We had another good turnout for the premiere of our Sustainable Winemaking workshop Friday evening at Stargazers Vineyard in Coatesville, PA. In attendance were 17 interns, farmers and apprentices, with one prominent Coatesville citizen, Alray Johnson, who brought a video camera to document the event for his 3CTV company, which produces community minded television for the web.
Stargazers Vineyard was the first vineyard founded and planted in Chester County in 1979 by John and Alice Weygandt. It began producing wine in 1996. +20,000 vinfera vines yielding over 45 tons per vintage are situated on the incredibly lovely slopes of the Weygandt's land and John discussed sustainable winemaking techniques with the group. An excellent resource for viticultural sustainability is the Salem, Oregon site LiveInc.org.
The French call a microclimate with its own specific environment 'terroir'. The intense mineral content in Chester County soils helps to contribute an elegant, complex character to each of the Weygandt's 10 varieties of wine.
John submits that biodynamic grape growing is an impossibility in the southeastern part of our state's climate; it's too wet and the soil doesn't have enough limestone. Organic production has express rules that limit any range of options. Sustainability gives him the most amount of flexibility in his growing practices. He mentions that in replanting young vines there is no herbicide benign enough for his newly planted young vines, most everything will kill them. So his manager and 2 casual workers don't use much on the land, except for minimal fungicides and tubes for deer protection. Another trick for deer is to bait 'hot' electric fence wiring with peanut butter smeared on tin foil wrapped around the wire. The deer finds peanut butter irresistible and is zapped when he licks the wire.
During an intense Japanese beetle infestation a couple of years ago, he did have to apply Sevin -there is no organic remedy for the insects- and his vines were so compromised by the leaf damage that some didn't withstand the winter. For the grape berry moth, pheromone ties will work well enough.
He will remove his oldest 30 year vines in about a year and has begun replanting more closely together than in the 8 foot rows of the past; now his rows are 4' apart. The economics result in more vines being grown on an acre, and the model follows that of Germany and other parts of Europe where growers have been planting intensively for decades. His mix in the paths between rows is clover and rye, which he mows periodically.
PH is most important for grapes and gives the best indication of maturity. He looks for a partial crop in the 3rd leaf, which means the plant has leafed out 3 times. By the 5th year, the vines should be in full production. Of course, if it's been a dry season it's like starting over in the second year. Grapes are particularly tricky. If you overcrop they'll be stressed and unable to make it through the winter, undercropped and you'll have excessive vegetative growth and the vine will become less productive or fruitful. You need to leave a certain number of buds for dormancy. How many is just right? That depends on the variety and how closely they're planted. In cool, wet weather the vines may also send out 'laterals', which need to be removed.
John now gets all virus certified root stock and scions. All his vines are grafted except for Riparia, his favorite rootstock is 101-14 - which I had to google and discovered it's a famous and popular French rootstock produced by Millardet and De Grasset, originally released in 1882. A cross of V. riparia and V. rupestris, it is moderately vigorous and resistant to phylloxera and root-knot nematodes.
We all deduced from John's talk that growing grapes is not for the weak spirited, a productive vineyard takes at least 5 years to produce. He laughed after hearing a salesman's pitch of a 'fertile valley for grapes', because grapes don't want too much nitrogen at all. He doesn't add any to his soil and composts with only organic fertilizer, calcium and magnesium being most important for grapes. He does get a soil analysis every 3 years and usually has to add lime since the native PH of 5.5 is lower than grapes like at 6. In Europe, all rootstock is selected for highly lime soils and Pennsylvania is short on lime.
State laws: According to Weygandt, not too much has changed since prohibition in the 1930's. The state is still trapped in a somewhat reductionist mentality and won't allow local vineyards to sell wines in liquor stores. Unlike the prescient visions of states like NY and Virginia, who followed California in local winemaking to boost their tourism and local economies, Pennsylvania has had archaic restrictions on wine sales. Until 2005, the Commonwealth didn't allow internet or mail order sales of wine. And even though PA is #5 nationally in the number of wineries, the state only allows direct sales from tastings, wineries and farmers markets. John is working with the PQA - Pennsylvania Quality Assurance Group to develop a compilation of PA wineries and standards to match the world's leading wines, as well as to educate consumers about local vineyards and to elicit more support from the state. The group has a matching grant for its activities from the PA Dept. of Agriculture.
With a 9KW solar array on the stockroom roof, John runs his passive solar house and the vineyard's needs without additional power. He uses variable capacity stainless steel barrels for fermentation, controlling temperature with water from the cistern. Weygandt cites sanitation, environmental impact and cost as three reasons not to use oak barrels, but he does add small pieces of oak for his chardonnay. 'The barrel was the 18th century's tupperware' is how he phrased it. At $1000 a barrel, oak or redwood barrels aren't cheap. They are more feasible for larger vineyards, since they can continually keep the casks full of wine, while smaller vineyards often don't have year round production and must keep sulfited water in them.
1/5 to 1/3 of Stargazers' production is in sparkling wines, one of their specialties. In comparison, even the smaller French champagne makers have a half million bottles in their caves, but may sell 100,000 cases per year. John sells 100-200 cases.
The vineyard is open to the public on Sundays from 12-5pm, you can find many events to attend on their online calendar. And don't forget to check them out at the West Chester Growers Market and at Headhouse Market in Philly- again, check their calendar for specific dates. Appellation America featured John in a March article here.
Stargazers is also offering Big Band BBQ for 3 days over the July 4th weekend, with bluegrass, jazz, wine and a BBQ picnic, provided by Chef Richard Schrack of Moonlight Catering. What could be better than sitting out under the stars drinking wine and listening to great music?
We'd like to thank the Weygandts for their hospitality - some of us stayed later for an informative wine tasting, presided over by Alice.
Next SAITA workshop is a double hitter at Philadelphia urban farms on Saturday July 11th. First we'll go over to Greensgrow at 10:30am, and will hit Weavers Way at 1:30 on the same day. Please mark your calendars, plan now to carpool and don't miss these two great workshops!
Happy growing! See schedule and addresses for workshops here.