Farm Rule #1–Do Not Panic! And What’s Happening in the Kitchen?

It’s lovely in the mornings when we awake to fog, but after 2 weeks of morning fog lasting well into the 10 and 11 o’clock hours…it causes concern. And famously, the 100+ degree Paso Robles heat suddenly arrives and leaves us all lethargic and slow and shocked! that’s it’s SO DANG HOT! But never mind us, what about our 7,000 grapevines that are dry-farmed (no irrigation)??!!

We experienced some panic yesterday…to the point where Phillip put in two calls to people who’s opinions we rely on and considered calling a “vineyard management company” for some additional advice. We were seeing what appeared to be botrytis or some other form of grape rot in the Syrah. (Which both occur with fog…but what we researched in books didn’t confirm our thoughts.) Phillip observed that over 1 day, this “malady” was affecting previously healthy and thriving vines–and it was rapidly spreading and we were seriously thinking we could lose our entire Syrah crop for the year. We were going to have an “emergency pick” just to get the grapes out of the vineyard and then figure what to do with them (make a late-harvest wine? Lay them on straw? etc…), but after taking the numbers, these grapes weren’t showing high sugar levels to even consider picking. Emergency plan cancelled, but we were prepared to pick them Sunday and Monday, on fruit days.

Oh, what a good night’s sleep and cool temperatures do! Early, early this morning as Phillip was on bird patrol (keep those winged wonders out!) he noticed that the Syrah grapes were plump and healthy, nothing like what he saw yesterday (in the 108 degree afternoon blazing heat). And again, the old rule of thumb struck him: don’t panic, have faith. Yesterday, our vines were showing the results of this major heat and the liquids were draining down. But after a cool evening, the energy was back and the grapes were plump and full. Yes, we have 2 more days of this extreme heat (some people ask if we have the option to turn on the water…no, when we say we’re “dry-farmed”, we really mean it), but this weekend we have respite with temperatures dropping 30 degrees in our daytime highs.

Our moral of the story: don’t panic. About once a year, our vineyard teaches us this–have faith in our vines and our natural way of farming and wait to see the final outcome. It may be an interesting reflection in our wine!

And in the kitchen? The canning pot is boiling! We have graciously been given peaches and apples, so we have chutneys, marmalades, and butters stocked full in the pantry. I have an old, tattered book that I refer to for all of my food preserving (talk about panic…the other day I couldn’t find it and I was sent in a whirlwind looking everywhere for it!) and I follow an excellent blog for more recipes and canning expertise. At right you see Refrigerator Sun Pickles–wow! How fun! I’ve been eyeing the tomatoes, those too shall soon be in the shelves of the pantry. Summer is a fantastic time of year!

The Bees are Back in Town!

Last Thursday we installed 2 new packages of bees from Noble Apiaries into our estate hives. Just like last year, we ordered 3 pound packages, which basically consisted of 10,000 bees (!!) with 1 queen. For those of you interested, each package costs $95.00, but then you have to add Next Day Air shipping, which adds another$80.00 (bee-keeping is a fairly inexpensive hobby, add another $350 for equipment, which on average lasts 5 years).

Last year, we were beginner apiarists. We followed all of the installation instructions, observed and monitored as suggested, kept them fed through their first HOT summer, etc. But I still lost my bees in late November. And I mean, they were dead…what was left of them. I had no other explanation than “operator error”. It was my fault, as a novice, that I lost my bees. In hindsight, I realize my queen never got to laying like she should have. There were not enough bees to collect pollen, make honey, tend the queen, and finally, there were not enough bees in the hive over the winter to keep them warm when the temperatures reached below 30 degrees. Sadly, following our first major cold spell, I entered the hive and saw what was left, frozen to the frames. I didn’t think about requeening, or combining an inferior hive with a stronger hive so that they would survive. Yes, NOW I know to do this, but I didn’t quite understand how a rapid decline in my bee population could destroy the whole life of the hive itself.

