Sunday, July 21, 2013

Early Harvest Predicted in El Dorado County, CA...Hard Work Pays Off

"I am going to be relatively worthless for the near future...veraison in the vineyard and the last push of summer," wrote Elizabeth Standeven last week of the situation in her vineyards, Shaker Ridge Vineyards. Elizabeth is one of my treasured contacts in the Sierra Foothill grapegrowing community.  Elizabeth is as honest, hardworking and progressive a grapegrower as you will find anywhere, and her dedication to farming in the Sierra Foothill terroir is heartwarming.

The tempranillo will be the first red
to ripen at Shaker Ridge Vineyard
Earlier this year, she did a long interview that I wanted to post, but time just flew. You know how that goes. But here it is, a bit belated, but if you ever wanted to gain more appreciation for what goes into great grapes and therefore great wine, read on....


Elizabeth Standeven and her husband Andrew grow Barbera, Primitivo and five Portuguese winegrape varietals on seven acres of vineyard in a prime location at 1500 feet elevation in El Dorado County. They are like many small farmers: time-challenged.

“Right now,” Elizabeth said early in June, “we are literally in the weeds. We just mowed between the rows a few weeks ago because the rain is usually done at this time of the year. But with these constant little bits of rain we’ve had, the weeds are growing again. I’d like to talk more, but I gotta get out and mow again.”

It was difficult for Elizabeth to find 15 minutes to update me on the state of her vineyard, which actually reflects the status of many vineyards nearby in El Dorado County, California. Elizabeth, however, does take her position as President of the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association seriously, and any bits of awareness she can garner for El Dorado grapes has moved closer to the top of her multi-layered priority list.

The vineyard in early spring
“With this unusual spring weather pattern, our do-list seems almost endless,” she said. “So many of the tasks must be done in a tight window of time. For example, we need to thin the shoots for our Barbera; there are ‘way too many shoots. And we have to do this when the shoots are between one foot and two foot of growth. That’s right now.”

Other tasks on her list?

“Well, we just had bloom, so we must sample for nutrients and see what to add; we have to adjust things before you get too far into fruit set. We’ve got this ideal weather now, between 75-80 degrees, and this is ideal not only for bud burst but it is also perfect for mildew. So if we have vine growth, we have to start spraying to control the mildew, and whether you use sulfur or oil, this spraying must be done every 7 to 10 days.”

Then there is the need for labor. Elizabeth and Andrew try to do as much work as possible themselves on their 7 acres. At that size of vineyard, she notes, you can’t make any money unless you do most of the work yourself. “Unless you have a winery as well as a vineyard, it doesn’t pay to hire lots of labor. The truth is that who performs the tasks is very dependent on the size of the vineyard,” she said.

This year, as in past years, with the tight window of time to thin Barbera shoots, Elizabeth turned to her labor contractor to supply help. Her vineyard, Shaker Ridge, needed 100 to 120 hours of work to be done in 2 to 3 days time. But this year, labor was tight. Her contractor turned her down and she was scrambling to find help. “I don’t know what is more stressful, trying to do the work yourself, or trying to find help,” she said with exasperation. Finally their contractor sent some laborers to help finish the job, but Elizabeth and Andrew had already put in 60 hours between them on a beautiful spring weekend. Their daughter busied herself with schoolwork.
“This is one of the perils of being a small farmer. Scale is helpful in that respect.”

Providing high quality grapes to wineries in El Dorado County and elsewhere has been the role of small winegrape growers, and that isn’t changing very fast. New farmers come into the Sierra Foothills every year to grow winegrapes, largely because they want to get out of the corporate rat race and to be close to the land. Over half of the 70 members of the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association farm fewer than 10 acres.

“We have a lot of small vineyards here largely because of the mountain topography,” Elizabeth said. “There are some vineyards of more than 100 acres, but we don’t have any thousand-acre vineyards. In the middle-range vineyards, between 10 and 100 acres, some vineyard owners have extended families or grown kids who help them do the work.”

In the more remote areas of El Dorado County where so many small vineyards are located, labor will continue to be a concern. “In the Apple Hill area, where there are a dozen vineyards within a mile of each other, or in the Fair Play AVA, it’s possible to pool labor efficiently with the labor contractors. But so many of our members are all by themselves, farming a few acres in challenging terrain,” Elizabeth noted.

It is worth the effort. The grapes that these small farmers grow have intense flavor, gorgeous color, and are used to produce the delicious wines that are garnering Sierra Foothill wines more and more awards and recognition. The buzz in the wine business is palpable.

As to Shaker Ridge Vineyard, located up mountain in the little town of El Dorado, population about 4500, Elizabeth and Andrew are now in their 11thleaf. They bought vacant land, prepped it, and planted their vines in 2002. Now in their mid-forties, the former molecular anthropologist and her husband the toxicologist have no regrets. Will their elementary school daughter see farming as a career too?

“She is starting to see the light,” said Elizabeth.


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