Friday, May 9, 2014

Is Winter Finally Over?

The country had one hell of a winter. The DC area felt like Chicago, Chicago felt like Minneapolis, and Minneapolis felt like Hoth. Here it is in early May, and the question of whether or not winter is finally gone is asked only half in jest.

So what does a winter that stretched from October to April with plenty of snow and rain mean to the DC area's wineries? Some winemakers have called the season "challenging," others have called it "brutal" and others still have called it "labor intensive" and even "nightmarish."

As long as the region doesn't experience a late freeze now that the buds are opening up, however, optimism is starting to bloom along with Northern Virginia's allergens.

Oh yeah, and Virginia also passed the Farm Brewery Act meaning that wineries and other farms can start brewing beer, which should make for some interesting developments.

Given so much that has happened with the weather and legislation, below is a reprint of Fabbioli Cellars' May newsletter so you can get more information straight from the source:

"We all knew that sooner or later the snowflakes would stop flying and the temperatures would warm up a little. This was my hardest winter in my 17 years of farming in Virginia, but thankfully, it is finally behind us. We still have a chance of frost as of this writing, but our buds have not fully opened yet so we are still protected from possible damage.  At this point the pear buds are at popcorn stage and the black raspberry buds are just starting to show their leaves.  Hopefully there will be no late frost this year.

We have had to deal with heavy rains this year, as well. We recently installed drain tile into the new planting section to help drain the water away from the vines and towards the Potomac River. This was a very labor intensive project involving a rented machine and plenty of hand digging around wires, pipes and connections by our field team.  (Thank goodness we have a great team, with experienced hands teaching the newer guys.)  Next, the vines will hopefully be planted in 10 days.

The new project that we started last year is growing hops. Below is a photo of the 2nd year cascade plants pushing up towards the sky. These will get 20 feet tall climbing the special coconut husk twine (coir) trellis. When I talk about growing hops, I always get the question from folks, "Are you going to make beer now?" No, I am not looking to make beer. My vision of these hops is to grow and process them to sell to local brewers. Since I'm in the agricultural processing business, I see an achievable goal of creating a processing center for hops that we (and some of our neighbors) can use. 

One advantage of growing hops is that the timing of the hops harvest is earlier than grapes, so my crew is available to work both crops.  Also, hops are easier and more cost effective to grow than grapes, because we can set up smaller acreage plots. We do not need to worry about deer or frost, either; and hops do not require nearly the amount of spraying that grapevines require. Many local land owners that would like to have grapes are disappointed to hear of the challenges of growing quality wine grapes on sub par land plots. Hops are not nearly as picky, and with the lower maintenance, it makes sense to do smaller plots for some  growers. 

With the passage of the Farm Brewery Act in Virginia, farms that are growing some products for beer will be allowed to open up a brewery with a tasting room. Unlike wineries, which must grow at least 51% of their raw materials, the brewers just need to grow something on their farm. As hops are one of the key flavoring ingredients to beer, sourcing local hops will be part of a marketing plan for many operations.

Now, I am not giving up on growing grapes. I am looking ahead, to fill a niche. We are looking forward to pushing this positive product towards profitability. The popping of the plants helps us all prosper. Cheers!"

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