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Many of us are aware that a large number of small businesses and farms have disappeared from our landscape and economy; the big have gotten bigger and the small have not been able to thrive.  The wine industry was one that seemed to buck the trend, where small family run vineyards and wineries have continued thrive by providing products that are unique to their place and time.  Now though, the mass scale economy seems to be gobbling up this one last holdout industry.

Consolidation has been progressing in the wine industry for some time now.  Small distributors have been bought up, so that large distributors carry 1000’s of products and cover vast territories.  Wineries have grown to meet this model, often by buying up existing smaller wineries, continuing the Brand, but consolidating production.  You may be looking at a dozen different “wineries” on the store shelf, but those twelve Brands might actually be under only a single ownership. 

Another trend that is impacting small producers is a change in wine drinker’s habits.   Once an industry that had some Brand loyalty, people now shift their purchasing choices frequently.   And why not when one can try a new wine everyday and never try the same wine twice?  Also, wine seems to be outside the trend of the local food movement; visit a restaurant that prides itself on purchasing locally grown food and you will see wine from the other side of the globe, but not from that area.  We, as producers of locally grown wine, are mystified that we cannot connect with this movement, even when we bring our products to Farmer’s Markets.  With the buy local campaigns around the nation, more people are beginning to support their local family farms and businesses; eventually this should extend to wineries too. 

Local farms provide many benefits to communities: jobs in the community, money that stays in local circulation longer, land preservation, unique products that are unlike any other in the world, and lower energy input because transportation is reduced.  We feel our products are of the quality that are worthy of your support, comparable to any of the world  We hope that you will return to our wines from time to time to taste our place in time.  You will are tasting this locality and the efforts of the folks who you see pictured on these pages! 

I hope you will enjoy a bottle of your local wine with your community of friends and family.  This will help small growers be a part of your diversified beautiful landscape.  May you be blessed with a prosperous year that is filled with time with those who are dear to you.

I have just finished the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery.  Through the documentation of severe erosion and poor farming practices, Montgomery writes about how loss of soil led to the end of most farming community’s ability to sustain their populations.  He also uses examples of farming practices that have endured for centuries, demonstrating that sustainable farming is achievable and why it so very necessary if we humans are to survive into the future.

Soil and its health are at the root of organic and biodynamic farming.  Farmers who practice these methods are looking at the long view, striving to make their farms fertile and productive by feeding their soil, not their plants.  Healthy soil is rich in humus and microorganisms, giving properties that hold the mineral particles together and give them the ability to sustain life.  Organic farm husbandry can reduce erosion, while building tilth, water holding capacity, and long term fertility.

Vineyard Cover Crop

Clover fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere

The enhancement of our tilth has been at the forefront of the farm plan at Lopez Island Vineyards since day one. While a perennial crop makes this a little easier, we work to build our fertility and soil structure every year by adding compost, using green manure cover crops, and minimizing tilling to protect our earthworms.  Using biodynamic techniques, we strive to create on farm fertility, thus reducing the importation of nutrients.  We build compost from farm wastes, we graze animals on our land to create a conversion of cover crops to fertilizer, and we use selected green manure crops to add nitrogen while pulling up minerals from the sub-soil.

These efforts show in our wines: repeatedly our estate grown varietals show a complexity and depth of flavor that makes them stand out from other examples.  This is partly our terrior, that concept of flavors that come from the place: soil, fertility, climate, exposure, local microbes.  Additionally, the use of organic farming methods allows our plants and soil to live at optimum health, which helps enhance the expression of our terrior in our wines.

Chickens in the Vineyard

Chickens grub for insects and weed seeds

We still have a ways to go to being a totally enclosed farm system.  Our goal is to strive towards soil husbandry that will see this vineyard still producing crops 1,000 years from now, and, in the  short term, produce  a healthier system with every passing year.  Using knowledge from the geniuses of the past; people such as Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, Edward Faulkner and Robert Rodale, along with pioneers of the present represented by Wendell Berry, Nicolas Joly and  Wes Jackson, we study, experiment and run trials in our efforts towards this goal.  Our efforts are paying off, which are evidenced by the quality of our wines.

 A sunny drive brought me to a very warm afternoon on the renowned Waluke slope, where after dropping off bins for the coming harvest, I walked the vineyard. Struggling vines with ripe fruit stretch away from me; the ends are not visible from my vantage. Quiet pervades the vast landscape, a stillness that reflects the slow ripening of the fruit, the coming energy of the winter.

Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon will hail from these vineyards. This area has a great reputation and is known for its red wines. Soils are sparse, mostly sand laid down by the Missoula floods that swept down the coulees of the Columbia. With careful deficit irrigation, the canopies are open and with the heat of this area, good things happen to the flavors of these grapes. Our source here is the old Doc Stewart vineyard, now organically farmed by the Gilbert Family.

Yesterday I looked at and sampled Malbec, Merlot and Chardonnay. Today I must get the Chardonnay and Malbec harvested, loaded and to the Lopez ferry. I am writing from the Rosa Berge Arrowsmith vineyard, farmed by organic grower Joe Cervantes. I listen to the pickers, as they cheerfully banter away with each other. The Taco Isabelle truck has just arrived! The workers stream from the vines, eager to replenish themselves. I join them, buying two tacos made with sliced beef, onion, lettuce, guacamole and a drink for only $3.50! These folks work hard and they are so unseen in our enjoyment of food and wine. I do get to see their work and thank them personally; I wish more people could see what it takes to get the wine to the bottle. Eighty percent of the work in wine is in the vineyard, as I know very well.

The morning air is clear and cool, the work easy amongst the sparse open canopy of these vines. It is a bit of a cliché to refer to struggling vines, but these vines set a definition for struggle. The statement is based in some fact, born out by generations of experience: Struggling vines have a more open, less vigorous canopy. A more open canopy allows more sunlight to directly shine on the developing fruit. Fruit that ripens in the sunshine has more intense fruit flavor.

This is our first harvest of Chardonnay from the Arrowsmith vineyard. I am feeling some trepidation in this change of farm, as there are a lot of unknowns for me. However, this vineyard is an old well documented vineyard, one I made wine from over 25 years ago, so I know it can do quality. The big attraction has been the organic certification that this vineyard now carries.

Harold Pleasant is the farmer of our Merlot. He farms his organic field, not far from Red Mountain, using very tight spacing on a vertical training system. After a trip to France, he decided to try this technique. His rows are closer together than any I have seen in the new world. Because the vines are so close, he has had to fabricate his own farm equipment to fit down these rows! His contraptions are ingenious! I can tell he likes to invent and weld things up, as his farm yard is full of homemade devices, where he has tried to improve on existing technology. The grapes this year look beautiful and the vines well balanced; not too vigorous or too much crop.

Well, I made the ferry that day, and now those wines are moving from tank to barrel. Some of these wines will be available in the next year; some will be two years in their aging. Meanwhile, we have some outstanding wines from the Crawford’s being bottled and released. Enjoy your winter and may it be filled with friends, family and good times. Brent Charnley, winemaker

Random thoughts of a vintner; so begins my posting of life in the vineyards and winemaking here on Lopez Island WA. 

I hope to use this forum to share the everyday observations, trials, successes and all around interest of these endeavours.  Life of a vintner is timeless, harking back to a simpler era, never-the-less it also interfaces with the modern world and is influenced by that world.

Today is a good example: I expected to spend the better part of the day pruning in the vineyard.  This task must be completed before the buds begin to swell and thus is very time dependent.  Better be done by March 1!  And then there was the fine weather for it too: sunny and warm like January has been!  I was looking forward to being outside.

However, there was all the calls, emails and decisions to make in connection with ordering a new labeling machine, working out a printer and new layout for the labels.  All this is also time dependent and won’t wait!  Finally, after 2 pm, I was on my way back to the vineyard.  Paused on the way to taste our Madeleine Angevine.  This wine was in the process of being transfered back to its neutral oak barrels.  YES, it tastes good (even through my cold) and is that something I am very happy about.

Finally to the vineyard and began the meditative selecting and cutting.  This is my favorite task of all the tasks I do; there are no phones, sales people or other interruptions.  And, pruning is something I am good at, so it is fulfilling and easy.  Sun shone down, even at its low angle of the season, warming me out of first my jacket, then my sweatshirt and hat.  Pruning is the most critical of vineyard operations, it not only determines the coming crop for this year, but the shape of the vine and its fruitfulness for many years to come.  Truly an ancient art.  Here are a before and after photos.

 There is a summary of a day, a start to this blog and now sleep well deserved.

Cheers, Brent Charnley

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