The Apiary Inspectors of America conducted a survey to estimate winter colony losses for 2009/2010. They recorded a 33.8% loss of managed honey bee colonies. Responding beekeepers attributed their losses principally to starvation, NOT Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is what I believe happened to my bees. Simply, there were not enough of them to survive.

Within the first 24 hours of installing our 2 new hives, we observed a major difference in these bees, compared to last year. They are the same breed, Carniolan honey bees, but from a different breeder in California. Our bees are busy! They were doing all of their duties: guarding the entrance, giving directions, coming and going. It was amazing to see, we DID NOT see this last year. After 7 days we returned to the hive again to make sure the queen was out of her cage and see what was happening. Well, you can see for yourself! The above photo shows the beautiful, white, pristine honey comb that is being drawn out and it is dripping with clear honey…within 7 days ( “busy as a bee”)!! (You can double-click on the photo to get a full screen version.) Both hives had this activity–good comb drawn out on 3 frames, an empty queen cage and bees fanning their wings (indications of a honeyflow). Needless to say, we were pleased! We were happy and full of rejoicing! This is going to be a good year for all of us!

What’s Blooming in the Winter Garden?

Isn’t it wonderful the garden gives us magical, colorful treasures in the grey cloud, cold of Winter? Phillip and I have enjoyed looking out our bedroom window every morning to see California wildflowers and irises blooming around our patio. And walking through the garden opens daily discoveries of plants showing their most incredible beauties.

In the previous post, I mentioned the baby plants of Borage that have started themselves by seed in the garden. Borage is a lovely plant to have in any garden: the leaves are edible and offer a taste of cucumber, adding a spike of freshness to salads and soups, and the lovely purple/blue flowers are edible as well–I use them to adorn desserts, soups and salads. Just imagine a rustic orange colored butternut squash soup garnished with a single, lovely borage flower (I think this is on the menu for tonight…). Borage is also a fantastic plant for bees and other pollinators (as you will see in the photo–double click on the photo and it enlarges beautifully, there is a bee in midflight approaching a flower).

This is our first year to have an asparagus crop! Isn’t this photo so cool? This past summer I planted 2 rows of tomato plants with a row of asparagus in between (my planters are 4′ x 20′, so I can fit quite a bit of vegetables/fruits per planter). Asparagus and tomatoes are “companion plants”, they help to repel one another’s pests, as well as promote each other’s growth. Tomatoes grow in the summer, and asparagus in the winter/spring; hence no space or water competition. The asparagus spears just shoot right out of the soil and continue to spread throughout the bed, with years and years worth of growth. Yesterday, I snipped off a small bit of spear and there is NOTHING like the taste of fresh asparagus! A couple of years ago, Phillip & I were vacationing in Tuscany just as the wild asparagus was growing near his sister’s (Penelope) house. She took us on a walk to help us be able to find them growing amongst the thickets and stone walls, we picked handfuls to eat with pasta that night–I thought nothing would ever compare again. But here we go, we, too can have this underground gift arrive just in time for the spring–anyone up for some pasta tossed with just picked asparagus and local olive oil?!

Irises, and any other bulb flower for that matter, are my favorite flowers to have in the garden. Courtesy of my friend Tony, I dug out of his garden (while he wasn’t looking, I might add) 2 large boxes of overcrowded iris plants (Phillip kept him busy while I madly pulled and hid them). I transplanted them all around the house, under our olive trees and lining our walking paths. Irises have the most amazing depth of color, and color pairings. I’ve often thought every room in our house should mirror these combinations: deep rust-red with bright orange or soft purple with an even softer yellow, etc. Bulbs are a no-effort plant, they just keep themselves going in our gardens (we are blessed to not have to dig them up in this area) and produce magnificent displays even on the coldest days of January!

