Those shaggy-maned grape vines you see around the valley haven’t been ignored, they’re actual serving a purpose.
It’s bud break in the Grand Valley, a time when most of the valley’s grape growers finish pruning their winter-long vines on the bet those still-tender roseate buds will survive anything Mother Nature might throw their way.
However, with this spring a series of warm/cold, then warm-and-cold again fluctuations, nobody’s quite sure how to prune, which means growers are leaving some vines undocked until it’s known with certainty which plants survived the winter cold.
(Right: The uneven arrival of bud break in spring 2013 has grape growers waiting, hoping the green returns to signal life in the vines after the deep cold of January.)
Bud break normally occurs irregularly around the region, spread out among the many micro-environments and grape varietals dotting the area, but this year, what’s normal?
“It’s just all over the place this year,” said state viticulturist Horst Caspari. “It’s abnormal even by Colorado standards.”
He said an extended bud break isn’t unexpected “but now we’re seeing plants 100 percent out and unfolding their leaves and next to them are plants that are barely into bud break.”
When bud break starts, though, it seems to happen overnight. The first rush of growth comes quickly; vines that were winter-dormant Monday will have swollen buds Tuesday and tiny green leaves Thursday.
“It really happens fast, once it gets started,” said Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards, walking last week through the vineyards near her winery on 32 Road.
Some of the canes (branches) in her vineyard are whiplike and long, flocked with bits of green from emerging leaves and mini-clusters, all a bit of insurance to protect the buds closer to the main stem, she said.
“Normally we cut this off, leaving these two buds on a short cane,” she said, showing where a pruner would remove much of the longer canes. “The less vine, the more the energy goes in the grapes and not into growing the canes.”
The vines are apically dominant, which means the end bud releases a chemical (auxin) that retards the development of lateral buds closer to the stem.
If the apical bud is removed, the other buds start to grow. Controlling the growth of those lateral buds through careful pruning is how grape growers control their vines and also how bonsai trees and espalier (growing a plant two-dimensionally against a wall) are created.
Topiary is the three-dimensional version. Think of those Mickey Mouse trees at Disneyland and you get the idea.
Tomatoes are not apically dominant, which is why they spread out instead of up. This widening eliminates competition by creating a cleared area around the plant.
Cutting the apical buds spurs growth in buds closer to the trunk or stem but once buds break dormancy they are more-susceptible to frost.
Historically the average last day for frosts in the Grand Valley is May 13, a comment that brings a laugh from my friend Neil Guard.
“Yes, but Mother Nature doesn’t read the calendar,” said Guard, who grows grapes and peaches on his farm and vineyard on East Orchard Mesa.
“It’s really a gamble at this point,” Guard said Sunday afternoon as he walked part of his vineyard. “We had the crew prune the riesling because we know that usually does fine but look at the tempranillo, there’s hardly anything there at all.”
The name “tempranillo” comes from the Spanish world for “early” but you’d never know it by looking at Guard’s vines. While nearby rows of cabernet franc ware flush with new buds and leaves, the rows of tempranillo are showing slight signs of life and he’s purposely left those vines long and wild until he sees what grows.
“Look here,” he said, grabbing at a nearby vine. “I’ve got vines with lots of buds and leaves right next to vines that look like their dead, which they might be after last winter.”
He sighed and stood up to survey the rows of vines.
“We’re going to wait,” he said cautiously. “We still have almost two weeks and why spend the money on pruning something when you might end up cutting it off at the ground?”
At 87, most people might be ready to slow down.
Guess we already know blues guitar legend B.B. King isn’t what you might consider “most people”.
In a life filled with accolades, including 15 Grammys, membership in both the the Blues Hall of Fame (1980, first year inductee) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2006), millions of fan and countless hours of performing, King likely has accomplished what few musicians have accomplished.
Now, maybe to show us he’s not strictly one-dimensional and knows a bit about a whole lot in addition to music, the “King of Blues” is launching his own line of wines.
King is collaborating with Connecticut-based Votto Vines Importing to release a new line of B.B. King signature wines.
So far the list contains only a red and white, but even the King had to start playing by the scales.
The wines rolled out this week in Memphis (where else?) and Nashville and soon will be found in B.B. King’s Blues Clubs and in retail stores, wine bars and music clubs throughout the country, according to a release from Votto Vines.
