In praise of farmworkers (and all food workers)

As I reflect from the comfort of an air-conditioned office, the vineyard team is hedging for the third time this year. Usually, we only hedge twice, but the excess foliage that resulted from last year’s heavy rainfall is creating too much shade. The temperature will soon be 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the 27th time this season. The high humidity, now 97% according to the weather station, means that neither the vines nor those who tend them get much benefit from evaporative cooling.

The Dodon vineyard team stacks lugs of Chardonnay for transport to the winery for pressing.

The Dodon vineyard team stacks lugs of Chardonnay for transport to the winery for pressing.

Such moments of contemplation leave me eternally grateful for our vineyard team. They are dedicated to the hard work and perspiration that enhances the environment and produces the best wine. And they are part of a larger group of food and agricultural professionals who feed the nation. We owe them a great deal.

It takes considerable effort by many people in a complex system to get food on your table. Think for a moment about where your next meal will come from. If your answer is the supermarket, you’ve missed something.

Farm workers till soil, plant seeds, apply soil amendments, weed and water, raise honeybees, mow fields, feed animals and remove their waste, milk, gather eggs, pick vegetables and fruit, and clean equipment.

If your meal includes meat, meat packers slaughter, butcher, and wrap. Throughout the food system, a complex network of packers, forklift operators, and truck drivers distribute food from farm to market. Food service workers purchase ingredients; set tables; prepare, cook, plate, and serve meals; bus plates; and wash dishes and put them away.

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Collectively, food workers make up 9% of the American workforce. These are people who should have the training and experience to carry out their function efficiently and effectively and to ensure that food is safely delivered to your table. And they should be able to advance in their careers, support their families, and pursue their interests.

And yet, despite the importance of the work that they perform, food workers at every level of the system are, as often as not, inadequately paid, treated, and trained to perform their jobs effectively. Farm work ranks among the 25 lowest paid occupations in America. Food service occupations - cooks, servers, bus people, and dishwashers – are in the bottom 10. And because these workers are often women and immigrants with fewer legal protections than other workers, they are frequently abused and exploited.

In his powerful book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser tells the story of the erosion of meat packing as an occupation. According to Schlosser, meat packers in 1970 were considered skilled workers who enjoyed middle class wages and long-term employment. Now, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meat packing has become the most dangerous occupation in America, with largely unskilled workers using hand-held knives to process meat at rates twice those of other countries.

Moreover, surveys find that more than a third of all women in the food service sector, especially those making minimum wage (currently $3.63 per hour for tipped workers in Maryland), have experienced some form of unwanted sexual harassment, making this the single largest source of sexual harassment claims reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The current system may keep food prices low, but I wonder about its true costs. Given the abuse, low wages, and degree of manual labor, Enlightenment Now author Steven Pinker wonders why anyone would want to be a farm worker, suggesting that vertical farming and synthetic food offer better alternatives. (There may even be synthetic wine in the future.)

Technology-based solutions may have a role in the future of our food system, but whether food is grown in soil, laboratories, or factories, its increasing complexity will require skilled workers. These are, after all, the people who feed us. Much as we should value the work of teachers, nurses, and public safety officers, we should appreciate the passion, dedication, knowledge, and ownership that farm and other food workers bring to their jobs.

Tom teaches the team how to scout for fungal disease.

Tom teaches the team how to scout for fungal disease.

Education is one way to recognize the skilled nature of food work. For example, while most small farms make significant effort to train their workers, plentiful off-farm opportunities for basic training in soil science, horticulture and plant pathology, entomology, pesticide safety and stewardship, mechanics, and other subjects would both acknowledge the importance of workers and enhance their value.

Maryland’s seventeen community colleges have the infrastructure to provide this education, but of these, only Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, offers an agriculture track. Paid apprenticeships, such as those supported by the Department of Labor, also offer important opportunities for training. Unfortunately, these are currently ill-defined, making them difficult for farmers to access.

The Governor’s Workforce Development Board, along with its twelve local partners, has the responsibility to assess workforce needs in the state and to create policies and programs to address them. Agriculture should become a priority for the Board.

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As the climate warms, farm worker training and education will likely pay larger, societal dividends. When the appropriate methods are used, agriculture represents an important way to sequester carbon and address climate change. Skilled, educated workers will implement these methods and adapt them to local conditions more effectively than those that aren’t adequately trained.