I discovered this little delicate flower yesterday. As I was pruning the dead stalks from last year’s asparagus, I could hear a very definite hum of bees, I searched to see what they were being attracted to and I was so pleased to see this California native flowering! (Our landscaping is dedicated to natives–when I planted them a year ago, none of them were bigger then 8″ from the ground. Phillip and I have been amazed to see the tremendous amount of growth in these plants without ANY water from our last rains in March of ’09 until October of the same year. Why more gardens aren’t dedicated to California natives, when we have drought years, I don’t know…). I’m not sure what this particular native is (anyone?), but growing from the base up, it has these precious little flowers dangling from it’s branches. And there are all sorts of pollinators enjoying the flowers–native bees, honeybees, even some butterflies were visiting yesterday.

Today I’m planting broad beans from seed and then I’m starting the 2 month task of hand-weeding…Help!!!

Screw Cap vs. Cork: And the Verdict is…?

Phillip and I attended a great seminar at Tablas Creek Vineyard this past Saturday where we tasted side-by-side wines that were enclosed with either a cork or a screw cap. We have seen the screw cap (or stelvin) enclosure become more prevalent over the years, some countries and wineries moving exclusively to use screw cap (New Zealand & Bonny Doon Winery where Randall Grahm went to the extent of performing a “death to the cork” procession). It is a common debate as to which is best, some enjoy the romance of popping a cork, and others appreciate the simplicity of merely twisting off the top. (Phillip and I were in a beautiful B & B in Hunter Valley, Australia during an incredible lightening storm when we enjoyed our first screw cap wine. We had been running back and forth between the car and our room–dodging lightening bolts whilst running through the pouring rain, gathering suitcases and other miscellaneous paraphernalia–and we relished in the fact that all we had to do between running was give that cap a twist! No fumbling through our bags, dripping with rain, to find a corkscrew.) AmByth uses corks only, but it is an interesting dilemma: cork is considered to be the most common factor that creates a wine that is tainted (referred to as “corked”). A tainted wine usually is characterized by having a nose of moldy newspaper, wet dog, dampness, etc. A corked wine strips the wine of its fruit, both on the nose and in the overall flavor. It isn’t bad for human consumption–it just isn’t good for the wine. And it can throw a potential repeat consumer straight off the trail. You get a corked bottle of wine, it can change your opinion and satisfaction with that wine/winery-perhaps discouraging you from ever buying again. Industry averages for corked wine is 3 – 10% of yearly bottlings…this is scary! And this number isn’t going down (despite all of the arguments from cork producers).

Tablas Creek is the Paso Robles partnership of Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas. They are a very serious winery and conduct many in-house discussions and experiments before jumping into something “with both feet”. Enclosing wine with a screw cap instead of a cork is one of those issues they have been experimenting with since 2002, tasting the same wines over the years and implementing changes as necessary. The seminar consisted of 6 wines: 2 whites, 1 rose, and 3 reds. We were given 2 glasses per wine, one glass held the wine under cork, and the other held the same wine that was enclosed with a screw cap. The wines served per tasting were the same: harvested at the same time, aged equally, bottled at the same time, same vintage, etc.

The general consensus per wine was very interesting, but here are a few observations:

  • Regarding red wine, the room clearly and overwhelmingly preferred the wine under cork versus the same wine under screw cap. As mentioned above, we were served 3 different red wines (2002 Glenrose, 2005 Cotes de Tablas, & 2006 Cotes de Tablas) and the results were always in favor of cork.
  • Regarding white wine, the room was split down the middle. We preferred the 2003 Vermintino under cork, yet the 2004 Bergeron under screw cap was lovely. However, the 2003 Rose had a 50/50 vote regarding cork or screw cap.
  • Wines finished with a cork seem to have a sweetness on the palate that is not present in wine under screw cap. You also have a bit more oxidation on the nose-perhaps “flattening” the nose a bit–the wines under screw cap all had lovely, fresh noses compared to its counterpart under cork. Also, wines enclosed with cork do have the slightest oak flavor, imparted of course from the cork (from a certain varietal of oak tree, the Quercus suber!).
  • Wines under screw cap tend to exhibit brighter, fresher fruit qualities. However, the question remains how well a wine will age under screw cap…this is virtually unknown at this time as the mechanics for testing age quality are not yet in place. Also with screw cap, you have the problem of reduction (opposite of oxidation) in wine–so you want to seriously consider what grape varietals to put under screw cap.
  • And there is a bottom-line stigma with wines under screw cap: they are perceived to be “cheap”, whereas, the wine under cork is believed to be “expensive”–and this is a hard one to get away from.
  • As a winery, you have to consider and factor in your guess as the when your consumer is going to drink a wine: is this a young-drink-now type of wine (white wines, roses, etc) or is this wine age-worthy? A wine that you expect to evolve and change over time is best under cork, and a wine that is exhibiting great fresh characteristics now performs well under screw cap.

