Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

6:30 am, Thursday morning, September 30, 2010

I am watching the weather on radar as a gruesome tropical storm is covering the east coast from Florida all the way north to Canada. Out here on the North Fork we have had only a mist of precipitation but there is no way I can accurately predict what will happen. The peninsula (or fork) where we are situated is at the end of a 90 mile eastward reaching island that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound. Often times this location helps us avert storms like this travelling up the coast; the rains hug the eastern shoreline, hit Manhattan then continue north into upstate New York and New England, leaving us high and dry.

As the storm formed yesterday, there was a frenzy of picking. We brought in 10 tons of merlot, picking and sorting from 7am to 7 pm. A couple of other winegrowers I spoke to were also furiously harvesting perfectly ripe fruit and there was excitement in their voices, like they were almost glad there was trouble brewing. I felt the adrenaline too and still feel it this morning as the 280 mile wide storm creeps by missing us by a mere 70 miles or so. I think we are all masochists here, happy only when there is impending doom.

4:30 pm, Thursday, September 30, 2010

We have had some resident crows in the vineyard for the past 10 days and right now they are skipping around the perimeter cawing loudly. I look at them as the guardians of the fruit because once the crows claim territory the starlings high-tail it out. Up to mid-September we have had to scare the starlings out of the vineyard as many as 15 to 20 times per day as they descended into the vineyard in flocks of 500 or more intent on devouring our fruit. Even with the vines netted, they still get in. Now, their absence is almost eerie.

I just finished walking through each cutting of the Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is apparent that the western facing clusters, the ones that get the hot afternoon sun have surpassed the eastern facing clusters in ripeness. The berries are pulling off the stems leaving only a dark red wick attached and the seeds are getting brown and crunchy, shattering between my teeth as I chew. This may be a year where we harvest each vine twice, taking the “sun” side of the vines first, tying back down the bird netting and waiting until the eastern facing fruit finishes. We will see.

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September 22, 2010

Yesterday the beautiful sun was rising at 6:30 in the morning through the group of trees to the east of the vineyard. It was like red-orange velvet fire, promising only a softness so kind you couldn’t reprove it in any way. I silently welcomed its warmth that would eventually slather itself over me as we picked our Sauvignon Bland and Semillon for our wine we call Haven.

We have had 3 picks so far this 2010 vintage, the first: our Sauvignon Blanc from 4 year old vines, the second: our Pinot Blanc, and yesterday our third: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for Haven, a wine named after our soils here.

I celebrate this tiny moment in time because it is the first harvest here at Shinn Estate Vineyards under the guidelines of the National Organic Program. However, we have gone much further than just meeting these standards. The practices of the Oregon Live program, the Vine Balance New York program, the Demeter Association and our own methods of biologically intensive winegrowing have all comingled in the vineyard to produce our ripest and most balanced harvest to date. The Sauvignon Blanc has just begun ferment and tastes like bright ripe pears and grapefruit. Anthony Nappa, our winemaker, soaked the Pinot Blanc on the skins overnight letting the figgyness of the raisins into the wine. Right now, the field blend of Sauvignon Blanc Musque and Semillion is soaking for 3 days on its skins before Anthony will press it and transfer it to oak barrels.

As I trekked through the rows picking and lugging my lug of fruit through sometimes knee-high cover crop, I found the time to think back about my years converting this farm to a cleaner method of farming. Comments from fellow winegrowers like “you better be careful Barbara” and “organics is a croc” flowed through mind as I picked. Other choice phrases came to light containing words like “lunacy” and “occult”. I found myself laughing out loud at one point and my vineyard crew looked at me wondering what I was thinking.

The meadow that we grow under the vines is a splendid mat of grasses and broadleafs that provide pasture for the vines. As we mow under the trellis and around the trunks, the green manure left behind decays and is transformed by soil microorganisms into plant available nutrients. I look at my vines as if they were cows and sheep grazing in a meadow…..I grow free range wine!

I shouldn’t be so bold as to say I, because my whole vineyard crew has their specific tasks to perform with this way of farming: Jose loads and drains the compost tea and runs it through the irrigation. Guadalupe loads up the fish emulsion, Carlos spreads the compost and applies the fresh herbal teas and horn silica, and Israel builds the preliminary compost piles as he helps Anthony to press off the wines. They all scout the vineyard for problems everyday they are working.

