Biodynamics is a system invented in the early 1900s by Rudolph Steiner (his ideas are also the basis for educational practices at Waldorf Schools). While there are many elements of biodynamic practice that may be perceived as esoteric or mystical, the very basic ideas as applied to farming are simple: a self-contained, self-balancing natural entity. In this way it challenges us as farmers to be clever and graceful, to emphasize balance in our operations, minimizing the need to dramatic interventions. These principles are advisable for any entity really, and can be seen in mainstream agricultural practice advertised under the more technologically palatable term “Integrated Pest Management”.

Here are good set of videos laying out biodynamic farming principles, particularly as they apply to viculture:

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Renewals, Early Signs, and First Orders

Last week was a full one for our little project.  David and I went on a tour of Virginia wines elder statespersons and newcomers for a little networking and tasting.  We hopped in our new pickup and headed out on a rainy Friday – stopping first to finish one of the final brews that Dave will do at Blue & Grey Brewery before he moves on to Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery ( next month.

After Dave wrapped up the brewing chores, we headed east to Ingleside Vineyards – one of the older wineries in the state.  We bounced around in the barrel room with Dave’s friend Camilla and her co-worker Nick seeing what we could get into, then headed on to their tasting room to hit some of the highlights that they wanted to tune us into.  A 2008 and 2009 Petit Verdot were on the list … a grape that we are yet to plant, but will certainly have to figure in our future as we develop a full stable for our blends.  The 2008 had what appeared to us to be a shockingly delicate PV flavor profile – which usually seems to come off as a Shirazesque bruiser when playing solo.

Touring the barrel room with Nick, Camilla, Harry and Dave.

Touring the barrel room with Nick, Camilla, Harry and Dave.

We then headed west back past Fredericksburg and to the site of the Wilderness Battlefield to Wilderness Run Vineyard in Spottsylvania.  We got a chance to tour the vineyard and winery with Harry and his dad – checking out their young plantings of Petit Verdot, Malbec and Viognier.  The young red vines produced a small “sneak preview” crop this year, and we did a little sample out of the tanks where they were waiting bottling.  Once again, we are struck by how the Petit Verdot tasted.  They are rightfully stoked.   To our reckoning, Petit Verdot, not Cabernet Franc will be the work horse grape of the Commonwealth – consistent, pleasant, and even avoiding the vegetal profile in high-vigor soils with more than ample rainfall.

Micro-fermenting the sneak-preview Petit Verdot at Wilderness Run.

Micro-fermenting the sneak-preview Petit Verdot at Wilderness Run.

Finally, we made our way late Friday night to the farm, hit the hay, then woke up early to put the finishing touches on our cabin foundation and the laying of the floor joists.  Then, when we got back to Richmond this week, we finalized our first order of dormant bench grafted Cabernet Sauvignon vines (ENTAV/INRA clone 169), to be delivered in early 2014.  To celebrate the occasion we had a couple of bottles from the winery that convinced us that great wine could be consistently produced in VA – Linden Vineyards.


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The War of the Clones

20121125-160720.jpgDisclaimer: We are not oenologists or formally trained viticulturalists, indeed, we are rank beginners. Hence, this is most certainly not an educational resource, but rather, a chronical of our own self-education.

We are at the stage where we have about 2-3 months to place our order for grape vines for our first planting. We are starting super-small, 1/3 of an acre, which we understad to be the smallest block one can plant to ultimately produce a barrel of wine. We have two main decisions to make: 1) varietal selection, and 2) clonal selection. These being like two knobs to tune our vineyard, varietal being the coarse level or control, and clone being a finer level of control. Things we are looking for in a varietal/clone: vigor, climate preference, days to maturity, wine qualities, heat tolerance.

Factors influencing our choice of varietal for this first planting:
• ideas of “cool climate viticulture” suggest matching long ripening grapes with long growing season areas – we have average of greater than 175 frost-free days per year (based on the use of the term by Kees van Leeuwen in his 2009 article “Grapes are Terroir” in Tong Magazine)
• Varietals shown to be somewhat successful/suitable in our area
• Overall varietal vigor and soil fertility.
• The recommendations made to us by Jim Law after we spent time walking and digging our site.