And some final advice: if you have wine under screw cap in your cellar, make sure they are standing upright. The sediment will move toward the top of the bottle, and collect there under the screw cap and this will give you quite a shock when you open your bottle. There is no reason for the bottles to be stored in their side, to have contact with the enclosure (versus contact with a cork)–so get those bottles standing straight up!

(The wines: **when referred to as “corked” it merely means the wine was enclosed with cork instead of screw cap–it does not refer to a “corked” wine in a sense of a tainted wine.**)

**Photo at Top: one of our bees enjoying our wild flower garden–it is a lovely sight to see them so busy at AmByth! If you double-click on the photo, you can see the pollen collected on the back legs of the bee, amazing! More to come on the bees…)

Bees! And More Spring Showers, Happy Easter Weekend

What an incredible couple of days! We’ve had a small amount of rain, which was perfect after Phillip finished disking the vineyards. And yesterday our New World Carniolans arrived! I ordered a 3 pound colony from C.F. Koehnen & Sons, a company located near Sacramento. In the 3 pound colony, there are roughly 10,000 bees…and 1 Queen! They shipped overnite with UPS, and I picked them up in the morning. They come in a wood and wire parcel, the wire mesh allows air circulation and a chance for inspection every couple of hours. The installation & care instructions make it clear that the bees need a minimum 48 hour introduction period in the package together. Until installation, we kept them in a dark, cool and protected area with good ventilation. I sprayed them every couple of hours with a fine mist of sugar water (1/3 sugar to water mixture).

My friend, Susan King (who is my mentor in this endeavor), came over to lend moral support and guidance during installation. We finally found the queen, in her small cage, and were able to get most of the bees into the hive before installing the queen as well. To the left, we are pulling out the feeder can before being able to locate the queen.

And out they come! Where is that queen?

Ah-ha, the queen in her cage. (I bought a marked queen for easier recognition in the hive.)

You may ask, why all the gear? Most organic/natural beekeeping books show people working with the bees without any type of protection. I hope, one day soon, to be able handle my equipment and work with the bees without the cumbersome veil and gloves, but for a novice, it is a comforting feeling to have something between my skin and a stinger! (Actually, last week when I worked with Susan’s bees, we were both stung on our ankles–it was probably due to wearing black socks and a very windy day.)
Thank you Susan and Phillip for all of the help!
Now we’ll just wait a couple of days before “popping” in on them again…

Sweet Pleasures: A Foray into Honey

I experienced my first trip into the magical world of honey this past weekend! It was incredible, and really the life of bees is fascinating. Susan King, the wife of our architect, has been a bee-keeper for a number of years. She accepted my self-invite to lend a hand in the harvest. Albeit, I missed the most important part: encountering the bees and taking the “supers” from the hive. But I was able to spend the day removing wax from the “frames” to unseal the honey for release.
The two photos above show the process of uncapping the wax. You use a hot iron to melt the wax away. This is a photo of an uncapped frame being loaded into an extractor, which speeds the frames at a high speed where the honey runs out of the cells into the bottom of the extractor.
A photo looking down into the extractor.
Liquid Gold!

Thank you Susan, Deborah and Matty!
Phillip and I intend to have bees at AmByth Estate this Spring, 2009. We believe bees are a vital part of a self-contained farm system: benefitting and improving our gardens, landscaping, fruit and nut trees. Not to mention the miracle of honey, and serving it at our table! Who knows, maybe next year we can combine our grape harvest with a honey harvest for those interested (which, if you are, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll keep you updated…).