Next harvest will be the beginning of the merlot, which will be early next week….about 3 weeks before normal merlot harvest. We have a 3 acre block at over 23 Brix and it is 80 degrees today. What a year.

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

August 21, 2010

Art and Intuition

I rode my bike into the vineyard today to spend some time just looking at the vines and trying to discern if two of the drier blocks needed irrigation. All-week thundershowers have been predicted, but only blue skies and 90 degree temperatures have been the result. The same thundershowers are predicted for the next three days, but I am not counting on it at this point. Since July 21 we have only gotten one-tenth of an inch.

As I ride up the path into the middle of the vines I thought about a story Butch Rowehl told me some years back. Butch was the last person to farm this land before me and he planted corn and rye for grain. In 2002 David and I had planted about half the vineyard and Butch still farmed the other half. That spring he had planned on letting the cover crop of winter rye continue to grow into a harvestable crop. On the day he plowed a small one acre piece for us that was to be planted with Cabernet Franc he ended up plowing the entire field of his rye under too. When I asked him about it he looked down and smiled to himself and said “Barbara, I got in the tractor and when my plow started to turn the soil, it turned better than it had in years so I couldn’t stop myself. It was the best spring plowing I can ever remember having” He planted the corn instead and that was that. That was the moment I understood the art and intuition of farming.

So, as I rode my bike up into the vineyard I thought about Butch and knew that my decision would be based more on smaller signals from the vines, the soil, the sound of the crickets, the way the heat hit my face. I had to listen to the vines, not calculate the odds.

September 1, 2010

Question 1: Why is it that the Organic Trial in Chardonnay at a local experimental vineyard did not work? Why can’t 25 vines be managed organically in a 2.5 acre vineyard where agricultural chemical experiments are taking place simultaneously on the surrounding vines? Why did the 25 vines fail in the 2.5 acre vineyard situated on a 68 acre farm where even more agricultural chemical experiments are taking place on other crops?

Perhaps I just answer the question by simply asking it?

Question 2: 10 years ago I was told it was impossible to successfully farm wine organically here on the North Fork. Now it is said “well, I guess you can do it on 20 acres.”

If we can do it on 20 acres why can’t it be done on 25 vines?

This is not a criticism of the experimental vineyard and the people who farm it. The trials that are conducted here are valuable to all of us growing wine. The people who conduct the trials are well educated in agriculture and plant science and selflessly come to the aid of all of us growing wine here. The Organic Trial simply raised questions that perhaps were not intended upon the outset of the experiment…and they are very important questions indeed.

Question 3: Are we looking at a situation where the farmer must treat her farm as a whole and allow for instinctive agricultural wisdom to play a role? Could it be that successfully farming organically is not just simply substituting an organic input for a non-organic input?

Is it highly improbable to be able to convert land to a more holistic method of farming by simply going “cold turkey” instead of slowly transitioning the land over?

Rudolph Steiner gave us solace in these questions by his kind words:

“A farmer who senses the existence of a certain inevitable relationship between human beings and the kingdoms of nature – the interaction and interpenetration of the forces of the earth, sun, stars, elementals and all other nature spirits – and who sees these interactions and interpenetrations giving rise to the mineral, plant, animal and human kingdoms, feels a host of questions assailing him at every turn in his daily work to which his current knowledge can supply no answers, and which therefore greatly trouble him as unresolved questions. He senses the fact of these forces and their interworking, yet knows nothing of the way they do so, nor of their essential nature.”

September 3, 2010

Today I looked at a picture I took of the vines back in June. Sometimes their beauty pulls me into the vineyard and I just need to go quietly and be there.
The spring sun was so gentle that day, the vines were reaching up to the sky and the tendrils were quietly twirling in the air.

Now it is September and it is raining torrentially thanks to the hurricane named Earl. The vines are strong and wise, yet still vulnerable…it seems like they are always vulnerable. I thought about going deep into the vineyard today to a favorite spot hoping to somehow warn of the approaching weather situation. But I decided not to go. They had to go through this alone.

Now I regret it, the rain is hard and the fruit is soft.

