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Harvest 2009 Update, Preperation 501 (Horn Silica) and Reflections from a Tractor

There’s nothing like driving a crawler on AmByth’s steep hillsides to clear the cobwebs. It’s great to have the grapes put away for the year, and to be FARMING again. A couple of days ago, we applied BD Prep 501-Horn Silica-combined with dried Horsetail (equisetum) tea to all of the vines, olive & fruit trees and vegetables. Horsetail always gives a little boost to the plant’s immune system (acting against fungus) and 501 attracts light into the roots through the leaves for the work to come in the winter–the REAL work in the vines and trees.

A brief pause for thought–working in the winter, everything goes dormant, right? Correct, our vines and fruit trees go dormant (shedding leaves and shutting down for the year, the olives remain their silvery green but they, too, are resting until late Spring), but think about Spring and that BURSTING forth that occurs. All of that energy comes from the roots clamoring out to get some sunshine. In order to do that, they need to prepare and be strong. Applying 501 in the fall aids in this process. Following the 501, we chisel the vineyards–a gentle opening process which encourages the sun’s rays to penetrate further and to prepare the ground for the winter rains. In the next couple of days we will be applying the first of 3 BC preps (Barrel Compost). This spray holds all of the BD preparations and has been aged in the ground, maturing and growing billions of enzymes to be transferred to our earth to make the soil a living, breathing entity (in other words, enzymes that will eat, sliver and slide through the soil aiding in the decomposition processes and further aerating the soil).

Now for a harvest recap:
The first surprise was the fact that it was harvest time again! It always feels like it just happened a few months ago (or so it seems) and here we are again…wow!
August 12th was the first pick: a light pick of the Viognier and Tempranillo followed by a complete pick of both a few days later. Incredibly, the Viognier is still fermenting dry nearly 2 months later. It is very close to bone-dry, but still working (on average it takes 10 to 14 days for our grapes to ferment dry). We pressed off the final pick, Counoise, a few days ago. It is settling in stainless before going into the barrel for aging. Yes, our harvest was early and ended very quickly. This seems to have been the trend in Paso Robles this year. There is still Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel hanging out there in the Paso vineyards, but almost everything else has been brought in. And don’t forget, we tend to be earlier because we’re dry-farmed.
As always, there are disappointments and hurrahs. The disappointment was the relatively light crop: we had an average of a 1/2 ton of fruit per acre. To put that in perspective, our goal is 2 tons per acre. A larger commercial enterprise is somewhere between 5 & 12 tons an acre (thus cheaper wine…among other things). The hurrahs: we managed to get all of the fruit in at the right sugar levels (which converts to alcohol). Or, in the case of Syrah, which was slightly over-ripe, we co-fermented it with some early picked Grenache and Mourvedre (lower sugar levels) to even it all out. All went well with natural primary fermentation and now natural malolactic fermentation happening at its own time, as it should.
The surprise of the Harvest was the Grenache Blanc, we will probably make a single varietal of it! (Which was not initially part of the plan.) We will also make a Viognier blend with Grenache Blanc as a secondary component. We will see how they evolve and make that decision in 6 months or so.
So now Havest 2009 is over…and we’re back to caretakers of the elixir.
“In Vino Veritas”, no really, “In Vino Veritas”–ingredients: grapes!

2009 Harvest Underway, Sourdough Starter, Biodynamic Spray 501 & Egg Shell Tea, an update on Powdery Mildew

Wow…there is so much to do and so little time: a reference to keeping a blog updated in the midst of harvest!
Here are Phillip’s notes from last week: On the 12th of August we did our earliest (in the month) pick ever by going through the Tempranillo and Viognier and hand selecting only ripe bunches, which on average we had 1 to 2 ripe bunches per vine. It felt too early in the season as there where plenty of what seemed to be unripe fruit still hanging. However, the results in the winery showed the fruit we picked was indeed ready with perfect sugar, pH and total acidity levels. Armed with these results and perfect weather over the next few days-ripening the remaining fruit very quickly (as the birds continued to bring to our attention to)-we picked again on the 16th. A terrific crew turned out to help on a perfect Paso morning. The crop load on these two varieties was similar to last year-very light, about 1/2 ton an acre (please let it rain a little more this year!)-so the pick was fast and we were through by 8:30. The grappa didn’t stand a chance though, that was finished by 8.

Photo above: just stomped Tempranillo; photo below: 3 day old sourdough culture

Thank you to our annual volunteer and Mary’s garden mentor: Swantje! It was her brilliant idea to get a sourdough starter “brewing” using yeast from our grapes. So while Phillip was pressing off the Viognier, Mary and Swantje were busy in the kitchen assembling the “mother”. Using Nancy Silverton’s Breads of the La Brea Bakery as a guide we started the fermentation with a cluster of just picked Tempranillo grapes. It is a simple recipe to follow, but it takes commitment. As of this writing, Mary is on day 11 of a 15 day starter-feeding the starter 3 times a day to get it ready for baking. It is an interesting process to watch (and smell…”whoo wee, stinky poo” is a common expression here, especially with a 2 year old saying it!). It is actually a miracle, to witness the transformation of something because of yeast. Don’t be shy to ask for some starter for yourself…there’s plenty!


Sunday, August 23rd we applied Biodynamic Prep 501 (horn silica) on the Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne in all 4 vineyards. These grapes are typically late to ripen so the 501 early in the morning acts to add available light intake into the plant and aid the ripening process. We sprayed an egg shell tea on all of the remaining vineyards with fruit. This does the same thing as 501, but in a milder degree. All of these plants will ripen in the near future so they don’t need as much encouragement as the Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne. We had 6 brave volunteers arrive at 6 a.m. for a 1 hour stirring to aerate the silica before applying it to the vineyards with backpack sprayers by foot.

Photo above: Ian and Bryan stirring in a barrel; photo below: Charissa, Yen, Amiee and Kumiko

As far as the ongoing battle with powdery mildew, in the last month we treated individual plants in the Mourvedre with the mildest solution of Milstop, a potassium based anti-fungal agent approved by Demeter. We didn’t want to apply it as a general spray throughout the vineyards, as so many plants seemed to not be affected. The system seems to have worked as the problem appears to be in remission. However, the Grenache Blanc is a different story: it has a heavy crop with no powdery mildew showing on any fruit at all, but with quite a few plants showing it on the canes. We decided to treat all of these plants with the minimum spray required. As we hand sprayed each plant individually, we applied varying quantities depending on its size and possible visible problem. So far this year, we have removed all of the fruit from only 1 Tempranillo plant we thought wasn’t good for picking. Our approach is a good start, but next year we’re going to apply preventative teas earlier and more frequently to see if we can nip it in the bud (excuse the pun!).

The morning concluded with an incredible breakfast made by Lety, as she puts it, “A Mexican, Mexican breakfast, from Vera Cruz”. Unfortunately, some Minute Maid orange juice made it to the table (not quite Mexican, Mexican), but we also shared AmByth harvest wine (a special wine Phillip makes just for our harvest volunteers) and Corona. She served an incredible casserole made with tortillas (that has affectionately been dubbed “Mexican Lasagna” by our middle son, Morgan). It was delicious, and such an incredible conclusion to a morning full of hard work.

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