Although Votto Vines is best known for its in-depth knowledge and handling of wines from boutique wineries worldwide and for its role in importing and promoting Italian wines (the company is the sole U.S. importer for Order Sons of Italy), the B.B. King wines are sourced from the Bodega Santa Cruz Winery in Almansa, Spain.
Almansa is a D.O. region in the southeast part of Castilla-La Mancha (think Don Quixote) in southeast Spain. The region is known for its Garnacha Tintorera –based wines, which are different from the Garnacha-Grenache wines. Almansa has nearly 1.7 million acres of vines, some of the most extensive vineyards in Europe.
The B.B. King Signature Collection Red 2010 is a Crianza blend made from Garnacha, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon while the B.B. King Signature Collection White 2011 is comprised of 100% Verdejo grapes.
Both are listed at $13.99.
The red blend is aged 12 months in French and American oak and has earthy notes with red and dark fruits, soft tannins and some unexpected elegance in a wine with enough backbone to stand up to some Memphis barbecue.
The Verdejo, a perfect spring-time wine, is pale straw-yellow with notes of citrus and tropical fruits and a touch of Verdejo’s characteristic minerality on the finish.
B.B.King’s wines may be a cure for the blues.
Jeff Stultz grows hybrid Norton grapes in these vineyards southwest of Cañon City, Colorado
High along Oak Creek Grade, eight miles south of Cañon City, Colo., where the pavement ends and the road melts into the Pike-San Isabel National Forest, travelers come upon an unexpected sight – neat rows of dark-green vines bearing deep-purple grapes.
Vineyard owner Jeff Stultz says many people stop to take photos, unaware that back in Cañon City, in the tasting room at the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, they will find a wine made from those high-country grapes.
It’s a wine different from other Colorado wines, which is fitting for the singular winery rooted at a former Benedictine Monastery.
The wine is a Norton, made from the American hybrid grape of the name familiar in the South and Midwest but a commercial rarity in Colorado, where the industry is dominated by European grape varieites, which aren’t always the right match for Colorado’s cold winters and unseasonal frosts.
The vines belong to Stultz and his wife Sue Allen-Stultz and Jeff’s parents, Fred and Gloria Stultz. Jeff is the assistant winemaker at the Abbey winery and in a former life was head greenskeeper at the Steele Canyon Golf & Country Club near San Diego, where Sue was the head golf professional.
Jeff’s family homesteaded near Cañon City in 1873 and when Jeff and Sue decided in 2001 to make Colorado their home, they found his parents already had some vines at the family ranch, which sits at 6,800 feet.
Those vines also were the expected European wine grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, all ill-suited to what may be the highest vineyard in the nation.
On the advice of Abbey winemaker Matt Cookson and state viticulturist Horst Caspari, an outspoken advocate of hybrid varieties, Jeff planted riesling and Norton vines.
“We planted 150 Norton vines and 500 riesling vines,” said Stultz, 44. “After a winter or two, the riesling were dying and we just couldn’t kill the Norton. So we kept planting Norton and now we’re up to about 500 Norton vines and there are probably between 30 to 35 riesling vines still hanging in there.”
Norton was developed in the early 1800s by Daniel Norton in Richmond, Va. Considered the cornerstone of a burgeoning U.S. wine industry until Prohibition ended most domestic winemaking, the grape today is grown along the East Coast, South and Midwest, where it’s sometimes referred to as the “Cabernet of the Ozarks.” It’s so popular that famed Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel made a special Norton glass in 2009..
Norton is popular because it is disease- and cold-resistant and lacks the pungent “foxiness” found in other hybrids. During the 2012 Drink Local Wine gathering in Denver, several Nortons were tasted and at least one of them, from Missouri but I can’t find my notes to tell you the name, was quite enjoyable. The others were unremarkable.
Back to Stultz: As his Norton vines matured, Stultz had enough grapes for Cookson to blend some into a popular merlot-based sweet red wine called Sangre de Cristo Nouveaux.
Stultz discovered that sending the Norton juice through malolactic fermentation, which converts harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid, drops the wine’s initial acidity (and its pungency) while enhancing the grape’s dark-berry fruit characteristics.
He said the vineyard’s elevation produces smaller grapes with deeper phenolics, which affect the color, flavor and mouthfeel of the wine.
“The color is so intense, you’re totally stained after crush,” he said. “The wine is a fruit bomb with really bright flavors.”
It’s not like they’re over-run with grapes. In 2010, about three tons of Norton were harvested, enough for 65 cases.
