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.
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.
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.
Progress, Lessons-Learned, Self-Doubt and Affirmation
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.