Winemaking from the Outside
A large part of the winemaking process does not occur inside a winery but begins in the fields where the grapes are grown. At Kriselle Cellars, we have about 25 acres of grapes which we grow and harvest to form the foundation of many of our wines. During previous summers, I have spent some time working in our vineyards, preparing the vines and grapes for harvest. This summer, my cousins from Florida, Caroline and Maddy, are in town working with the vines as well. They bump down the road every morning in a little golf cart and arrive at the vineyard at 7:30 AM sharp, leaving the chemical scent of sunscreen in their wake. They return every afternoon, covered in dust and burrs and immediately flop onto the couch exhausted and depressed that their new tan will probably wash off during their next shower.
So, what makes a good vineyard? The first important factor is the climate. Wine grapes require hot, dry summers in order to maximize growth and minimize dilution of the sugars in the grapes. Too much water dilutes the natural flavors in the grapes while the hot weather helps the vines grow. This type of climate promotes a thick canopy of leaves with only a few grapes per vine. This allows the growth of the vines to concentrate on only a limited supply of grapes, increasing the quality of their flavor. As a result, most grapes are grown on the southern-facing slopes of hills which get the most sun throughout the day. However, it also means working with the vines is hot work.
Next, the quality of the vineyard depends upon the soil. We are lucky enough on this vineyard to have rocky alluvial soil which helps drain water, keeping the soil dry to help control grape growth. Our soil was deposited over millions of years by the Rogue River. Personally, I’m a bit of a geology buff, and I find the geologic story of this area fascinating. Around 7 million years ago, a shield volcano erupted and deposited lava hundreds of feet thick over the area where our vineyard is now located. Over the next 7 million years, the Rogue River slowly eroded away 90% of this lava flow, creating the Rogue River Valley and the Table Rocks which are located close to our property. Now, after millions of years of development, we are left with a couple hills with rocky, alluvial soil perfect for a winery!
During the summers, there is much to do in the fields. Work starts early—usually by 7:30 at the latest to avoid spending much time working during the hottest parts of the day. Before the tasting room was being constructed, I loved being in the vineyards that early in the morning. The world felt very still, the animals were just waking up, and the air was still cool. Occasionally you might stumble upon a snake or a jackrabbit sunning themselves between the vines. It’s hard not to be at least a little romantic when you remember the early morning hours of field work.
But then I remember working in the afternoon. At this time of the year, the grapes are growing quickly and have to be pruned and tucked. Vines don’t naturally grow in the shapes you see when you walk through vineyards. The grapes you imagine have been carefully pruned and shaped for a number of years. Right now, Caroline and Maddy and the other vineyard workers are tucking the grapes—making sure all the various branches sit securely within the wire lines we have strung throughout the vineyard. It sounds like an easy job, but tucking vines is hard work! In reality, the vines are temperamental creatures (think: stubborn 2 year olds) which sorely resent being put back into place. They have numerous ways to fight back. The first, of course, is stubbornly refusing to stay within their wires. “Haha!” they seem to taunt you. “Just try and control me you stupid human. Resistance is futile.” Then, the vines also have numerous natural allies. The first is the weather. Just when you think the vines have accepted their orderly existence, a storm blows in, ruining much of your previous work. Also, the bees are feisty allies of the vines. They like to hide on the underside of the leaves, especially in the hot afternoons, waiting for a nosy human to stick their hands in and meddle with the vines.
However, in the end, humans persevere and win the war. The vines grow tall and the grapes grow fat and sweet. Time to mop off that sweaty brow and flop into a chair for a well-deserved happy hour. Here’s to you vineyard workers! (clink)