That wine, likely the only 100 percent Norton bottled in Colorado, was released this spring and is expected to sell out quickly, said winery spokesperson Sally Davidson.
The Winery each year produces between 13,000 and 14,000 cases of wine, but don’t expect much expansion in the hybrid line.
Cookson wants to focus on his present line of wines and Stultz, who judges homemade wines at the Fremont County Fair, is blunt in his assessment of most hybrid wines.
“They don’t do anything for me,” he said. “But the Norton has been a great wine. Those trying it really like it and now we have 200 gallons of it.”
The wine is available only at the winery in Cañon City.
Let’s see. You’ve visited most of the wineries in the valley, bent your elbow at a nearby distillery and quaffed a brew or two (I love that) at one of the local brewpubs.
What to do, what to do?
There is the entire North Fork Valley to visit, with wineries and brewpubs and yes, even a distillery or two, although most of the wineries are in winter mode, which means call first, while the distilleries and brewpub(s) always are happy to see a new face.
Here’s a hint for something more seasonal: Know farmers, know food.
It’s almost calendrically spring, if there is such a word, and that means fruit blossoms, rambunctious baby animals and the universal green emergence that nearly overwhelms the winter-dulled senses.
Because the green-fuse energy is so concentrated in a small valley, few places in Colorado can rival the explosion of spring that overwhelms the North Fork Valley.
Toss in a happy farmer or two, especially one willing to share the secrets to the bounty from his land – and with a sense of humor to boot – and you find yourself face-to-face with Steve Ela of the Ela Family Farms on Rogers Mesa.
Just so you won’t think his is strictly a one-man farm, Steve and Becky Ela and their family and co-workers will be hosting their annual Farm Tour this year on April 14, a whole day before your taxes are due and time enough to forget that next-day date with the foot-tapping accountant.
The tour starts at 10 a.m. and takes the better part of two hours, maybe more, if you ask a lot of questions and can talk Steve into grafting a new fruit tree or two, starting up the wind machine (hold on to your hat) and explaining why he grows peaches, cherries and apples and not, say, apricots.
For someone whose “farm” consists of a 10×15 garden in the backyard, what happens on a real farm, particularly an assiduously organic farm, can be something of a mystery.
When do you prune and how much, do you use pesticide/insecticide, where do all these apples go, and how many types of apples do you have, anyway, are good questions to pose, since Steve and Becky know the answers.
The tour is popular among the members of the Ela CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) and you’ll meet people from all around Colorado. Last year’s tour drew around 80 people while the farm dinner attracted about 100.
This year’s Saturday night dinner, due to the spring-fresh mid-April date, will be at Dava Parr’s delightful Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia. Dinner costs are $45 adults, $16 children under 4 feet, $8 children under 2 feet.
Many of the visiting Front Rangers spend Saturday night camping in the Elas’ orchard (or one of the Elas’ orchards, anyway), where this year the sliver of moon won’t hide the countless stars peppered across the sky.
The tour and education is free, the accompanying box lunch (from The Living Farm in Paonia) are $16 adults, $9 children.
The friendship and peach blossoms also are free.
A dust-up on the Great Northwest Wine website recently caught my eye. It seems a national travel writer unintentionally gave the impression that among Oregon’s 400 or so wineries, only six had women as their head winemakers.
It didn’t take long for people more involved with the state’s wine industry to note there are around 35 women head winemakers among Oregon’s 400 or so wineries. That’s a bit less than 10 percent, a number similar to California, where 9.8 percent of the approximately 3,400 wineries reported having a women as their lead winemaker. Washington State has 20 female head winemakers (about 6 percent) in its 350-plus wineries. Whether the percentage is high or low in what many people have long thought to be a male-dominated world isn’t clear or important, but I found myself curious how many wineries in Colorado’s fast-growing wine industry have women as head winemakers.
According to my roughhewn survey, which included calling and visiting wineries and asking other writers covering the industry, I came up with a tentative 12 women head winemakers, meaning they oversee the production from grape to glass.
That’s close to 10 percent and may not be accurate, as some wineries have closed for the winter and weren’t available while others didn’t return phone messages.
As was ably pointed out by Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, “We have approximately 105 wineries and many of the women who own wineries with their husbands spend as much time in sticky juice as the men.”
That sharing of the workload is not unusual for an industry where most of the wineries worldwide are small production facilities in which everyone has a hand in the day-to-day chores, including the winemaking.