In addition to technical training, farm and food work, like many other skilled occupations, also requires soft skills, such careful observation, attention to detail, critical thinking, and problem-solving, activities that are best done when workers are close to the product and those who consume it. And the workers deserve ongoing career pathways so that these are not seen as “dead-end” jobs to be avoided when, like now, alternatives are plentiful.

And simply recognizing the contributions of workers throughout the food system is the most important way we have to say thanks for a job well-done.

America's Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

The following post was published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2019

Maryland farmers are confronting the challenges of changing weather patterns that are the result of carbon pollution and warmer temperatures. Following heavy rain last September, more than in the previous five Septembers combined, red wine production in 2018 from our vineyard in Davidsonville was less than half the amount it had been the year before.

Others in agriculture fared even worse. Some Maryland vineyards produced no red wine at all. Vegetable production at one local farm was a quarter of the usual yield. Several neighbors who grow soybeans simply didn’t harvest them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. New agricultural practices can make our farms more resilient and help address climate change. The key is capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it in soil. These regenerative practices are already used in many parts of the country and are ready for large-scale deployment at relatively low cost. The challenge now is to encourage farmers to adopt these new methods.

Historically, changes in land use — such as conversion of woodland to cropland — and common agricultural practices like tillage (prepping the land for crops) have resulted in significant net loss of soil carbon. One quarter of all anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere, about 450 billion metric tons emitted over 8,000 years, can be attributed to these harmful land use practices.

Enhanced soil management can reverse this trend by reducing agricultural emissions and, in many cases, resulting in net draw down of greenhouse gases. Because soil stores three times more carbon than the atmosphere, increasing soil carbon content by even a small percentage represents a substantial mechanism to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and reverse global warming.

Soil carbon can be increased through plant assimilation of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reducing losses associated with decomposition of soil organic matter. Returning agricultural land to native ecosystems is probably the best way to increase levels of stored carbon over time, but this is not always an option. Improved cropping systems, conversion to perennial crops, agroforestry and novel grazing methods are also very effective.

The National Academy of Sciences has conservatively estimated that improved agricultural land management could result in removal of 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the United States, nearly 20 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions each year. Achieving this level of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere will require active participation by America’s 750,000 farmers.

In addition to their benefits on the climate, practices that sequester carbon can also boost agricultural yields, increase soil nutrient retention and enhance soil water infiltration and holding capacity. In other words, investing in regenerative agriculture will not only reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will also benefit farmers and rural communities and improve global resilience to climate change.

Even with these direct benefits to farmers, additional incentives and education will be required. First, many small farmers face a great deal of risk and are reluctant to change from time-tested methods. Second, soil enhancing methods must be adapted to specific places and crops, and this need for customization complicates implementation. Third, many farmers believe that they should be compensated for removing atmospheric carbon that came from non-agricultural settings, suggesting that financing these changes must also be considered.

There are several mechanisms already being used throughout the country to engage farmers in this process of change. Carbon offset markets, which directly compensate farmers for achieving quantifiable emission goals, represent the most ambitious approach. The California Air Resources Board protocol that allows rice farmers to sell offsets into the state’s cap and trade market is one example.

Other methods to finance farmer incentives include direct subsidies, such as those used by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to achieve conservation and water quality goals, and certifications or labeling based on sustainability-based performance standards established by agricultural distributors and retailers like the Field to Farm Alliance.

Now is the time for policy makers to engage farmers on climate change. First, the state should fund the Maryland Healthy Soil Initiative that was created to develop agricultural responses to climate change. Second, it should establish a carbon offset market that would allow electric companies to meet their renewable energy requirement by purchasing credits from farmers who adopt the necessary practices. Third, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s proposed carbon cap and dividend program should be modified to allow revenues to be used to purchase “carbon farming” services.

Maryland farmers lead the nation in adopting conservation measures that improve water quality. Engaging them to put carbon back in soil is an obvious and potentially powerful way to reverse climate change while enhancing global food security.

What is the origin of “Dodon” soils?

What is the origin of “Dodon” soils?