I wish the tender beauty of June that is shown in this picture was with me now in September.

September 4, 2010

2 inches of rain yesterday and a dry wind is blowing, drying everything. The fruit is unscathed. We made it.

September 10, 2010

The harvest is swirling about us and it seems like everyone is picking. But for me it is not time to pick. All of the fruit has an indication of high sugar levels because we are 2 to 3 weeks ahead of average harvest time. But if the fruit does not yet please me or David or Anthony on the palate, why harvest 2 to 3 weeks early…only to pick at average ripeness? The ascending moon* will commence on September 16 when the sap in the vines will again begin to rise, bringing nutrition to the berries.

That is when we will begin harvest.

*ascending moon: the moon has 4 cycles one of which is ascending and descending. The arc of the moon in the sky is higher during an ascending moon and lower during the descending moon. During the ascending moon the sap of plants rises and this is when I prefer to harvest. The sap, as a carrier of nutrients, will send nourishment to the fruit making for healthier fermentations and therefore better extraction, more fruit character, and optimal tannin structure in the wines.

September 13, 2010

Carlos and Gaudalupe just walked out to the vineyard to lower the deer fence. We are going to reseed the north block with alsike and sweet yellow clover today. I am envisioning the vineyard floor next June vibrantly blooming in yellow and white.

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The Blur of Midsummer

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

July 3, 2010

I dug up the biodynamic horn prep 500 this morning. This year the compost took an extra month to come to fruition. I had to be patient as I kept the horns buried and let the worms do their work. Last winter was very cold and wet and the winter composting was practically nonexistent. Now that I have waited the compost is perfect and I will keep it in hibernation until I use it in the spring.

July 6, 2010

It is 8:30 in the morning and it is already 86 degrees. The sun looks ominous as it continues to rise…it is a huge orange ball with a distinct outline, so close to the earth it looks surreal. The wind turbine sits still and no bird or cricket is making a sound. By noon it will be 100 degrees. We are having the hottest and driest year ever in the history of Long Island winegrowing and the soil that was so spongy a few weeks ago is turning to dust. Tonight I will have to begin a round of irrigation.

July 10, 2010

In the afternoon I ride my bike to the middle of the vineyard and switch over the irrigation zones to prepare for the nighttime watering. When it is this hot the waves of heat and humidity bounce back up from the dried grasses into my face and my sweat streams out. Carlos is on the tractor everyday but has to stop by lunchtime because the air conditioning is out; if it is 85 degrees outside the inside of the tractor is at least 100. The cover crop has gone dormant and only the vines are green. Unbelievably, I see tiny spots of some downy mildew on new leaves, but it gets burnt out in a day; the mildew pressure from humidity is barely countered by the heat. This is priceless information because it is easy to assume that a hot dry year would not allow for this type of mildew, but the humidity obviously plays the lead role.

July 20, 2010

This morning Carlos washed the caked dirt off the radiator of the tractor and it gushed coolant. The tractor is down and Bobby, my usual mechanic doesn’t have time to replace it. Anthony, our winemaker, considers the task for a moment and miraculously says he can do it. John Deere is overnighting a radiator from Canada…this is like manna from heaven.

July 26, 2010

Black rot in the South Merlot. This is not like manna from heaven.

My vineyard crew discovered it as they were cleaning stray canes from the trunks. Carlos called me and presented me with a handful of clusters with brown berries scattered throughout. Standing there in the break between the North and South block I felt as though the air was sucked out of my body and my guts were curdled. We immediately went in and removed any clusters showing signs of infection. This quick response is necessary when farming organically in a region just discovering how to farm wine this way. Sanitation is key so that I can move on and bring in a beautiful crop.

August 3, 2010

The black rot is at bay and the berries are maturing and becoming immune to infections such as this. Alice Wise our local Cornell extension specialist along with the plant pathology department of Cornell University upstate were incredibly valuable in diagnosing the problem. It is useful to have the assistance of this knowledgeable team which will help in avoiding this kind of problem in future seasons.