Many of Colorado’s wineries are true family affairs, many times starting with home winemaking. This list does not include the home winemaking years.
Whether you visit wineries in California, Italy or Colorado, it’s not uncommon to find husband and wife toiling side by side.
Maybe we’re spoiled, because Coloradans have long accepted that many of the state’s best wines are made by women and when we see a woman doing the heavy lifting — literally — it’s the normal (Colorado) state of affairs.
“I’m definitely not the assistant,” affirmed Anna Hanson, winemaker for Jack Rabbit Hill Winery on Redlands Mesa.
She and husband Lance own and operate the winery plus the James Beard award-nominated Peak Spirits Distillery, both of which rely on locally grown organic and biodynamic fruit.
There is another group of women who might be considered assistant winemakers, such as Brooke Webb of Mesa Park Vineyards, who said she shares the duties with her father Chuck Webb, listed on the winery’s website as head winemaker.
The longest-tenured among women head winemakers apparently is Padte Turley of Colorado Cellars, who said she started making wines in 1989.
“It’s cool,” said Padte of her decidedly hands-on style. “You get to know all the little vines and you know what you’ll have to work with.”
Alsatian-stylist Joan Mathewson of Terror Creek Winery, at 6,400 feet in the North Fork Valley still considered the world’s highest vineyards and winery together, was the first, and for years the only, Colorado winemaker with a degree in enology.
Jackie Thompson of Boulder Creek Winery might the state’s most-awarded woman winemaker (that’s open to debate, of course) and certainly was the first among all Colorado winemakers to win a prestigious Jefferson Cup award (2009).
I’m out of room, so here’s the list in no particular order. Share other names (and stories) if you can.
Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, Plum Creek Cellars; Diane Brown, Avant Winery; Michelle Cleveland, Creekside Cellars; Jackie Thompson, Boulder Creek Winery; Anna Hanson, Jack Rabbit Hill Winery; Joan Mathewson, Terror Creek; Padte Turley, Colorado Cellars; Linda Gubbini, Gubbini Winery; Deb Ray, Desert Moon Vineyards; Marianne “Gussie” Walter, Augustina’s Winery; Nancy Janes, Whitewater Hill Vineyards; Barb Mauer, Graystone Winery.
Doug Neam looked at the merlot vines stretching across his property on East Orchard Mesa and pondered his good fortune when he stuck his first vines in the ground.
“I planted these in 1994 because I figured merlot was a varietal in demand and I knew it did pretty good over here,” said Neam. “That first crop was really good.”
Neam soon added to his merlot and a few years later expanded to a nearby south-facing slope where he planted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Both the latter grapes also do well in the Grand Valley, although Neam, as are many western Colorado grape growers, is learning that not all vineyard property is equal.
Like many vineyards around the valley, Neam’s vines are spread across a rolling piece of land that falls off on either side. Such hillside vineyards are considered prime lands because the slopes shed the denser cold air.
Whether he did so intentionally or fortuitously, Neam planted his first merlot on a north-facing slope that falls off to a county road winding across the expansive mesa, providing an open alley of escape for the cold air.
Air flows like water, with the coldest settling to the lowest places, like cold water in a pond or your bathtub. Anglers know that the water issuing from a dam stays around 42 degrees year round, which means in the winter that water may be warmer than the surrounding air.
But it also means trapped air, which doesn’t freeze but may well below freezing, can kill tender vines, fruit trees and other plants.
Give that air or water an escape and it flows away, letting warmer air (water) take its place.
However, Neam planted cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc where his land dead-ends at a neighbor’s brush-choked gully, a shrub dam that stops cold air and forces it back up to almost midway on the slope.
That stagnant lake of cold air, formed during the deepest freeze earlier this month, damaged the vines to where state viticulturist Horst Caspari warned Neam he likely won’t get a crop from those vines in 2013.
“You’ve probably lost everything on that low end of the vineyard,” Caspari said during a recent visit to Neam’s vineyard. “You can see where the cold air pools and it’s like there’s a line where your vines are dead.
“Above that line, you’ll probably get some grapes.”
This cold-weather line of demarcation is a phenomenon that Caspari finds all-too-often across Orchard Mesa where the best agricultural lands often are bordered by dense jungles of growth.
Those ravines, gullies and watercourses are key to proper air drainage, and their existence is part of the reason for the many different micro-climates on Orchard Mesa and East Orchard Mesa.
