While the days are beginning to get longer, the temperature is creeping lower and lower. Just as we adorn ourselves with scarves and jackets, Unionville’s grapevines must also prepare accordingly for the harsh temperatures ahead. Lucky for them, they have a dedicated team of viticulturalists to help them stay happy in the most brutal of weather!
Grapevines, like most woody plants, go dormant in the Wintertime to protect themselves and their new growth from frost. However, grapevines are very sensitive plants, especially in wetter, colder regions like the mid-Atlantic. This sensitivity means that the vines are still susceptible to cold damage in dormancy. With that in mind, the vineyard team at Unionville likes to take a couple of precautionary measures, so when the vines wake up in Springtime, they are ready to bud, flower and grow the grapes used to make some of the tastiest wine on the East Coast.
The first of these precautionary measures started many years ago, with our choice to plant cold-hardy varietals such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Riesling, but even our hardiest vines need a little TLC on the coldest Winter days. For that reason, we rely on a process called “hilling-up,” which describes the method of taking fresh compost (made from organic waste accrued on-site) and mounding it around the top of the root system and the vine’s graft union, two areas that are more vulnerable to Winter damage. These piles of compost create a blanket of insulation around the vine, as well as a physical barrier to pooling of water on frozen ground. Of course, the roots are not our only focus in winter-damage prevention. Large offshoots from the base and center of the trunk (affectionately called ‘suckers’ because they require a lot of nutrients to grow), which would normally be removed during the three growing seasons, are left intact to prevent cold-exposure to the trunk of the vine. They also serve as great markers of vine health come Springtime!
With February fast approaching, pruning season is off and running. These next couple of months are the perfect time to monitor and correct growing patterns and vigor for the coming Summer by cutting back vine spurs to just a few nodes. This assures even and healthy canopy growth, as well as an appropriate and manageable crop load (for both the vines and the winemaking team).
Vines are being pruned, barrels are being topped, tank whites are being bottled and wine is being poured and enjoyed in our tasting room all day long. It's winter hibernation for most, but Unionville is always in full swing.
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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.