August 7, 2010

Although the nights are cooling and the mornings soften, the rhythm of this hot summer still reverberates in the vineyard. The vines are making due on a parched diet of very little water. I have to find the balance between withholding water for ripening purposes with the need to keep the vines somewhat hydrated. I pull soil plugs in every block to see how much moisture is available and am amazed that each block will completely dry out in a matter of 4 days. I can’t fathom how the vine’s roots are able to seek and find nutrients in the dry ground. I guess this is why we have made wine from grapes for centuries.

We are now finishing veraison….and so begins the ripening season…..

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The Stuff Of Dreams

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

June 4

Heaven…..bloom. The vines are blooming and the mixture of vine blossoms and clover blossoms smells like jasmine. This is the earliest the vines have bloomed in the history of growing wine on the North Fork. It is hot and it is dry. As I bike through the rows I feel the thousands of micro moments of fertilization that are taking place every second. The whole being of the vineyard is about exhilarating fertilization. Isn’t that incredible? Love.

June 5

Today at 1:00 pm a locomotive train came rolling through my brain, again. A blog called “Wine Seriously” posted an article titled “Can 100% Organic Grapes be produced on Long Island?” Jose Moreno is the author and the in-depth article is very well written. Unfortunately, once again, the local naysayers are happy to say nay: Quoted from the article as thus:

“As Perrine (co-owner Channing Daughters, Hamptons, Long Island) pointed out:  “Organic is virtually impossible in rainy climates like Bordeaux, Friuli, and LI; downy mildew and black rot cannot be contained by using organic methods.” 

In Pisacano’s view, (vineyard manager Wolffer Estate, Hamptons, Long Island and owner Roanoak Vineyards, North Fork, Long Island) :

“organic certification is too demanding and expensive, apart from the fact that the level of humidity in the area is just too high to allow for organic practices for preventing the control of diseases and molds like powdery mildew and botrytis.” Barbara Shinn said that she saw no reason why full organic conversion couldn’t be achieved in either North Fork or Hamptons AVA vineyards.  On the other hand, Jim Silver of Peconic Bay Winery (North Fork, Long Island) said flatly that any idea of producing organic grapes in Long Island is simply impossible—the stuff of dreams.

June 6

Ah, the stuff of dreams. Yes, it is my dream. And my reality.

June 15

As the vines finish blooming I love to cradle a cluster in my hand and smooth over the desiccated blossoms, letting the flower caps tumble off and see the immature berries. If we have shatter, my palm will be filled with berries the vine has rejected, conversely, if only a few pinhead sized berries let loose then we might have a good fruit set. I have to wait until the berries are pea-sized to know for sure. At fruit set the clusters can look full and then in a week or two I can look at the clusters again and the vine could have rejected half the potential berries. It is a quiet time of waiting and looking.

June 18

Jose Moreno, the blogger of “Wine Seriously”, visited again for a full walk-about. He is intending on reporting in on his blog by the end of the month. More controversy to follow? It is so strange to me that some who are in the business of viticulture wouldn’t let someone else farm in peace.

June 21

The birds are singing this year like I have never heard them before. It has gone on since bud break. What is this joy? They are calling not only from the vineyard but from the surrounding farms. And in the vineyard there are birds nesting in the vines everywhere. I ride my bike through the rows in the morning and they flit up onto the trellis wires and shout me away until I tell them to shrug it off, it’s ok.

And then there is George the groundhog who lives under the pile of vine stakes and doesn’t eat the vines (I think he is King of the Mountain and keeps the other groundhogs out, kind of like Diamond the crack dealer who kept the neighborhood safe when I lived in the flatlands of Oakland), and our ephemeral little fawns who live in the vineyard now and eat clover and not even one grape leaf. Her mother has given birth to twins every year for three years and they grow to adolescence in the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc until they grow up and join the herd across the way. The fawns are tiny right now, just little brown critters, spindly and saintful. They see us before we see them; they jolt themselves up and duck under the trellis to the next row and keep moving until we walk away.

Every day my vineyard guys and I report in on where we saw them and we all smile and feel like we are their guardians, but we know that nature adheres to a much higher level of intelligence than we can comprehend. We probably don’t matter to them one bit. All is good.

June 24

It is so dry and hot that many vineyard managers may suppose that it would be impossible to get hit with downy mildew this year. I kept a small row of nursery vines unsprayed as a control check since this year the main experiment in the vineyard is organic downy mildew control. Sure enough today the nursery row had downy, and the 20 acres of mature vines are clean. Something to be pleased about. To some extent I have relied on a new biological control which is an extract from the giant knotweed plant.

