Why Is The Vineyard Manager So Undervalued?
Why is the vineyard manager so undervalued in the wine industry today? It is a question I often ask myself. Afterall, without the vineyard manager to run the farm and grow the grapes there wouldn’t be a bottle of wine for the winery to even sell.
Running a small 20 acre vineyard on the tip of Long Island allows me to wear many hats in the pursuit of making North Fork wine. However, the two most important jobs I have in producing wine are that of the winemaker and the vineyard manager. I perform both jobs at North Cliff Vineyards and ‘there lies the rub’ to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Which job is more important in creating great wine? The farmer who tends the grapes in the vineyard?– Or the winemaker who converts those grapes into wine? Indeed, that is the question!
The Vineyard Manager
In January and February I would call myself a vineyard manager. Afterall, I am pruning the vines in the bitter cold and snow, choosing the best fruiting canes on the plant. I am looking to create perfection and equilibrium on the vine by choosing an equal amount of buds on both sides of the trunk. Like an artist with a sculpture, I take time sculpting each vine in the field.
In March, the vineyard is still cold and barren and I remain in the vineyard working with the selected canes after pruning. I begin to gently twist and tie the canes to the fruiting wire on the trellis system. I am preparing each plant for the first stage of growth in the vineyard. Soon, spring will bring the first shoots on the vine. I will lovingly desucker the non-bearing shoots on the cane that sap the vigor from the fruit-bearing ones.
Summer comes quickly in the vineyard. Plant and animal life come alive during the hot summer months. The vertical wires that help support the bounty of green leaves on the vine need to be supported by “levage”, the French term for lifting the wires on the trellis system. The wires are delicately lifted several times during late spring and early summer.
I spend the hot summer months trying to stay cool in the shade of the tall grape vines in the vineyard. I kneel on the soft grass in the rows between the vines as I de-leaf the bottom of the canopy of leaves. My hands move swiftly and ever so carefully as not to disturb the clusters of vinifera that hang so perfectly over the wild flowers under each row. In early August, I cover the vines with netting to protect the tempting fruit from flocks of starlings and the cunning robin.
I walk through the vineyard in late September amongst the thousands of vines, randomly tasting plump berries and judging the sugar level of each grape. I savor each grape in my mouth, sucking the sweet juice and spitting out the skin and seeds. It is a ritual this time of year. My fingers are sticky from plucking the small berries from the clusters. I am excited that the grapes are almost ready. The warm September sun feels good on my face as the joys of harvest season draw closer.
But when will my alter ego take over? When will the winemaker within me determine the time to pick the grapes? The farmer knows simply by tasting the berry that the fruit is ready– but the winemaker must evaluate the ripeness scientifically and take the berry samples back to the laboratory.
As a winemaker, I inspect and choose the best grapes on the sorting table as they enter the winery. I remove all the remaining vegetation and stems from the grapes. I crush them gently and place them into a large vat.
They are natural and pristine. I know the natural yeast from the farm will be sufficient to ferment these grapes. I will not need to inoculate them with sulfur without cause. I know the grapes were protected against insects, birds, and disease.
After 12 short hours, the fermentation begins. Co2 is released and pushes the grape skins to the top of the vat, forming a cap. Two to three times a day I push the grape skins down toward the bottom of the vat to produce the highest quality tannins. Every morning, I taste the wine and measure it with a hydrometer. The alcoholic fermentation creates heat that maintains the fruity aromas in the wine.
After the sugar is converted to alcohol, the wine is pressed and transferred into airtight vessels for the next fermentation. This next fermentation is called malolactic fermentation and it converts the malic acids to softer tasting lactic acid.
Malolactic fermentation is a natural process that stabilizes the wine and occurs anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after primary fermentation. The winemaker, like my alter ego the vineyard manager, tries to keep the process as simple and as natural as possible.
After the fermentation is finished, I rack the wine in order to separate the lees from the wine. The wine is then put in oak barrels to age naturally for 12 to 24 months. I must carefully monitor the wine and top the oak barrels frequently, not allowing air to disturb the wine.
To Be A Winemaker Or To Be A Vineyard Manager
To be a winemaker or to be a vineyard manager, that is the question. Both these jobs are important in making great wine. However, one of them clearly is recognized as more important in the American wine industry. The hundreds of small tasks undertaken with care and precision is often overlooked by the oenophile who only sees the winemaker’s name on the bottle. The thousands upon thousands of hours spent in the vineyard to grow and nurture the perfect grape to make that great wine are not on the label. Yes, terroir is often mentioned on the bottle of wine, but that only refers to the region’s climate and soil.
So let’s raise a glass of wine to celebrate the diligent vineyard manager and vineyard worker of the new world who toils away in the field. Let us look to the French vineyards of Europe who are the standard bearers in viniculture and understand the value of the farmer in the vineyard. Let’s throw out the nouveau riche new world idea that great wine is only made by the winemaker in the wine cellar. Instead, let's understand that making great wine is a collaborative effort by both the winemaker and the farmer. Let’s recognize the greatness of the farmer who grows the grape that makes that great wine! “Vive l’agricultuer!” Long live the farmer!