Friday, July 17, 2009

In vino veritas

This week marked my first time working at a vineyard, thanks to Gail and Ken who welcomed me into their home and invited me to help out at their winemaking operation at Shelburne Vineyard for a few days. I arrived Sunday afternoon and wandered about the property taking in the stunning views for a bit before the evening's art show and wine tasting, at which point I was put to work arranging plates of delectable local cheeses and chocolates for the event (and, you know, making sure the various wines were up to snuff... they were). I spent Monday and Tuesday working with Ken at his organic vineyard on the Shelburne Farm property, pruning and trellissing vines, and getting occasionally whacked in the face by a recalcitrant vignola branch (cheeky buggers, those vines). As we worked, Ken explained the different trellissing techniques, the origins and eccentricities of the grape varietals, and processes for making different types of wine.

Much like consumers are starting to ask about the origins of their meat and produce at their local markets, Ken confided, an increasing number of wine drinkers are asking about their grapes. They want to know how grapes are harvested (at Shelburne, they are literally handpicked), where the vines come from (some are of European origin, others are hybrids), and any chemicals involved in the grape production (minimal, even for the uncertified organic batches.) What makes wine "organic" surprised me: it's the grape which is certified organic, not the wine, since the winemaking process involves the inclusion of chemically-manufactured sulfites. Though there is a process that does not use these added sulfites as a preservative, my impression was that the resulting wines are subpar and thus unable to compete with traditional wines. Also, sulfites naturally occur in grapes, just at lower levels, so I'm considerably less phased than I might otherwise be. Don't get me wrong, I like my food -- and wine -- to be as minimally chemical-laden as possible, but I am hardly a purist. (One day, about two weeks ago, Ollie and I got really lost and when I stopped to ask for directions at a gas station I was overtaken by spontaneous hunger as I approached the counter and scarfed two hot dogs without even blinking. I'm pretty sure I chewed them, but I can't be sure. I vaguely recall slathering them with mustard and relish, but still: hardly organic or sustainably produced. Heck, hardly more than snouts and ears and sulfites, most likely. Anyway....)

As Tuesday was Bastille Day -- Vive la France! -- or maybe because they were trying to make some room for a restock in the fridge, after dinner on what was to be my final evening in the area, Ken, Gail, and I sampled a number of dessert wines (along with a slightly modified version of the chocolate torte recipe I am determined to perfect). As we sipped and chatted, I reflected on the pair, around my parents' ages, who have devoted much of the past 30 years to land stewardship (through their involvement with the Vermont Land Trust, participation in local and statewide environmental advisory groups, and their own land management practices), building their community (Gail in particular has worked with a number of environmental education and volunteer organizations around the state over the years), and enjoying life (in spite of what I learned could sometimes be a grueling workload). It's hard work that the couple seems to undertake with a sense of joy. The business breaks even, but they're hoping to make a profit, maybe even give themselves (instead of just their small staff) salaries in coming years.

Something that I've been thinking about, even before leaving DC, is how very few sustainable food operations appear to be financially self-sustaining -- nearly all rely on grants or holding second jobs or spouses working in a non-agricultural field subsidizing the operation. One of the things I am hoping to discover along this journey is how relatively small, responsibly run farms can not just barely survive but *thrive.* Doing the right thing shouldn't mean a life of constant struggle. Challenging work: yes. Physically demanding work: well, it is a farm, so in most cases that comes with the territory. But when I read about the plight of an increasing number of farmers in debt, who cannot afford their own piece of land, who can barely afford to feed themselves and their families let alone pay for private health insurance (see what happens when I get a little wine in me?), I get angry. Is it true that the majority of our government's agricultural dollars support -- even encourage -- irresponsible, large-scale farming practices while neglecting small, organic farms? It sure seems that way. I haven't seen "Food, Inc." yet, but my hunch is that it confirms some of my suspicions.

Speaking of hunches, I suspect that we're going to start seeing more wine coming out of New England. Vermont wines are not as well known as those from California or Oregon or even New York's lush Hudson Valley, at least not yet. But I heard through the grapevine that they're on the rise. And if they're anywhere near as consistently good as Shelburne's "Rhapsody," "Late Harvest," or "NuMondo," we're in for a treat.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Ah, yes, and now that I've seen Food, Inc. (and rewatched King Corn) I'm sad to say I was right: our government's agricultural subsidies are definitely weighted toward large, irresponsible monocultures (single crop) operations.

  2. I just got back from France where there is a huge push to go back to minimal or no sulfite added wines. I had several wines without any added sulfites some were great others were OK but they all seemed competitive.

    Hope you are doing OK out there Ibti, back here in DC we are getting ready for another ultimate season, unfortunately sans toi.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Dave, and I'm sorry to miss yet another ultimate season. You know I should be in pretty good shape by the time I get back next summer (though this won't mean my alligator-style catching will be any prettier). :P

    During various trips to France, Italy, and Spain over the years, I came to understand that generally it was only the exported wines that contained added sulfites (as preservatives). I've heard from a few of my friends who normally complain of headaches drinking red wine in the States that they have no problems drinking red wines in Europe and some have attributed this to the lack of sulfites in the table wines there. I wonder....


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