After the harvest, cycle starts again
FINGER LAKES--Some vineyards celebrate the harvest with appreciation for the culmination of a year's hard work that began shortly after the previous harvest was complete. Others don't grow their own fruit and also rejoice when the grapes and fruits they purchased are bubbling away in their tanks as wine-to-be. For everyone, the work is never quite over, but rather a continuing cycle with new challenges each season.
"In the fall everything comes together at once," says Suzy Hayes, co-owner of Miles Wine Cellars in Himrod. "We have the most customers and the most amount of work."
Some areas are being plowed and disked so vines can be planted next spring for a harvest beginning about four years in the future. Then the equipment isn't just put away, it's winterized, overhauled and repaired. "Some wineries hill up their vines, but we don't do that because our vineyard is so close to the water," she says. And because no one knows until nearly spring whether the winter can be termed "mild" or "brutal," at many vineyards, including Miles, workers wait until the end of March to prune their vinifera grapes, so they can determine how much to prune based on winter damage. "A vine can live indefinitely as long as it's taken care of," Hayes says.
Adam Folts of Vineyard View Winery in Keuka Park notes his family has been growing grapes on this land for more than a century. "We're always thinking about grape varieties, though we've had the farm for so long, we pretty much know what would or wouldn't grow there," he says. The winery has been open for three years.
At this time of year, he says, "We're hoping the leaves stay on as long as they can. That way the wood gets riper and the better the bud count the following year."
They've already begun pruning their native varieties because, "The wood is already ripe, so you already know what wood's going to make it through the winter unless you have a catastrophic winter." Like last year, when the extreme cold killed primary and secondary buds on their chardonnay. Fortunately, the weather stopped short of killing those vines. When the tertiary buds leafed out, they got leaves and new growth. "Hopefully next year we'll have a good crop," he says.
French-American hybrid grapes get pruned next. Vinifera [European] varieties require different care. "We'll hill some dirt onto the vinifera to bury the plants so when the temperature drops the plants will be protected," Folts says. "It's added labor and added cost, but if you're not killing your vines, it's worth it." They also mulch between rows to prevent soil compaction. Some of the vines they lost last winter will be re-planted next spring; some have been already replanted this year. "Typically there's tile work for drainage the year before, then we fall plow to get the winter to decompose the sod for us," he says.
The wine cellar remains a busy place through much of the winter. "We're done with pressing, so at this point we're doing a lot of racking, which means taking the wine off the lees at the bottom of the tank. That's spent yeast, any grape particles that got past my first racking. If we have wine in a thousand gallon tank, that might be 20 to 30 gallons of solids," says Shawn Verity, winemaker at Seneca Shore Wine Cellars in Penn Yan. "There's a lot of cleaning involved--I go home wet every day."
Cleaning tanks is a combination of scrubbing and power washing. Hot water is circulated through the tank, then a basic solution to dissolve tartrates, followed by an acidic solution to counteract the basic one. "It can be three washings per tank," he says.
"Bottling is kind of a summer thing, fall is harvest, winter is testing the wine, cold stabilization and heat stabilization."
Meanwhile, out in the vineyard, workers attend to other non-pruning tasks as well as pruning native varieties and hybrids. They're testing the soil, and fixing fence-posts, including the chore of fixing or replacing posts broken during harvest.
Even at wineries that don't grow their own grapes, fall and winter can still be a busy time. "Right now we're doing hard cider," says Paul Curcillo, who with his wife purchased Earle Estates Winery and Meadery in Penn Yan. "Then, in January we'll start making the mead."
He's planning on beginning new vineyards on the other side of the winter. As new winery owners as well as physicians with two busy out-of-state practices, the Curcillos plan to use some free time this winter to analyze and assess their next winery decisions in the quiet of the slower post-Christmas season. He says, "This is our chance to sit back and think over what we've sold over the past year, what we want to add for the next year. We'll be planning for new wines, how to market and how we're going to roll it out. We have to look at our own little eco-environment and see what varietals will do well and that will help us decide what varietals are options for us."