If you take a tour with a winemaker, the topic will frequently turn to soil. Depending on where you are, you might hear about the kimmeridgian limestone of Burgundy, the montmorillonite (aka blue) clay of Pomerol, or the alluvial gravel, clay, and sand of the Rutherford Bench. In many winemakers’ minds, the soil defines the wine, trumping both climate and human influences. To hear a winemaker tell it, the soil of their region or vineyard is unlike the soil anywhere in the world, and without doubt the very best for growing wine grapes. I’m as guilty as anybody of this hyperbole, and to support my case, or perhaps to atone for boastfulness, I set out to understand the origin and implications of the soil at Dodon.

Climate Change, Part 2: A New Year’s Resolution

As a farmer and grape grower, the effects of climate change are hard to miss, and the news is getting worse.  Even the best-case projections regarding temperature, sea level rise, floods, fire, disease, and agricultural output are frightening. Partly due to changes in the climate, extinction rates among all species are about 1,000 times greater than they would be in the absence of human activity. Pulitzer prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert has called this phenomenon The Sixth Extinction.

Ecologists and philosophers have started to wonder whether humans will survive the climate change experience, reminding me of a Tom Lehrer tune from the 1960s. Expecting that we will survive, my Christmas wish is that the resulting world will be the kind in which our grandchildren will still want to live.

The immediate cause of changes in the climate is an imbalance between carbon storage in soil and other reservoirs and its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, trapping heat and acidifying the oceans. (You can learn more about the carbon cycle here.) While burning fossil fuels gets most of the attention, modern agriculture, through deforestation, mechanical and chemical disruption of soil, and confined livestock facilities, has contributed as much as 40% of the increase in atmospheric CO2.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Trees, grasses, and other plants carry out photosynthesis that uses the carbon from CO2 to produce sugars that are transported via the roots into the soil, feeding a diverse ecosystem of microbes, insects, earthworms, and even vertebrates.  Agricultural approaches may thus be deceptively simple yet practical and potentially powerful methods to extract CO2 from air and store it as organic carbon in the soil. Research suggests that adding 0.4% more organic matter each year to agricultural land across the globe would sequester all the CO2 released by human activity.

Is 0.4% per year additional organic matter achievable? Absolutely. Using cover crops and advanced grazing techniques, North Dakota rancher and farmer Gabe Brown has added organic matter at about twice this rate for 25 years, providing proof of principle. University of California at Berkeley Professor Claire Kremen has done the design work, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has done field trials and created educational programs and tools, and organizations such as Future Harvest CASA and county agricultural extension offices offer support, education, and knowledge sharing among farmers and landowners in our region.

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Put simply, while building soil organic matter may be only one part of an overall solution to global warming, it is literally “shovel ready.” The challenge now is spreading the word, creating the incentives, and putting on our boots. As we approach the start of the 2019 session of the General Assembly, there are several critical actions to take.

First, we should hold Governor Hogan and the Maryland Department of Agriculture accountable. In 2017, the General Assembly passed the Maryland Healthy Soils Act that requires MDA to provide incentives that would improve soil health, monitor progress, and help the state meet goals set by the Maryland Climate Change Commission. Despite the promise, no new practices or incentives have emerged. To reinvigorate this program and regain climate leadership for the state’s largest industry, Maryland could join California in committing to the Global Soil Health Challenge.

Second, state and county representatives should add a “carbon note” to all legislation. Proposed legislation in Maryland is always accompanied by a “fiscal note,” a brief description of the potential financial consequences of the bill. But fiscal notes don’t include other indirect costs to the taxpayers, such as the cost of global warming. In order to help legislators understand the benefits and risks of legislation on climate change, a similar “carbon note” could be required. The practice would help keep the issue front and center.

Third, we need to modify incentives so that farmers will implement methods that will add carbon to soil.  Today’s agricultural methods were developed during the Green Revolution, in the aftermath of the great depression, the dust bowl, and World War II, when energy was cheap and plentiful and people around the world were hungry. Tax policy, agricultural programs, and business practices designed to support these systems now have entrenched interests behind them, making alternatives hard to implement. Difficult as it may be, revising tax policy to account for the climate-related costs of carbon use would accelerate the transition to “carbon farming.”