On a recent tour of cold-struck vineyards from 32 Road to Palisade, Caspari time and again pointed to low spots where vines have been blackened by cold air stopped by wildland growth.
“You can almost see a circle of dead vines where the cold air sits,” he said at one stop, waving his arm to delineate an imaginary high-water line of cold air pooled along the low end of a vineyard. “I’m sure they lost everything in that circle, and the obvious thing would be to put a wind machine right there, to keep that air moving.
“But do you see any machines around here? Not one.”
Neam is fortunate, for he still has some open, south-facing acreage to plant more vines where the gentle, unclogged slope promises better air drainage.
Other landowners, particularly those late arrivals to grape growing, are not so lucky.
“I always recommend they come talk to me before they plant their vines but often that doesn’t happen,” said state enologist Steve Menke during last week’s VinCo conference sponsored by the Colorado Association of Viticulturists and Enologists and the Western Colorado Horticulture Society.
“Too many times, someone walks into my office and says, “I planted five acres of merlot but they aren’t doing very well. Can you help me?’”
“If they had come to us before they planted, I could have helped them with site selection,” he said. “Now, I have to tell them they spent a lot of money on a site where grapes won’t grow.”
EAST ORCHARD MESA – The thump of wind machines waking you last week wasn’t a dream but an attempt by grape growers to ward off the vine-killing cold.
However, it’s been grape-deathly cold in some spots for several weeks and grape growers tardy in cranking up the 30-foot high wind turbines may be too late to prevent losing part or all of next year’s crop, warned state viticulturist Horst Caspari at the Western Colorado Research Center on East Orchard Mesa.
“We have a maximum on cold-hardiness our grapes can reach and if we get below that, it’s done,” he said. “But if you have a wind machine to use and you don’t use it under the conditions we have now, we haven’t learned anything from 2009.”
That was the winter when a December deep freeze sent the temperature in western parts of the valley plunging to 22 below zero and more than 50 percent of the vines in the valley suffered extensive damage, with many growers losing most of their 2010 crop.
Temperatures this year have flirted with that low mark – a minus 18 was registered recently near Fruita – but along with temperature growers also must consider wind speed and length of exposure to the cold, Caspari said.
A few minutes at 28 degrees won’t bother most grape buds but longer exposures at the temperature can kill them as surely as 18-below.
As grapes and other fruit go dormant, their cold-resistance increases. But once the plants reach their most-dormant, temperatures below that may kill or damage the bud or vines.
Wind machines mix warmer air from 100 feet or more with frigid ground-level air trapped by inversions or pooling behind physical dams such as building or trees.
Fans may only bring a rise of 3 or 4 degrees, but that can be sufficient to save a crop.
The easternmost part of the valley benefits from a year-round breeze from DeBeque Canyon. The breeze acts as a natural wind machine, keeping that part of the valley warmer by not allowing the cold air to pool.
The cold air certainly gathers along the Colorado River, where pockets of air can be minus 8 or 10 when it’s minus 1 on East Orchard Mesa, where the cold air flows off the north-sloping fields and lands along the river.
“We didn’t run our machines (Sunday) night but we did the three previous nights,” said Galen Wallace, vineyard manager for Plum Creek Cellars’ vines on East Orchard Mesa, well above the coldest layers of air.
Still, there are enough microclimates in the gullies and ravines that monitoring the temperature is “huge in this business,” Wallace said. “We get 10 percent (bud) damage at 5-below so I watch it closely and when it gets to 1-below I’m ready” to start the wind machines.
Surprisingly, the valley’s largest grape grower hasn’t yet run his wind machines.
“No, we haven’t run our machines yet and that’s probably a mistake,” said Bruce Talbot, who farms 150 acres of grapes and 300 acres of peaches across Orchard Mesa and East Orchard Mesa.
“The peaches are just fine but we know the grapes are sensitive right now,” Talbott said. “We were told the grapes can take 10 below and if we get close to that we can sustain damage, so we try to minimize that.
“But so far, minus 2 and minus 4 are what we’ve seen in town.”
Caspari said that temperature might be misleading, since it probably measures temperate at cordon height (about 40 inches) and not at ground level, which could be several degrees colder.
“So it’s four degrees colder at snow level and where some of his vines are might be 5 degrees colder than the weather site, so that’s minus 4 and another 5, that’s 9 degrees, so it’s really 13 below right above the snow line,” Caspari estimated. “Bye, bye, it’s toast.”
More on cold and grapes next week.