins and seeds and wine still in maceration, it has begun to knit together, the tannin and fruit cohabitating. In a couple of weeks Anthony will begin pressing to barrel and letting the fruit become its destiny in the winery.

At times I feel mournful as I walk through the vines after the fruit has been harvested and the leaves have fallen. I feel as though farming can be all about taking and not about giving. But as the wine ferments with the cellar doors open the smell of the fermentations must surely be wafting through the vineyard and the vines must know that their fruit is still alive and becoming itself.

Finished compost from the 2009 pomace. Black gold.

November in the vineyard is a time of transformation just as powerful as the spring. It is the beginning of a long rest for the vines and the field they grow in but for the earth below it is the advent of a magical transformation of humus into minerals. This moment of a seemingly barren vineyard is when I spread the compost, giving back what was once taken. The pile that I made from last year’s skins, seeds and pressings plus leaf mulch and grass cuttings from the Inn, and horse bedding from a friend have become a mound of black earth, alive. Before I begin loading the compost into the spreader, I dig in to my elbows, pulling out a spongy handful and take a long deep lungful. Carbon. Earth. Minerals. The compost squiggles in my hands as I feel a few worms slithering and twisting along my palms. The worms are the workhorses of the compost pile. When a worm ingests the compost, the material it excretes contains 50% more nutrients than the original compost could have provided to the plant. Thank you, worms. As I scoop the compost into the bucket loader of the tractor it practically rolls itself into the bucket. It spins out of the compost spreader peppering the vineyard with moist humus and the millions of Red Wigglers, the worms living in the compost. Now the worms will become the workhorses of the land drilling holes in the soil and excreting their nutrient rich gift.

The finished compost will begin the process of mineralizing the soil through the cold winter months. The microbes will migrate into the soil and continue to create the humus and minerals for next year’s crop. This mound of black gold made from the stems and pressings of the 2009 wines enters the vineyard now in the fall of 2010 and will nourish the fruit we will harvest in the fall of 2011. What was once a grape becomes a grape again. A perfect circle has lain itself down here on our 20 acres.

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October 19, 2010

Yesterday morning Nicholle, who works at our Farmhouse Inn, came into the kitchen and said “Barbara, there are about 10 deer in the vineyard, don’t you want to keep them out?” It was a honeyed moment for me as I answered “No, they are just eating the grapes.” Actually they were eating the fallen grapes left after harvesting. The growing season is done and now is the time the deer, birds and raccoons are allowed back in the vineyard to graze the cover crop and glean the fallen fruit.

This harvest was spectacular. The majority of the sugars were between 23 and 26 brix, balanced with appropriate acid and healthy pH. In a year with such high sugars I was expecting botrytis to make its appearance at some point… especially since it rained nine out of the eighteen days we harvested the reds. This creepy grey mold is always a topic of conversation amongst growers and is something that we do not like dealing with it at harvest. I have not used chemical botrycides in 2 years and I have not gotten botrytis since, so go figure. Stop using botrycides, stop getting botrytis… hmmm. I think the healthier the “bloom” (native yeast population) is on the berries, the more natural resistance the fruit has towards molding. The only way to keep the bloom on the fruit is to use only low grade controls for fungus thereby avoiding wiping out the native yeast population. This is yet another example of the System Acquired Resistance our vineyard has attained by the methods of farming we use.

Now the vineyard is barren and it is the time of year I visit the vines and thank them for what they have given me. The elegance with which they gift to me their fruit then remain tall and noble is a lesson in the beauty within death, and the living within dying. Most of the time farming is about taking from the land. As winegrowers it is important that we recognize the magnitude of the request that we make of the vines every year. Do the vines know I am thanking them? Perhaps not exactly as a human being would, but gratitude and gifting back completes a circle that would otherwise remain open. In addition to a quiet moment of appreciation to the vines, tomorrow I will feed the soil a tasty cocktail of fish, seaweed, carbon and compost tea. In a couple of weeks I will spread last year’s compost that will mineralize the soil over the cold winter months and in the beginning of January I will treat the periphery of the vineyard with a special mix to welcome the elementals back into the vineyard for another season.

For now, I am happy drinking in the October evening sun watching some of the last of the insects dance a swarm and appreciate the beauty of the vineyard as the leaves slowly turn a bright yellow orange and red.

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