June is a month of promise at Fresh Tracks Farm Vineyard and Winery. The tight clusters of pale green buds auger well for a bountiful grape harvest—just a few short months away. The Vermont growing season is brief, and here in Berlin, Vermont, the pace of cultivation is intense.
So, they move fast. Trimming the vines, pulling weeds, swatting deer flies away from sun-drenched foreheads. Jordan, Mark and Vincent cull unneeded stems from the thick grape vines, opening the leafy canopy to rays of the strong northern sun and encouraging the production of high-quality wine grapes.
“We want the vines to devote their energy to producing grapes, rather than expending it developing unnecessary foliage,” says Jordan, the Vineyard Manager here at Fresh Tracks Farm. “That’s why we thin the vines of secondary shoots. It keeps the plant’s energy focused on growing the best grapes, and lets in the light and air.”
Viticulture is new to me. A life-long cubicle dweller, I spend most of my time hunched over a glowing blue screen, typing frenetically at a plastic keyboard, and I am in no way prepared for today’s adventures in grape cultivation. I’ve even forgotten my gloves.
“How to you know which stems to trim?” I ask, wiping dirt from untrained fingers.
“See this?” says Jordan, gesturing to a lumpy nodule of hard brown wood at the base of the lush foliage. “That’s a node. And deep inside each node is the potential for three shoots—a primary shoot, which is the first to present itself. That same node can then produce a secondary shoot and even a tertiary shoot. This is almost like an insurance policy against a heavy frost—if the primary shoot freezes, the secondary and tertiary shoots spring into action. This year, we had a mild winter and the primary shoots survived in excellent shape. Any extra shoots are being thinned out to give the vines more light and air”
The June sun is uncharacteristically hot on this warm Vermont day. Everyone works quickly—pulling up weeds at the base of each trunk, removing the unwanted shoots, leaving room for sun and wind to filter through the canopy. My soft, pasty hands are a bit sore from pulling up the weeds, but the sun on my back feels glorious—a much needed taste of summer after weeks of cold rain.
As we move along the orderly rows of budding vines, I start to pick up the rhythm, looking for that second, weaker shoot sprouting off a central node. After an hour or so of stilted practice, I can finally keep up with the other workers, thinning my vines with confidence. The conversation slowly turns to cats. Barn cats, we all agree, are a particularly beneficial kind of cat. Mark tells a funny story about a neighbor who dresses up his cat and walks him around the neighborhood on a leash. Everybody laughs. I relate a brief anecdote about a lady who likes to put her cat in a stroller and parade around the suburbs. Chortles all around.
At least surfing the internet is good for something, I think to myself.
More pulling weeds. My hands are sore now and stained green by the long grass. I stop at a cluster of thatch and horsehair that appears to be balled up in the vines.
“A bird’s nest,” I squeal with excitement. After all, when was the last time I saw a bird’s nest? On my screen saver?
“Yep, you’ll find quite a few of those,” says Mark. “Eggs or baby birds?”
I stand on my tiptoes, peering precariously into the light green foliage.
“Eggs,” I report, fascinated by the smooth blue and brown flecked orbs, beautiful as turquoise beads. “They’re so pretty.”
“Little bandits,” says Mark, laughing. “They hatch and eat all the fruit. We even named one of our wines after them.”
Grape vines flower like any other fruit—first producing tight clusters of green buds that will soon blossom into flowers. When the bloom of the grape flowers wane, they fall, drop to the ground and leave behind a cluster of firm, delicate green fruit that ripens to a rich purple or a pale yellow, depending on the varietal.
I pause for a moment to swat at a deer fly and take a swig from my water bottle. Grapes aren’t the only thing bursting into bloom around the farm. The vibrant spines of lupines launch themselves from the mulch like brightly colored rockets, dazzling the landscape with color and fragrance. Luscious heads of lettuce peek their pale leaves through the thatched ground cover, bursting with early summer flavor. And blooming peonies add vibrant baubles of color to the mottled green landscape. It’s a good feeling—working on the land. So much color and richness to be found.
The other workers are moving efficiently along the row of vines, thinning the vines with a practiced motion. I re-cork my water bottle and get back to work, submerging myself in the first steps of making wine by hand.