There are also a few things you can do at home to return carbon to the soil. First, you can let your grass grow. As it grows, the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in the blade increases. In contrast, short cuttings (those that result from weekly lawn mowing) have high levels of nitrogen that, because there is little carbon to hold it, then leaches into ground water and the Bay. Infrequent mowing, annually is best, has other advantages. Less fuel and labor are needed, long roots improve soil structure allowing better water infiltration, and over time a natural meadow of diverse plants, insects, and wildlife will develop.

Second, you can plant an edible landscape on even a small plot of ground. Americans often plant vegetable gardens during times of scarce resources. About 20 million households established victory gardens during World War II, and nearly half of all Americans grew their own vegetables during the early 1980s recession. The personal benefits include reductions in transportation (both from farm to market and market to home), better nutrition, and the sense of community that comes when everyone does their part.  There are added benefits of incorporating these herbs and vegetables into the landscape in terms of soil health, reductions in pesticide use, and aesthetics.  

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Because they sequester twice as much carbon as forestland, vineyards represent an excellent way to add carbon to soil. When we started, average soil carbon was less than 1%, and unmeasurable in some areas. Through cover cropping, reduced soil disturbance, and compost additions, we are up to about 2.5%, about the norm for most vineyards in the world, but we think we should go higher.  Although conventional wisdom says that vines should struggle, we believe that additional organic matter will result in healthier, more resilient plants that will resist disease, ripen earlier, and have more flavor. At least this is the experience of some of the best châteaux on the left bank in Bordeaux.

While storing carbon in soil is a simple tool to help solve the current climate challenge, the transition will not be easy. Agriculture is more perspiration than romance, and some of these methods are labor intensive. Farm labor is in short supply, and there will inevitably be a process of trial and error as we determine the right crops and cover crops for our environment and each agricultural product. In the short term, these factors could result in reductions in farm incomes. But long term, reducing CO2 and creating resilient landscapes is the best way to prevent, or at least mitigate, the catastrophes of climate change.And, of course, more carbon in the soil leads to more nutritious, flavorful food and wine, and that will also make our grandchildren’s world a better place to live.

Climate Change, Part 1: A Christmas Wish

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Polly and I are spending the holidays with our granddaughter, Juana Magdalena, in a little town called City Bell, just east of Buenos Aires. Polly’s three daughters are all here too, almost as much fun as Juana. As the summer solstice passes, our days are filled with family, exercise, asados, newspapers, a bit of sightseeing, and, for me, Spanish lessons. There is a fruit and vegetable farm within walking distance, and freshly butchered meat and chickens on the way, with none of the planting, weeding, feeding, watering, and picking chores of farm life.  

The family time also allows us to reflect on this new grandparenting stage of life. We intensely appreciate the diverse beauty and richness of the world as we experience the munificence of family, friends, and colleagues. Building on the knowledge of a hundred thousand years of evolution and the gifts of our parents and grandparents, we can learn and debate, try to understand the universe and our place in it, and create beauty through art, literature, music, and winemaking. As at the farm, I awaken each morning profoundly grateful for these gifts.

And yet, I wonder, as all grandparents must, what kind of a world Juana will inherit.

The world has changed a great deal in my lifetime, mostly for the better. In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker has documented the extraordinary progress we humans have made to improve health, safety, family incomes, and life expectancy; expand democracy, education, and equal rights; and reduce poverty, hunger, and violence.

This progress extends to many environmental challenges, especially those that are visible to the naked eye. The Chesapeake Bay is (slowly) getting cleaner, acid rain has declined, and bald eagles have returned.  Deforestation of the Amazon has slowed, the amount of protected terrestrial and marine habitat has increased, tankers spill less oil, and the ozone hole is getting smaller. This progress, Pinker argues, is the result of activism, legislation, regulation, technological innovation, and global cooperation, and it leads Pinker to be optimistic about the future.

Yet there are enormous challenges ahead. For most of the past 420,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels remained below 300 parts per million (ppm). They started climbing during the industrial revolution, reached 315 ppm when I was born and now exceed 400 ppm. The average temperature in Anne Arundel County has climbed from 55.4 degrees F to 56.9 degrees in my lifetime. Multiple reports, including those from the Fourth National Climate Assessment and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describe the expected rise in temperature and sea level, destructive storms and fires, increases in mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and declining agricultural output. Our experience during the 2018 vintage is perhaps an ominous preview.