Now that the control section has proven we can indeed get downy mildew here no matter the weather conditions, I have the opportunity to conduct a trial between hydrogen peroxide and a new organic algaecide. It interests me because downy was just reclassified from the fungi plant kingdom to the algae plant kingdom. Perhaps organic control of downy has been so tricky because for decades we have been fighting downy the fungus instead of downy the algae. Thrilling.

And on to the dog days of July……

Ed Note: Jim Silver of Peconic Bay Winery has previously contacted the Organic Wine Journal about how he was quoted in Wine Seriously. He does not recall making this statement and applauds Shinn Estate’s attempt to grow grapes organically on Long Island.

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

May 1, 2010

In the coldest days of winter I dream of the spring sun warming the tops of my feet as I walk through the vineyard. I dream of a triumphant melody playing the song of explosive new growth. And I dream of sweat on my face and dirt on my legs. But now that it is May the real spring surrounds me. It is in fact not fast, it is the exact opposite. It is a slow flow. The pink buds on the vines have gently unfolded into soft green leaves allowing the rays of the sun to slather their surface like sweet butter. The birds sing a swirling chatter almost like a shy giggle while they savor the flavor of the first bug hatchings. The vines are timid, just beginning to show their personalities, as their canes and tendrils reach up, break their silence, and offer their invocations to the skies.

May 6, 2010

Steve Matthiasson visited our vineyard today. He was on the North Fork to spend some time with Joe Macari of Macari Vineyards. Joe and Steve are long time comrades so I have to thank Joe for befriending such an important viticulturist as Steve. All over America, Steve is known as a “thinking man’s (or woman’s) viticulturist.” He consults for over 30 west coast vineyards and developed the Lodi – Woodbridge Sustainability mission statement which later became the model for California’s statewide sustainable wine growing program. I was really looking forward to his visit so we could walk through the vineyard.

Usually when I accompany a visitor in the vines I find myself giving lessons on the soil and its dynamic cycle of life and the vines’ relationship to the soil and sun. This afternoon was completely different. For almost 30 minutes Steve, his wife Jill, myself and David walked in almost complete and comfortable silence. We all knew what we were looking at… bug habitat, crumbly soil, worms in the compost. There was quiet conversation about mowing techniques, hedgerows, phomopsis control, and composting. Steve’s gentle guidance and vast knowledge of holistic farming brought a moment of much needed quietude to the beginning of the growing season. What a day.

May 15, 2010

Bugs. Leafhoppers, grape berry moth. 2 weeks early this year but most at minute levels. The meadow beneath the vines is just beginning to bloom in clover. Next week I will add the ground silica to a foliar application which will keep the problematic bug population in check. It is also the time to make sure the vine has plenty of sunlight and the silica will help with this. Imagine quartz ground as fine as cake flour. The tiny prisms will refract light throughout the canopy rifling it into shaded crevices, increasing photosynthesis. Now is the moment that the sky enters the vine.

May 20, 2010

The moon is gibbous coming to full. Brewing compost tea and dripping it at the base of the vines along with fish and seaweed.

May 27, 2010

Slowly but steadily a network of east coast sustainable wine growers is emerging. From New York to Ohio to Virginia to Pennsylvania, we are all asking each other questions. Most of the growers who contact me are weaning their vineyards off agricultural chemicals to the cleanest degree possible. Their dream is to be organic but very often they are discouraged by problems in the vineyard. I get emails asking how we control Black Rot, Phomopsis and Downy Mildew: the scourges of East Coast viticulture. Today I am in Lancaster Pennsylvania addressing 80 wine growers at Mark Chien’s “Sustainable and Organic Vineyard Best Practices for Eastern Vineyards” conference. Mark is the Penn State extension agent for the viticulture department and quite an enthusiast of growing quality wine grapes on the East Coast. Mark was expecting about 30 growers to attend but the number has remarkably grown to over 80. I was in good company as one of my partner speakers was Glenn McGourdy, the Mendocino extension agent from University of California and a board member of Demeter. My presentation was on the slow conversion of our farm to organics while Glenn introduced the basics of Biodynamics. It was an incredibly successful conference, inspiring the budding Pennsylvania wine industry to continue in the quest for sustainable wine growing.

