Might as well, Might as well...

One long party from front to end.
Tune to the whistle going round the bend.
No big hurry, what do you say?
Might as well travel the elegant way.
— "Might as Well" - Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter

I write this a few days after the vernal equinox, so spring-like weather is soon to follow. The winter weather on Mount Alto has been uneventful, but persistent, with only a few false spring days, and absolutely no sub-zero temperatures. This the first winter in our 5 vintages where I can recall no below zero days, and this is a welcome respite. Temperature below zero can often lead to bud damage (bad), and trunk damage (way, way worse) in our climate. Work on our little mountain has also been persistent, and pleasant — it’s been a time of growth for the Mount Alto team and our project, not least which is that David and Camila have moved to a house in Nelson County, so that they can be closer to Mount Alto. Read on for some more assorted tidbits about this winters work.

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 A Space for Visitors
We have always envisioned Mount Alto as a place of focused work, but a huge part of this whole wine-growing thing is to create something pleasurable to drink, so naturally, we want to share the results of our work. Thus, a space to receive guests is needed. Our goal is not a full-fledged “tasting room”, but rather a small, warm, inviting place to host 2-6 guests by appointment to share our wine and the story of how and where we grow it. This space has been a work in progress for nearly as long as we have been doing this project, and it is creeping ever closer to completion. The core Mount Alto team has performed a majority of the work to get this space standing, but when it comes to aspects that needed an artist’s/craftsman’s touch, our family friend David Sickmen has stepped in to teach us, inspire us and build our space (did I mention cover-up our mistakes?). This winter David finished up the remaining siding, the interior trim, and constructed a window bar and trap door over our hand-cellar. The story of the oak that was used for the bar/cellar is something we are particularly fond of: Mary Lou salvaged it from the site of a horse barn that was being demolitioned. Laying in a pile near the entrance to one of her favorite trails she found about 20 slabs of old-growth oak rough-sawn into 2”x8” planks. David Sickmen sanded, planed, dowled, joined, and gave them 11 coats of Tung oil. In spring of 2020 we hope to be open to visitors and share this bespoke piece of ourselves.

Hugelkultur
We have cleared about an acres worth of trees in expanding our vineyard, but struggled with what to do with the biomass. Given our soils, and the relative age of the trees, there was no commercial timber prospects — so conventional wisdom had it that we burn it, or chip it (that’s a lot of mulch!). If burned, we would cause an immediate release of CO2, and if chipped, mulch degrades and releases a majority of its CO2 in 2-3 years. So, in 2017 we began to work with with a group of students from VA Tech department of Biological Systems Engineering (think Enviro + Ag engineering) who were looking for a senior design project. They looked at the full carbon lifecycle of all aspects of the vineyard to help us contextualize the problem — and as it turned out, this tree clearing (”land use conversion”) would be the lion’s share of our CO2 emissions over a 30 year period. In the end, we settled on an approach that would utilize, rather than dispose of the cleared trees: Hugelkultur. German for "Hill Culture", a permaculture technique that involves burying woody biomass to build soil fertility. Soil that is enhanced in this manner, rather than slowly leaking out the carbon from the trees, actually can increase the soils ability to store more carbon, since water retention, and biomass production are improved. We began a small pilot in winter 2017-2018 to grow Black Locust vineyard posts, then expanded to a larger scale (300 square foot) terrace this past winter. The 300 square foot Hugelkultur mound takes about 1/15 of an acre of cleared trees. We are moving this biomass into a soon to be apple grove to help supply David’s growing passion for cider production.

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Progress, Lessons-Learned, Self-Doubt and Affirmation

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The rainy 2018 vintage yielded many things, most obviously our first “commercial-size” vintage — we finally harvested enough fruit to produce a full barrel of wine. Folks that strive for high quality wine are diligent to avoid “over-cropping”, however, you have to be able to produce a critical mass of fruit in order to take advantage of such things as barrel aging, and other seemingly simple “economies of scale” like a stable temperature during fermentation. It was a close call, the rainy harvest led to splitting fruit, which required us to leave 30-40% of our crop on the vineyard (and winery) floor in order to ensure only clean fruit reached the fermenter, but we made it. This milestone relieved a slew of self-doubts. We also began a relationship with winemaker Matthieu Finot from King Family Vineyards which was, to say the least, comforting. While we were losing our minds at the weather misfortune (and missed calls), Matthieu worked coolly and calmly, and made a wine that defied the worst fears of the vintage. Fermented in barrel, aged in neutral barrel, a low-intervention creation (just fruit and yeast) the 2018 Mount Alto is displaying beautiful aromatics, and firm tannins despite the soggy weather. We are watching it’s evolution closely.

Hard Work beats Hard Rain, Every Single Time
From bud break to harvest, this past year was a race against 2018’s meteorological excesses. Mad rain leads to a crowded canopy which leads to shaded, rot-prone berries. With effort, and proper prioritization, we kept ahead of the leaf growth, thinning, mowing, tying and retying the shoots. Harvest required intense field sorting to remove damaged berries, dawn till dark. The rainiest year on record came, and we handled it. We handled it well, and looking back now we gain courage and confidence, rather than fear of the next rainy vintage crashing our party — but still, we’ll be happy if we don’t see that kind of rain again for many years :).

Might as Well, Might as Well…

Springtime approaches and we find ourselves at the beginning of a new vintage, and it is time to decide what frame of mind and level of meticulousness we will approach our season with. Do we invest in automated vine tending machinery, or continue this labor intensive, vine by vine wine-growing?  The lessons of last year affirm the labor-intensive approach: if nature gives us it’s worst, hard work can still reveal our vineyards best.

