' Ready or Not: An Early Awakening in the Vineyard - Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek



Ready or Not: An Early Awakening in the Vineyard



It happens every spring but this year at Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek the emergence of new shoots and leaves growing on vines, a magnificent annual awakening after months of dormancy, began in March.


That’s early.


“It’s the second vintage in my 24 years where we’ve had a March budbreak,” says Chatham vintner Jon Wehner.


Bud break signals new beginning, an exciting time in the vineyard, but ideally it doesn’t occur until mid to late April after a cold winter.


Mother Nature didn’t comply in 2023, forcing adjustments at Chatham that fortunately Jon was prepared to make given decades of experience that inform his decision-making.


The premature wakeup call stems from the mild winter on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that affects soil temperature. Because the soil never got that cold, the roots activated roughly a month earlier than they would have had winter been more severe.


“We try to wait to prune but once the roots are active, the saps starts flowing,” Jon says. “Once we make our cuts, you see the sap clear and have a sort of sugary water dripping. The vines are weeping.”


March budbreak puts the vineyard at risk for frost and potential ruin of the crop if temperatures plummet low enough. And they did drop into the 30s and upper 20s, forcing another wakeup call — the wind machines. Chatham has two wind machines with sensors that automatically turn them on when the temperature reaches 34 degrees. If too much cold air collects on the ground, the new shoots with baby clusters could be damaged by frost. The fans, which sound like helicopters flying low, pull the warmer air from above into the vineyards to prevent frost from forming.


“We had five nights of potential frost,” Jon says. “Those are long nights. A few weeks ago, the wind machines started around 9:30 at night and they ran about 12 hours straight to keep what little warm air we have at ground level to protect the fruiting zone, which is 38 inches above ground level. We were successful doing that.”


Jon doesn’t need an alarm on those chilly evenings when it’s not unusual for him to be checking temperatures at 3 a.m. That light sleep that many of us experience the night before an early flight is natural when the crop is at risk due to fluctuations in weather. The wind fans aren’t exactly quiet, either.


“But in many ways that’s what I love about this business,” Jon says. “There’s such an awareness to the nature and the evolution of the seasons and what’s at stake.”


The good news: Nothing was lost. The warmer temperatures of the last few weeks have helped with uniformity, allowing the buds that hadn’t pushed to push, creating a more uniform canopy.


“When you have 36,000 grape vines and they all look the same, that’s good,” Jon says. “They have the same number of buds, the same number of shoots, a similar number of clusters. This uniformity helps during harvest.”


The catchup shut eye will come for Jon, who adds, “When the vines are asleep for the winter and everything is in tank and barrel and there’s not any major risk, I can sleep a good long time.”

Post By:   Amanda Shortt
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