Ultimately, we are rolling the dice with Cabernet Sauvignon, as we are guessing that it, due to its longer growing season (among other things) makes it more suitable to our fairly long season, and our low vigor, exceptionally well drained soil.

Clonal material is an interesting area, with continent of origin being one of the things we will narrow our choice by (or perhaps classify them by in our own minds). The two general sources we are looking at: north american (UC Davis FPS), and european (ENTAVR/INRA). We are early in our exploration of this topic, and give that no one has ever grown cabernet on our soils, we figure we will probably guess wrong, and that will be “tuition” and we welcome the mistakes! But for what it’s worth, here are some links, numbers and anecdotes:

The ENTAV/INRA clones:
• Source of certified plant material based in France, imported by a number of US nurseries.
• Some commonly used clones: 169 and 337
A discussion of ENTAV clones in Wine Business
• The voice of experience: “337 is considered to be an earlier ripener, so I would put it on the cooler slope or soil than 169. You may also consider Riperia Gloire337 on the deeper soil and 169/i101-14 on the lighter soil. But I would plant both as the beginning of a life long experiment.” (Jim Law, PC 2012)

California Clones
• Foundation Plant Services, from UC Davis, clones prefixed with the abbreviation FPS
• Clone 06 has shown in multiple trials to have one of the lowest yields of any FPS cabernet clones, and to have lower pH
• Bell Cellars relates a brief history of clone 06 and their experience with it.

Stay tuned as we further explore the factors that we will weight in order to make our final WAG (Wild Ass Guess).


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Earth, Wind & Fire

Any outdoor party worth its salt has a fire pit: after a few parties with makeshift fire pits, we finally decided to take pick and shovel to the problem and construct a proper fire pit. The walls and floor of the fire pit were constructed from soapstone which we unearthed during the digging of the foundation for our soon to be cabin.


The process of building an outdoor shower, from pencil and paper to sticks and mortar. As soon as we get some permanent cladding on these, and a roof to support our solar water bags, we will be in business – probably won’t happen till spring, which is fine since I am not eager to take an outdoor shower anytime soon.

The floor layout is made from 4x8x16 concrete blocks – with 4×4 lumber border.  This was fairly shocking since the number of bricks estimated in my drawing turned out to be the same as the actual number of blocks in the structure.  Pure, unadulterated dumb luck!  Or, I guess it is harder to screw something up when working in small spaces… I should take a lesson from this.


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Prepping for Harvest Fest

Here is a photo from the inaugural HarvestFest in October 2010.  Last year we got rained (and colded) out.  This year, though Hurricane Sandy made an appearance, it looks like we will be able to move forward with the fun.  Bear in mind, this is a “festival”, not a “work party”, so there will be no manual labor involved, only massive amounts of merriment.

Though still very, very rustic, we have added a few amenities to help city-folk feel at home.  The outdoor kitchen project has taken root in the shape of the counter-top and range (think: “home on the range”), and we even have a state of the art composting toilet installed.  Other than that, we are still very much roughing it.  There will be a fire pit, a bonfire, a short hiking trail, some bike riding, and of course, food & beverage.


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It all starts here, a partially wooded, partially scrub piece of land in southern Albemarle county. In all, 9.5 acres of rocky, sloped land that was given up as barren many years ago. The goal – see what kind of wine can be grown here. First, we brought in a shed for equipment storage, and now the sweat and fun commence.

After taming the scrub into pasture, we began planning a cabin site, to enable us to have a little comfort, which we tell ourselves will facilitate more hard work. Clearing the rocks and stumps from this site proved a hell of a lot harder than taming a meadow of emergent scrub.


And pouring a proper foundation, perhaps harder still for myself (a desk-piloting water shed modeler) and my partner David Achkio (a yeast herder). We are paying our tuition in sweat and re-dos.


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