But these challenges, as significant (and devastating) as they might be, don’t reflect all the vitality and beauty of the ecosystem in which we live and the danger it faces from climate change. In Yellowstone Park, native plant species are being replaced by invasive cheatgrass, reducing forage for wildlife. On the Galapagos Islands, increasingly frequent El Niño conditions block the flow of nutrients that feed plankton, threatening penguins, marine iguanas, and even Darwin’s finches. The number of insects has declined, at least in some parts of world, by more than 75% because of habitat loss and intensive use of pesticides.

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The rapid loss of plant and animal species is frightening. For example, what would happen if there were no pollinators? It turns out that life without them can endure, but it may not flourish. After overuse of pesticides eliminated bee populations decades ago, growers in the Maoxian Valley of Himalayan China hand-pollinate hundreds of thousands of apple and pear trees. Because fewer pollen-donor trees are required and humans effectively pollinate 100% of the flowers (bees only pollinate about 30%), yield per acre increases. Because they don’t need to worry about killing beneficial insects, these growers can use more insecticides to produce the unblemished fruit that brings high prices.

If efficiency, defined by higher yields and prices per unit of input, is the goal, then hand-pollination is the way to go when human labor is cheap and plentiful. Moreover, the image of an entire village turning out every spring to pollinate the region’s crop, each person brushing the flowers on 10-12 trees each day, conveys a certain sense of nobility and identity. Despite these advantages, this world seems sterile, lacking complexity, balance, depth, interest, and resilience, and our experience growing wine suggests it does not result in the best fruit. Likewise, most apple producing areas of the Himalayan region have chosen to reestablish pollinator populations and have not followed the path taken in the Maoxian Valley.

As humans, we cultivate our own welfare, and hopefully produce the best wine, by enhancing the health, diversity, and abundance of life around us, and not by disrupting ecosystems, destroying large sections of habitat, or raising animals in confinement, methods that might have more immediate financial return but don’t reflect their true economic costs. My Christmas wish is that Juana will find the beauty and strength that comes from being part of an interconnected whole, sheltered and nourished by nature, and that she will use her compassion, ingenuity, and knowledge to enrich the ensemble of the soil, water, air, plants, animals, and people that surround us.

2018 Vintage Summary

Tuesday, October 2 was a beautiful, if somewhat warm, autumn day – the kind of day that we hope for in early October, when we are typically just starting to pick the black grapes. But this, the final day of picking in 2018, signaled the perplexing character of the vintage. The image of Dodon’s weather vanes pointing toward each other on an otherwise lovely morning is its lasting symbol.

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The year started with brutally cold temperatures, as low as two degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) on the morning of January 7. While a few weeks of very cold temperatures has many benefits in the vineyard, we start to worry about bud viability when temperatures approach zero. In contrast, February was usually warm – speeding vine phenology - but March was cool – slowing the vines. Bud break occurred in the Chardonnay on April 15, about on-schedule, followed by freezing temperatures three days later.

The next variety to bud, the Cabernet Franc, waited until May, indicating that a late year would ensue. Yet this isn’t what happened. Bloom, which typically occurs 45-60 days after bud break, arrived just 24 days later. Suddenly, it was an early year, requiring adjustments to already modified schedules for canopy management and sprays. The vines were confused by the temperature extremes, as were their human partners. Dodon’s vineyard manager, Roberto Gomez, finally thawed from winter pruning, complained of vertigo.

And then it rained. And rained. And rained. The soil at Dodon is made up of about 50% solid matter – rocks, minerals, microbes, insects – and 50% pores, occupied by air and water. When the pores fill completely with water early in the season, the roots don’t have enough oxygen to develop normally. In response, the leaves produce more stomata (the structures responsible for evapotranspiration) than they would otherwise. The effect is to make the vines more susceptible to drought.

So of course, drought came in early July, and the vines became stressed. As we finished irrigating the south slope, it started raining again, this time lots of it. Our colleague Jim Law of Linden Vineyards described it as biblical in its proportions. We had more rain in September than in the previous five Septembers combined. And when it wasn’t raining, it was hot and very humid. Most people correctly associate excess moisture, whether from humidity or rain, with molds and mildews. But by drowning the roots late in the season, excess rain causes the vines to focus on survival by growing roots and foliage, diverting energy from ripening.

