Jerry Murray has made wine in New Zealand, Germany, and the United States. He is now winemaker and vineyard manager for Patton Valley Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He also posts on his own blog, Vintners Voice.

Farmer in the vines

The heroes of the vineyard

By
April 28, 2008

I think our culture needs to rethink just who we designate as our role models and heroes. We are constantly bombarded with images of people who are famous for simply being famous, and I think this attitude is spilling over into food and wine.

We have television networks that have elevated chefs to celebrity status. Chef Gordon Ramsey gets as much air time as Brad Pitt, it seems. The same thing is happening in wine, too. We are developing a culture of rock-star winemakers.

I am not saying that chefs or winemakers don’t deserve the praise and attention they are getting. Both professions require serious commitment, and both promise lifestyles centered on long hours in less-than-glorious working conditions. No, I don’t have anything against chefs and winemakers finally getting their due, but I do wonder how long they intend to hog the spotlight and deny it to those who make them look good.

I wonder when farmers are going to become our role models and heroes?

I am a winemaker, and I am proud of it. I also manage the vineyard from which I harvest the grapes that I make into wine, and honestly it is the farming that I am much more proud of.

The dirty little secret in both food and wine is that you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. No matter how talented a winemaker is, he or she cannot make a great wine from anything less than great fruit. I believe this so much that I will stand on any soapbox, anywhere, in nothing but my steel-toed boots, and yell it at the top of my lungs.

vineyard
The vineyard Jerry manages.

Growing wine is all about creating and maintaining a balance in the vineyard. A balance that is constantly threatened by weather, disease, and the vines’ own innate tendencies. I not only have to keep my vines healthy, I have to do so under constant threat of disease. Imagine there being a disease that you WILL get if you didn’t put on a specific lotion every 7 to 10 days. Imagine that even if you did put on this lotion, you might still get this disease. Imagine that this disease is capable of destroying you for an entire season. Now you start to get the idea.

At the same time that I am defending my vineyard from infections, I also have to manage its growth. I have to keep the vines’ growth going upward and do this by carefully using wires to keep the vine shoots separate so that their leaves overlap as little as possible. I have to remove the leaves from around the fruit manually so that the clusters get plenty of sunlight, crucial to preventing disease and developing flavors in the grapes themselves. When the shoots get too long, they have to be “topped” with a machete to a height that prevents them from casting a shadow on the vines in the rows next to them.

When it comes to quality wine, more grapes are not better. Excess clusters have to be removed. The remaining clusters have to have their “wings” and “shoulders” removed, as these parts of the cluster will ripen at a different rate than the rest of the cluster and impact wine quality. The vines are constantly being physically adjusted, by hand, to keep the canopy of leaves open so that air and light can penetrate. Fruit not getting enough sun will be susceptible to disease and will not ripen properly and will result in poor-tasting wine. Fruit getting too much sun will taste cooked and be tannic and bitter.

Then there is the vineyard floor. Directly beneath the vine I want no weeds, as they will grow into the fruit and increase the possibility of disease. The weeds must be removed.

Between the rows I want some vegetation to attract beneficial insects that will work for me and keep pathogenic insect populations under control. Too much vegetation will compete with the vines for water and nutrients and reduce their ability to grow. A balance must be met.

The soil must have enough nutrients to support the vines’ growth, but too many nutrients will make the vines grow vigorously, reducing fruit quality (and thus wine quality) and increasing the potential for disease.

In my case, I want to do all of this without the use of herbicides or synthetic pesticides, in a sustainable manner, relying on expensive hand labor. There is no recipe or book to follow; each season gives me a new set of challenges to meet. Complacency will result in failure. Even the best efforts will not, in some years, be enough. Mother Nature is ambivalent about my success.

If my efforts and abilities as a farmer are good enough, I will bring into the winery fruit with the potential to become great wine. If the wines reach that potential I, the winemaker, will get all the credit even though I, the vineyard manager, is much more deserving of it.

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