Harvest 2018: The Soul of a Card Counter

It was an August of glancing blows.  The rains came and fell heavily on the west side of Mount Alto, and then again on the east side of the James River, but each time, the eastern slope of Mount Alto was spared the worst.  It’s all about perspective, getting 5” of an inch of rain in a month when the next mountain over gets 10” makes you feel lucky.  It was no lazy August, but given the rain we did get, we had astonishingly small berries on the clusters, excellent fruit chemistry, and were actually entertaining fantasies of 3 more weeks of sunshine and a relaxed harvest of perfectly ripened grapes.  The skins of the Cabernet were just starting to feel supple when a pre-hurricane cold front dropped over an inch on us.  Berry weight jumped up rapidly, and a very small portion of the berries began to split, and we began to sweat — but then 5 days of sunshine and 90+ temperatures dried up the split berries, and returned berry weight to its modest baseline — we felt that we’d dodged another one.  We checked in with Matthieu, and agreed that another 10 days or so would be perfect — so we’d count on our luck to hold with Florence coming up the coast.  We checked in with Luc Tessier to help us screw up our courage for the days to come…

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

And then we took one on the chin.  An inch one night, 2 inches the next, and the clusters began to fall like dominoes.  The soul of a gambler got exchanged for the soul of a card counter — we estimated our risks and measured a rapidly escalating level of of fruit loss, and put the cards on the table (the sorting table that is — ok, no more gambling analogies).  Harvest was a tempest: we tried to balance speed (every hour more berries split) with accuracy, field-sorting to remove hopeless clusters.  The decision to harvest was made at 11 pm on a Sunday — we all called in our work favors to get the day off and started first thing Monday morning.  We worked dawn till dark with intermittent rains — in all another 3” falling before we could finish up (making an even 6” for the last 3 days of the season).

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

Once we reached the winery, we sorted clusters again on the conveyor belt, sent them into the destemmer and then passed the berries over the vibrating sorting table to insure that only intact berries reached the fermenter.  Ultimately, the final yield got reduced by about 40% due to all of the triage, but it was what we needed to insure healthy grapes.  With an early harvest like this, and modern wine-making techniques, it can be tempting to try to intervene — put back what nature left out. But given that this was only the 2nd harvest on our new site, we had no way of truly knowing what might be missing — David was fearless, insisting that the only way to understand our terroir was to follow a low-intervention route with the goal of simply seeing how it had responded to this rainy vintage (David really does have the soul of a gambler). 

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush.  photo: C. Burda

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush. photo: C. Burda

So, Matthieu navigated an old-school approach, fermenting in neutral barrel, with just twice daily punch downs to gently extract from skins and seeds lest green flavors resulted from our early harvest. In contrast to tumult of the last couple weeks before harvest, fermentation delivered one pleasant surprise after another, first yielding a surprisingly dark color, and then a highly aromatic nose, with red-berries all over the palate.  And as fermentation came to a close we realized we would suffer none of the “green” flavors so feared in a vintage like this.  Perhaps the few weeks of dry in July and the modestly wet August were all we needed?  Perhaps it’s just terroir?

Fermentation is done, and the vintage is now resting in barrel, and we’ll let it be till spring, then we’ll start evaluating it.  Early forecast is that it will be a wine to release and drink early — a wine for pleasure if not contemplation — which will be just fine by us.  This was an exhausting vintage — hard-working, nail-biting, comfort-zone expanding — and we’re thirsty.

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Mid-Season on Mount Alto 2018

It is early August and the grapes have now started turning color, so seemed like a good time to catch up and reflect on the season thus far.  April saw us planting more Cabernet Sauvignon vines, new clones and root-stocks to increase diversity and total potential yield, with ultimate tonnage capacity up by 40%.  We extended our rows into some of our rockiest soils, and are super excited to see what they might yield.  Bud break occurred in the 3rd week of April, 2 weeks later than 2017.  The non-stop rains in late May and early June finally gave way to an extraordinarily dry July. The challenges of a wet spring were many: outrageous canopy growth, disease pressure, worries about rain-compromised pollination, and the need to work around the weather.  All told, we weathered each of these challenges well, and we entered July with a well managed canopy, and a healthy (albeit modest) crop of grapes for vintage 2018. 

Photo Credit: C. Burda

Photo Credit: C. Burda

When we are deep in the thick of sun-up to sun-down canopy management in the dog-days of June, it is hard to think that it will ever settle down.  But the relentless hours spent shoot-thinning in June result in a July that is tranquilo, and allows us time for house-keeping.  The June to July shift in vineyard intensity is abrupt -- we find ourselves looking beyond the rows as if emerging from a fog.  We mowed the grounds, prepared our electric fence to keep raccoons from ripening berries, hung bird netting, did tractor maintenance, and finally, we were able to take a moment to taste the previous vintage that has been evolving in the winery. 

The 2017 vintage is our first wine, and while it is hard to be objective at this stage, we can say that the results are not only encouraging, but honestly, quite exciting.  Winter and early spring tastings saw a wine that was very shy, defying any categorization, but the wine that greeted us in early July was much more forthcoming with firm tannin structure, a lively assortment of flavors and aromas of ripe berries.  When it first hit my palate, hidden amongst the red berry,  I noted a hint of cinnamon -- surprising, but when I reviewed tasting notes of other red wines grown in schist soils across the world, I found that cinnamon spice flavors are commonly mentioned.   Is this the first inkling of a common, terroir-driven thread in our wines grown on a hillside of schist and quartz soils?  It's probably too soon to tell, as our wine growing mentors remind us that well-crafted wines will continually evolve and surprise during their first 36 months or so. 

We can't wait to follow the 2017 vintages progress, and will bide our time stewarding the 2018 vintage through veraison and harvest.  

The Mount Alto Crew