Our usual response to excess rain is to let the canopy grow higher, increasing evapotranspiration, and let the grass grow to create competition with the vines. But this year the amount of rainfall overwhelmed these measures. The canopy developed downy mildew, and the grass grew so quickly that we couldn’t keep it out of the fruit zone. The fruit ripened unevenly, with the ripest fruit falling prey to botrytis and other late season bunch rots. We sorted heavily while picking, leaving about half of the black fruit on the vineyard floor.

To say that the vintage was, and remains, puzzling is an understatement. We never quite knew what to expect. The vines remained confused all year, with growing shoot tips appearing around the vineyard throughout September. This atypical behavior also occurred in other plants, particularly crab apples and magnolias that could be seen blooming throughout southern Maryland this fall.

Decisions about picking were particularly uncertain. In mid-August, I told the team that I didn’t think we would begin picking for at least two weeks. Four days later, we picked the first of the Sauvignon Blanc followed by the Chardonnay, both from the east vineyard. We waited a week to pick the Sauvignon from the west vineyard.

We also picked the black fruit earlier, and thus less ripe, than in the past. In the cellar, we extracted less aggressively, leaving behind the unripe tannins that cause bitterness. With less structure, the wines will need less oak and more stirring to achieve their potential. As a result, the 2018 red wines promise to be more accessible early in their life, and less age-worthy, than is typical for Dodon wines.

Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, I’m left feeling extraordinarily grateful for this vintage and the lessons that it brought. There were many bright spots. Our effort to create a balanced ecosystem seems to be working. The increasing diversity of insect life around the vineyard is stunning, and except for the occasional spot treatment, we didn’t use any insecticides this year. A mantid even joined us on the sorting table this year.

While there was a bit of mold in the Sauvignon clusters, the white wines turned out beautifully. I’m especially excited about the Chardonnay, which has the depth, range, and vitality that we seek from this classic variety.

The main lesson, though, is that the climate is changing rapidly. Over the last three years, old weather patterns have given way to prolonged periods of drought and rainfall. It has tested our farming and winemaking skills, the front of house team who rearranged plans daily, and even club members who had hoped to attend one of the seven rained-out Dodon ‘til Dusk gatherings. (Thank you for your patience.) These challenges will continue, especially in the mid-Atlantic where temperatures and rainfall are predicted to rise faster than in other parts of the world.

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In response to these changes, we need to think critically about how we can adapt and become more resilient. It’s crazy to irrigate in a year of record setting rainfall, but that’s what we needed to do. Fortunately there are solutions, some that we are already working on. Soil with good structure allows excess water to pass through quickly to the aquafers below. Soil rich in organic matter holds on to some of the water until it is needed by the plants. In the pastures, we can create this healthy soil using a technique called MOB grazing; in the vineyard, we can create it using appropriate cover crops with deep roots and plenty of residual biomass.

As the year comes to an end, the 2018 vintage reminds me of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, performed wonderfully by Yo-Yo Ma.  Each suite is based on a different French dance, and each is composed of six movements that span the range human emotion, none the same but all very beautiful. The same might be said of the variation that occurs between vintages, and in 2018, variation within the vintage. Like Bach’s cello suites, some vintages are deep and soulful, some sad and mournful, others light and lively, but all with their own exquisite charm. The lesson of this vintage is that we can succeed by dancing together as a community to nature’s varied tunes.

Raise a Glass to Polly

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Polly is the inspirational leader of the Dodon team. She keeps all of us going in the right direction, gets her hands dirty when needed, and looks out for the human side of the vineyard and cellar.    She brings these same qualities to her career in public health policy where she has recently been recognized as an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. It’s a rare honor, conferred on only a few non-nurses each year.  The formal announcement can be found here.

Some Frequently Asked Questions about Dodon: A Conversation with Polly and Tom

Why is the winery open by appointment only?

Tom. Dodon is home to three generations of our family, a fact that shapes all activities at the farm. When visitors come to the vineyard and winery, they are visiting our home, and as in our home, the space and the events that we host reflect our tastes and preferences – simple, yet refined and textured; modern, yet pastoral and hospitable; elegant, yet warm and intimate. And, as in our home, we plan gatherings at which we can be fully present and engaged with each of our guests.

