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Farm and Vineyard Stewardship

Farm Stewardship on Our Century Farm
Today, the Johnson family farm, originally purchased in various lots in the early 1900’s, consists of over 300 acres of land bisected by Freelings Creek which drains into nearby Lake Erie.  Eleven varieties of grapes are grown in over 115 acres of vineyards.  The care given to the farm and its natural resources, including its meadows, creeks, and woodlands, reflects our family’s desire to be good stewards of the land for future generations.  Environmental stewardship – that is, being responsible for the use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices, is very important and is exercised in innumerable ways.  It includes the wise selection of grape seedlings and root stock, appropriate not only to the region, but to the vineyard intended for them, the ongoing maintenance of a soil testing and care program and the use of crop covers to improve soil health, and the continuous recycling of organic materials such as grape vines and pomace.  Our stewardship reinforces and reflects the notion that decisions made today will affect the farm and the business many years into the future.

Vineyard Husbandry
The care and maintenance of the vineyards is a year-round task and each vine is touched multiple times during the seasons by human hands.  Here is a brief description of the care and tending of our vineyards.

Starting in late October, after the harvest is over, we repair trellises and apply lime to regulate soil acidity.  We also begin the pruning to remove any unproductive or damaged vines.   In November, after the leaves have begun to fall, we will "hill-up" the soil around the feet of some of the more delicate vines to protect the graft union between the root and the scion from any severe winter temperatures.  The sap falls and the vines remain dormant until the springtime.   Embryonic buds form at the points where leaves had grown the previous year.
From December through March, we will do light vineyard maintenance as weather permits, but the main job is to prune the vines.  Grapes "fruit" or bear on new wood.  Without knowledgeable pruning, the vines will not produce desirably.  The art of pruning also takes into account how old the vines are, whether or not they have been stressed by weather, and lastly what level of production is optimal not only for the vines, but for the wine which is desired.  

Near the end of March, we begin to spread fertilizer. This is also when the vine sap starts to rise and the first signs of growth will be seen. Throughout April and the first part of May we finish up the pruning and tying.  Tying involves pulling the vines over the wire and attaching them to the lower wire for plant stability and for maximum sun/air exposure.   We reverse the hoe and "pull away" the dirt we "hilled up" in the fall to protect the grafted vines.  If we did not do this, the still-buried scions would sprout their own roots and defeat the purpose of the graft.  We also plant young vines to replace the old or damaged vines we may have taken out earlier. From bud-break in mid-April through the end of July, the grapes are watched very carefully for any problems.
Not wishing to leave anything to chance, we have installed 25 miles of drip irrigation on our most valuable vineyard blocks during the last five years.  The purpose of this invetment is not to increase the average availability of water, but rather to provide a bridge across the dry spells that we sometimes get in the early summer.  While the dry spells do not hurt the current year's crop, they may subtract from the long-term health of the vines.  Summer tasks include "sucker removal", removing unwanted basal shoots, shoot positioning and tying so that the vines are well-anchored to the trellis system, as well as crop thinning as needed.  During this time we also may spray the vines with sulfur and other beneficial sprays, including hydrogen peroxide.   All the pesticides we use break down in 7-10 days.   In early to mid-August, the grapes go through veraison;  this is the point at which the grapes simultaneously begin to change color and the sugar content begins to increase.  From this point it is only 5-6 weeks until harvest begins.

 The Harvest, the “Vintage”
When you purchase a bottle of wine and notice a year listed on the label, this indicates the year that the grapes for the wine were harvested. Our harvest is generally in September and October, although in some years (1998 and 1999), harvest can begin in late August.  Since the winery is adjacent to the vineyards, we have the luxury of harvesting our grapes at their optimal point of ripeness.  

The exact moment of harvest largely depends on the sugar level (or "brix") as well as the flavor and condition of the grapes.  Needless to say, brix levels are continually monitored during this period to determine ripeness, which the winemaker tests with a refractometer.  He will also taste the grapes for flavor and to determine the maturity of the seeds.  Not all grape varieties are ready for harvest at the same time.  Generally, the earlier harvest is for drier wines and the later for sweeter wines.  The method of harvesting also varies by grape.  Some of our grapes, those with tender or young vines, are handpicked.   These include the Traminette and the Chambourcin and Vidal grapes for our ice wine. The ice wine grapes are the last to be picked and are harvested in December.   All of the other grapes are harvested by machine in early morning in order to keep them cool.   The "grape-picker" harvests 5 tons (or 1 acre) per hour. In all, it takes less than one hour for the grapes to go from “vine to winery”!

The grape-picker attracts considerable attention from our visitors.   It works by straddling the rows while fiberglass rods located beneath its "belly" extend into the vines and vibrate, shaking the grapes off the vines.  A conveyor belt beneath the rods then transports the grapes to a 1-ton wooden box, which is carried on a tractor-towed wagon in the next row.   When three boxes have become filled, the grapes are hauled off to the winery and the winemaking process begins immediately.