Monday, August 6, 2012

34: A Walk in the Vineyard: Bending Branch Part 2

34: A Walk in the Vineyard
Heaven is the sun
filling each leaf and the rain
that quenches are one.

The earth holds each vine,
a tender embrace of soil
and root; they are one.

Man's dedication:
a lover's touch, a parent's
guiding hand are one.

Heaven, earth, and man are one
as they nourish and tend the vine.

Hilltop vineyards at Bending Branch

When I last visited Bending Branch, I could not have planned to learn what I did. Not only did I have a great time there (see the earlier post for the day's events), but I was given a number of great lessons on wine. When Bob Young showed Sean and I around the vineyard, I leaned about harvesting, their crush process, fermentation, and bottling. During lunch, John Rivenburgh explained their organic approach to growing grapes. I never expected to learn so much about wine and especially about growing the grapes.

Tannat just before the 2012 harvest

While we drove by the many vineyards and into the trellised Tannat vineyard, Bob told me about the growing and harvesting of the grapes. First, Bending Branch is interested in finding out what grapes grow well in Texas; to do this, they must take risks and experiment. The Tannat, which was not a grape people really talked about until Bending Branch brought it much needed attention, is an example of how their choices at Bending Branch have lead to success. Not only are they growing it on the property, but it is growing in some of best vineyards in the High Plains. And of course it is spreading. Another experiment that seems to be doing well so fair is the Souzão. Though the grapes used in the Souzão wine primarily come from the Silvaspoons Vineyard in California, that could change with the recent planting of the grape on their property. And even as we road through the vineyard, we saw the newest experiment: Bonarda. Bob explained that they are trying a single row to see how it will go; if it succeeds, they will plant more.

Young vines

In addition to planting lesser known varietals in the vineyard at Bending Branch, they also take different approaches to growing. A number of articles and blogs have discussed the Roman style growth being used on some of the Tannat in the vineyard (they are using it on varietals as well). This approach allows the grapes to reach upward (growing vertically) rather than along a trellis (which is more commonly used by vineyards and dominates most of the Bending Branch vineyard). As for why they are doing it? Well, why not? It does have a natural inclination to grow this way, so allowing it do so could aid in the success of the vines. Even with this technique in use, Bob and John still have most of the varietals, including a quantity of Tannat, grown in the more traditionally horizontal way.

Tannat growing vertically in the roman style

What is most interesting about the vineyard is the organic approach used to planting and care. John Rivenburgh told us that they make use of biodynamics. One key element of this technique is the creation of a balanced ecosystem. When the ecosystem is in balance, all the parts can do well. Recently, John went to Spotswood Vineyard in California to learn from and share with other organic grape growers. He explained that one of the main concerns was soil structure. While planting, they must think about helping the soil develop and obtain the correct nutrition. One way that is done is through coverage crops. These crops, that are native to the area, help keep the soil in balance. These crops can been seen all through the Bending Branch property. On my vineyard tour, Bob pointed out the wildflowers that they specifically allow to grow in and around the vineyard. This is only a start; John has ideas about other native plants we hopes to plant in the coming years to help the ecosystem. And many of the plants they are considering will also add to the appearance of the property.

Yellow wildflowers growing with the grapes

The balanced ecosystem goes beyond the soil. One of the crucial elements John discussed was insects. Many farmers are very concerned about insect problems, and I know I am always on the lookout for new ant colonies appearing in my own yard. In many cases, we would just pull out the chemicals to rid oursleves of the pests. In organic farming, that just isn't done. So how are they kept away? First, the crop diversity from the coverage crops can provide homes and food that are better suited towards the pest. If the pest insects can get exactly what they want with ease, why try to work their way into a less friendly crop like the grapes? The native plants redirect the pests away from the crops and towards the plants specifically planted for them.

The insect topic doesn't end there. Of course, all farmers are interested in one specific insect, the bee; however, it isn't the only useful insect out there. The beneficial insects, those that eat other bugs, are useful too. At Bending Branch, John actually raises and releases beneficials like lady bugs. John encourages other native beneficials as well. All-in-all, these bugs help to keep the other insects at bay. I can honestly say this is working. When we toured the vineyard, I saw very few bugs. I saw bees in the largest quantity -- John isn't in a rush to start beekeeping as one of his nearby neighbors already does -- and saw very few others. I did see one ant on a trellis, but I can't remember seeing much more than that.

Bob Young simulating juice analysis
 One word of warning about all this great organic farming: it is time consuming and precarious. John has to spend a lot of his time in the vineyard.  There is no easy answer with organics except work. At Bending Branch, they have to stay on top of the grapes and the entire ecosystem. This is not to say that more commercial vineyards aren't a lot of work -- all farming is -- but they have to see to every little detail all the time. This also means they have to stay ever vigilant. In the last few weeks, they have had to test the grapes a lot. They have to very closely watch the grapes and harvest them perfectly. To help them with this task, Bob invested in a machine that tests the grapes for their Brix, their pH, and other aspects needed to decide when to harvest. With just a bit of juice, the machine analyzes the sample and sends the results straight to their computer. And with organic farming, they may need to do this more than once a day, and they need the results immediately. This one little machine, which was quite expensive and one of the first in Texas, helps Bending Branch accomplish at least this one goal with ease.

Ready for grape juice analysis

At Bending Branch, the grapes and the wine are everything. Carefully cared for and lovingly tended, each grape on each vine is brought to its full potential in the most natural and harmonious of ways. By the time the grapes are harvested, everyone's dedication is condensed down to pulp and its juice. As I tasted one of the Tannat grapes, I could sense this. I never expected the juice to burst forth from the taut skin. I quickly sucked the grape in, not wanting to lose one drop of the nectar it held. And if the attention in the field was an indication, than I knew the attention in the winery would match.

NOTE: Making the Wine: Bending Branch Part 3 is COMING!

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