Polly. Because we are only open by appointment, we can organize our schedules to ensure that we can spend time with our guests. We want to share the Dodon story in a calm, comfortable atmosphere. The seated tasting format also emphasizes the role of the person hosting the tastings, who is not only knowledgeable about wine, but also an integral part of Dodon’s vineyard and winemaking.

2017 Vintage Summary: A Year of Providence

2017 Vintage Summary: A Year of Providence

In what has become a metaphor for the 2017 vintage, a black widow found her way onto the sorting table in the last hours of harvest. We’ve always known that there are lots of black widows in the vineyard, but mostly they keep to themselves, quietly helping rid the vines of unwanted insects. How she got to the table is anyone’s guess. It seems unlikely that she was on a cluster when it was snipped into an unsuspecting hand, so perhaps she crawled into a picking basket that inadvertently landed on her web. In either case, we popped both the spider and her grape into the sorting bin, and off she went to the compost pile. No harm done to either party. 

Thoughts from the Barrel Room

Thoughts from the Barrel Room

With the red harvest complete, and extended macerations underway, I’m starting to think more concretely about how barrel aging will affect the wine and how we can use this understanding to enhance quality. It goes without saying that barrels are not neutral vessels. Aromatic substances in oak quickly diffuse into wine, and some of these combine with or react with substances in the wine to create new flavors. It’s a bit like using spices while cooking. A little bit can enhance the natural flavor of the ingredients, adding complexity and depth. Too much can hide great ingredients, and faulty ones. Oak also contains tannins that have both beneficial and detrimental effects on wine. 

August Updates

The bird nets are all up, so our attention is quickly turning to preparing to bottle 800 cases of wine this Friday, August 18. I’m excited about all the wines, especially the 2015 Oronoco and Dungannon. We’re also getting ready for the harvest. The season has been shaping up nicely. Veraison came early, July 20 in Block 40 (Merlot), and went quickly, with superb uniformity across all the blocks. This means that the fruit will ripen evenly and allow us to fully extract all the flavors, always an exciting prospect for a winemaker. The modest rains have kept the wines in peak condition, allowing photosynthesis to work its magic, as have the cooler temperatures with lots of clear sunshine. 

What are Dodon Soils?

Dodon’s soils substantially differ from those in other wine growing regions. Termed Marr-Dodon complex soils, they are described as fine-loamy (meaning smallish particle size), siliceous (having high levels of silica that warms the soil), semiactive (modest cation exchange associated with low fertility), mesic (medium temperature), aquic (Dodon series) or typic (Marr series) (aquic soils retain more water than typic) hapludults (derived from sandstone). 

Why do we care so much about Dodon soils?

Grapevines grow just fine in water supplemented with a few nutrients, a method known as hydroponics. Growing hydroponically has lots of advantages. Because it can be done indoors, hydroponics allows perfect temperature control, and it avoids disease pressure often associated with rain, humidity, and insects. Vegetative growth can easily be regulated by adjusting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the amount of nitrogen in the aqueous solution. It’s little wonder that tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables, and most commercial marijuana are grown hydroponically.

Looking Beyond Organic Certification: Part I

I’m often asked when leading guests on a tour in the vineyard whether Dodon is “organic,” or at least aspires to be certified as an organic vineyard. It’s a fair question. In many ways, we fit the common image of organic farmers. On a summer visit, you will find our vineyard team out with hoes, clippers, and other hand tools, carefully cultivating the soil and tending the vines. Regulations governing organic certification require practices that are standard operating procedures at Dodon, such as use of organic composts, mechanical weeding, and use of biological controls for insect pests. These methods are labor intensive and expensive, and they illustrate our commitment to sustainability, ecologically-friendly practices, and a balanced ecosystem.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! We just left the cellar, sniffing, tasting, listening, and stirring one last time in 2016. The ‘16 vintage is coming around nicely. The Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé are developing the flavors and weight that characterize the Dodon site. They’ll be ready for bottling March. The Chardonnay has finished themalolactic fermentation and is settling in for its year-long elévage. The primary fermentations (the conversion of sugar to alcohol) are yet to finish in the reds, but the familiar snap, crackle, pop from the bung hole prove the yeast are still working.