May 28, 2010

I came back home today to a message that read “Lucas Snodgrass, Snodgrass Farms in Missouri wants to talk to you about organic farming” I love messages like this. It turns out Lucas is growing vinifera grapes organically on his farm and grazing sheep….and has some disease control issues on the vines. The sheep only graze amongst the vines from late fall to early spring but the option of using copper as control for anthracnose, a leaf and fruit fungal disease prevalent in Missouri is not really the best option due to the sheep’s low tolerance of copper. After some quick reading it looks like organic potassium bicarbonate will work as an eradicant. If any growers are grazing sheep and there is copper applications in the mix, Lucas would probably appreciate your comments. I was talking to him while stirring the BD prep of horn silica that Carlos was applying to our vines. When I mentioned what I was doing Lucas said that half the farmers he spoke to thought highly of Biodynamics and the other half thought it was a bunch of hocus pocus.
And on went a discussion…

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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.

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The past few days have been filled with bothersome “tweets” on twitter and postings on Facebook from winemakers and vineyard consultants who are questioning the benefits of organic and biodynamic winegrowing. Some are calling this mode of farming a fad and others are going so far as to post video of the two clowns Penn and Teller calling organic farming “bullshit.” The video is filled with testimonials from the Hudson Institute debunking the qualities of organic farming. Hudson Institute is a think tank funded by the huge chemical companies Monsanto, DuPont and others. These items are posted because the authors know that we, at Shinn Estate Vineyards, will probably see them.

Unfortunately, we run into a lot of this. It didn’t take more than a minute for my husband David to post back: I get messages from winemakers damning organic and biodynamic viticulture. They should spend time hawking the benefits of Monsanto pesticides.

This back and forth online is a telling moment for me. 2010 will be the first year of a three year commitment to farm our wine organically under the Stellar organic certifying agency and the Demeter biodynamic certifying agency. Here, on the east coast, it is generally agreed amongst viticulturists and researchers that organic winegrowing is impossible so there is a good amount of skepticism surrounding the way we farm our wine at Shinn. Nevertheless, we continue to experiment every growing season with organic control of insects, fungus and weeds. It has been a long road to travel having no local certified organic example to follow.

We began planting our vines in 2000 and by the 2004 harvest we had converted our vineyard floor to a blooming meadow where no herbicides were used. The meadow grows between the rows and under the trellis where we mow the weeds under the vines, gaining a thick mulch of green manure with every pass. In 2003 we began weaning the 3 year old vineyard off chemical fertilizers and feeding the vines with fish, seaweed and compost teas. Today, the soil is fed a diet of only organic inputs including several different kinds of composts and we continue with the seaweed and fish and other organic materials. In 2004 we began an integrated pest management program to address troublesome insects and now they are controlled by the beneficial insects harbored in our meadow along with organically approved controls like pheromone ties. By the 2009 growing season we successfully controlled powdery mildew, black rot, sour rot, phomopsis, and botrytis organically. The key to the 2010 season is to discard phosphite as a component in controlling downy mildew.

It may seem like a decade is a very long time to transition a vineyard from conventional to organic but as I began to change the way I had been taught to farm wine, it became apparent that I could not make changes by simply substituting organic materials for conventional ones. I had to somehow transform the entire farm into a more natural state. It wasn’t a matter of finding the one enormous golden key to unlock the secret of natural winegrowing, instead it was starting a collection of tiny keys each unlocking small doors and drawers that all worked in tandem with each other. Maintaining the harmony amongst the vines means that I have to be incredibly tuned in to the flow of what the vineyard needs throughout the 4 seasons and keeping a balance between the soil, the sun, the weather and the fruit. It means learning not only to see Mother Nature’s signals but also to use my other senses like listening to the noise being made by the insects which gives me an indication of their population, smelling the scents made by the soil which tells me how active it is and feeling the skin of the grapes for density letting me know the degree of disease resistance the fruit may have this year. This is the kind of farming that inspires me and makes a decade of transition seem like a mere moment in time.

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