I just returned from Vine Camp in Prosser, Washington. For those of you that don’t know, I am currently enrolled in the Viticulture Program (growing grapes) at Washington State University. The program is 18 months long with three “camps” required. The camps are two days of study where students fly in from all over the country-actually one woman flies in from the Netherlands. This latest camp discussed various diseases to be found in vineyards, with specific emphasis on Powdery Mildew and Botrytis Bunch Rot; both or which can wreak havoc on a vineyard.
Powdery Mildew is a fungal disease that affects the grapevine. The mildew attaches itself on leaves of the grapevines, seriously hindering the photosynthesis of the plant and therefore reducing yield. Botyrtis Bunch Rot infects the berries of the plant, sucking the moisture out of the grape and if left unattended, will destroy the entire bunch, vine and eventually large portions of a vineyard. Botrytis is a fungus on grapes when wet moist conditions prevail. Viticulturists will fight against this by opening up the canopy (removing leaves) to get better air circulation within the canopy. They will also add a host of fungicides to fight its spread.
Now, my class is on Viticulture, so the focus is on fighting diseases of the plant; but, Botrytis isn’t always a bad thing. As an Oenologist and a Sommelier, I know that Botrytis also has its good side. If you have ever had a Sauternes you will understand how Botrytis, when kept in check, is a good thing, though my professors at camp would never agree.
When Botrytis infects a grape, it sends finger like tentacles inside the grape to drink up the moisture inside. This reduces the water in the grape and concentrates the juice. Even better, it also imparts a honey like flavor inside the grape that is delicious.
When you are actually encouraging Botrytis, the trick for the growers is to find the balance between perfect infestation of the fungus and horrible blight. You see, Botrytis is only a good thing when you want it. If you are trying to make a dry Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for example, you want zero. The French however, specifically in their Semillons in the southern portions of Bordeaux want it.
Washington State is the second largest wine producer in the US. They are growing by leaps and bounds. Our class trip included a visit to Inland Desert Nursery, a family owned nursery that supplies the cleanest and healthiest grapevines available to growers across North America. Inland Desert Nursery works closely with Washington State virologists, and are leading proponents of certified clean and disease-free grapevines. This effort is key to building profitable, sustainable vineyards.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that each day’s agenda didn’t end with drinking Washington wines. All for the sake of study.
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Desk or vineyard? This is the question I asked myself when making the leap of faith to leave my corporate life behind to pursue my passion for wine. After working in the medical communications space for 10 years, 2022 was the year of epiphany. It may sound old fashion, but I did have a major realization in the beginning of the new year that I was not meant to work behind a desk and chug along doing work that I was no longer passionate about.
My first notion of my interest of wine came during my frequent business trips to Boston about 4 years ago. For the first time I was immersing myself in the world of wine through client dinners, networking events and a lot of self-exploring through Beantown. During this time was my first encounter with sommeliers and wine experts. I was fascinated and intrigued by the expertise knowledge of wine, wine making and learning about the intricacies that goes into producing a bottle of wine. At this moment, I thought about how amazing it was to witness such passion for the craft of wine.
I enrolled in an online sommelier level one course at the Wine School of Philadelphia and began studying and reading everything I could about wine. This is where my 2nd major epiphany happened – I asked myself, the question that I stated in the beginning “desk or vineyard?”
This is the question that started the major stepping stone to my journey. I no longer wanted my wine passion to be in the background – I wanted to be 100% committed and both feet in. Unionville Vineyards was the first winery that popped into my head when I thought about making my “9:00- 5:00” switch. I attended a wedding at Unionville the year prior and loved the atmosphere, the wine and the people. The position that I applied to was half farm work half hospitality. I was instantly attracted to the idea of being out in the field to where it all begins in wine making. Thoughts of my “office” transforming into the beautiful vineyard was something I desired. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Unionville has multiple vineyard sites with the Coventry site located within Coventry Farm in Princeton being my favorite (love the views there!) Working at the different sites allows you to see how the different micro climates, soil and land impact the vines and fruit cluster growth. Also working in the field to me was the perfect learning opportunity to understand the craft of wine making soup to nuts. Being surrounded by vines that produced grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay was eye opening to me. I was so used to seeing the finished product of these grape varietals in their bottled form, but actually being able to perform farming techniques on the vines starts to create another level of perspective and appreciation for wine.
One of my favorite farming tasks to perform in the field on the vines is leaf pulling. Leaf pulling is when you remove leaves from around the fruit clusters. The rule of thumb is to remove leaves that are across and below from the fruit cluster. Removing the leaves creates oxygen flow, openness for pesticides to be sprayed and exposes the fruit to more sunlight. I enjoy seeing the satisfying result of a perfectly balanced vine with the right number of leaves removed. Working in the field creates a huge bond between you and your other field peers. You become a family unit and learn how to work together and communicate as a team. To me, this is a very important factor for having a successful vineyard. My experience with people at Unionville in general has been amazing. You have the opportunity to interact with people from all different backgrounds (teachers, college, corporate, etc.) which makes for some great conversations and comradery.
To anyone reading this, do not be afraid to follow your passion and take a chance on doing what you want to ensure your happiness. It was scary to make such a drastic shift from corporate to farm work, especially since the two are extremely opposite ends of the spectrum, but I have no regrets and I am happy with where my career and focus is going.
My name is Rachael White, and I am the new vineyard manager at Unionville Vineyards. I am thrilled to be part of the team and produce exceptional grapes for exquisite wine. I’m eager to begin this role and I wanted to introduce myself to share a little of my background.
I became interested in grape production right out of high school while working at my local research and extension center with the viticulture team. Little did I know when I started that viticulture would become my passion and career going forward. I got to work with industry famous people like Dr. Tony Wolf and Dr. Cain Hickey and interact with growers that were more than happy to share their joys and dismays about farming grapes. I fell in love with the seasonality and the fact I could always be outside! With a newfound purpose, I attended my first semester at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2013 and immediately focused my degree on wine grape production. I took every wine and vineyard related course offered at the time and enjoyed other horticulture courses along the way. I studied
abroad in Cortona, Italy where I learned old world wine tradition and began refining my palate.
I finished my Bachelor of Science degree in December of 2016 and looked to gain more knowledge from elsewhere in the world. I decided to work a vintage in the southern hemisphere and set my eyes on New Zealand. In March of 2017, I started work at a contract winery in the Marlborough region that produced Sauvignon Blanc, but also small batches of Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. I worked on the “Red Team," and processed mostly Pinot Noir
in small orders for clients.