Second in a series on the 2013 vintage at three New England wineries.
BARNARD, VT. Ugly spots and scarred, shrunken berries. After a promising start, a block of Deirdre Heekin’s marquette vines are struggling to right themselves in the wake of the (thus far) rainiest growing season ever recorded in Vermont.
It’s too early to determine whether damaged fruit will come around in the end, but right now the grower-winemaker is on the defensive, deploying every technique available to a farmer committed to organic viticulture to stem the tide of black rot and downey mildew that has attacked a portion of her nascent crop.
“It rained inches at a time, and we had extreme heat and humidity,” Heekin tells me during a visit to the tiny farm winery she owns with husband Caleb Barber on Mt. Hunger in Barnard on August 6. Across the state in Vergennes and Addison, where she manages about 4 acres of vineyard from which she purchases fruit, the weather has been equally unkind. “Some vines are in trouble there too,” she notes.
Despite the stressful conditions, bud break was not delayed (June 21) and fruit development in the rest of the vineyard seems to be more or less on schedule. If the weather steadies out, the bulk of the grapes may streak to the finish line in fine form. Veraison – the moment when grapes begin to build sugar and take on color — is expected in another week or so.
La garagista (profile here) is a fully organic property managed on biodynamic principals, but the protocols for mineral (copper and sulfur) and plant-based spraying aimed at remediating pest and disease infestations have to be applied rigorously.
If hard rain follows a treatment, spraying has to be repeated. “For organic to work you must be intimately attuned to what’s happening day to day, and be able to respond immediately,” Heekin says. “My biggest challenge as a winegrower is that given my responsibilities at the restaurant, I can’t always respond immediately, or at the correct time.”
Without these early, timely, and repeated applications the stresses on sections of the little vineyard can overwhelm it. When the labor isn’t available to to accomplish a really rigorous schedule in a tough season, plant medicines and a mineral spray program may not be able to keep on top of a problem like black rot. Veteran travelers in Italy, the couple curates a stylish all-Italian wine list in their Woodstock restaurant, Pane e Salute. Five years ago, Heekin turned her hand to viticulture in a serious way, planting one acre of their property to marquette, blaufrankisch, three colors of frontenac, la crescent, and riesling. She produced around 800 bottles in her her garage-sized cantina last year and expects to double that in 2013.
In the course of annual travels to Europe the pair built relationships among wine growers that Heekin is not reluctant to tap when faced with a problem in the vineyard or cellar. She’s likely the only vintner in New England in a position to ring up Campanian winemaking star Bruno De Conciliis when she’s stuck on something. She’s been discussing the black rot problem with Emmanuel Guillot-Broux of Domaine Guillot-Broux in the Maconnais.
“The healthier your plants are the more successfully they can resist disease. Boost a plant’s overall health and it can put up a pretty vigorous defense on its own.” Although the vineyard is generally well-drained, some recent work on the road above the property altered the site’s hydrology.
A culvert repositioned by the town resulted in the creation of several gravity-fed springs under the meadow where the vineyard is set and Heekin suspects that roots of some vines may now be more or less constantly in touch with moisture – a condition she refers to as “having wet feet.”
This may be part of the problem affecting the marquette vines (a red, French-American hybrid) which can clearly be seen to be suffering. In a neighboring block, the la crescent vines (a white, hybrid variety) appear to be doing splendidly. In fact, it’s only sections of the marquette block that are reeling. “The first four rows and last two rows will have nice fruit as well as the west end of some of the infected rows,” she estimates. “We’ ll double our production from last year to this. We’re really pleased with how the majority of the vineyard faired in such a difficult season.”
While it’s likely that the water table in the vineyard is higher than usual, it’s also possible that the roots of some of now four year-old vines are just reaching a depth where water is standing. Vines here are trained high to maximize ventilation and keep the fruit away from ground humidity.
The couple have considered planting willow trees higher up the slope (willows are champion groundwater guzzlers). One of the inherent risks in establishing a vineyard on virgin land – especially in New England, where wine grapes have so little history — is the sheer amount that needs to be learned. There’s really no way to determine in advance whether a given site can support vines capable of making quality wine or exactly what sort of management will give the best results.
One of the important pieces of advice Heekin received from her Europe-based mentors is that in order to successfully farm your vineyard you must truly know it. Knowing a vineyard well enough to survive a year like 2013 may well be the work of a lifetime.