This time of the year, as the grapes start to sweeten on the vine, the vineyard crew heads out to the vineyard with a special spool attachment behind on the tractor: It's bird netting time.
While Carl and I came to Allegro in 2001, that fall harvest was managed by Dick Naylor of Naylor Wine Cellars down the road. We officially purchased Allegro in early 2002, and that year's growing season and harvest were all ours: our work, our grapes, our responsibility. Carl and I had both worked for Mount Nittany VIneyard & Winery for several years prior to purchasing our own place, so we knew the vineyard seasons and a lot about the special time that is harvest. What we had never before fully experienced was how it feels to have a full-on investment in an agricultural enterprise.
Farming goes back generations in my family, as my father grew up in Iowa working summers on his four uncles' farms. His father, like both of my parents, like me, went into the field of education rather than an actual field for his profession. We still tend to wax poetic about the farming life, and when I was a teenager my family moved outside State College, PA, to live on a mountaintop property with thirty-five acres and horses.
While I really enjoy life on our "grape farms," the experience of having part of our livelihood out growing in the world, susceptible to the whims of weather and nature, is nothing if not humbling. Much can go right--this summer's mostly dry heat, for instance, makes us excited for the promise of the 2020 vintage--and much can also go wrong: late spring frosts, early fall frosts, storm remnants during hurricane season, severe winter freezing. Carl tells me that he doesn't stress over the weather, because he can't control it. He stresses over the wines, which are within his purview. By contrast, I tend to stress about the things I can't control. Like birds.
Back in 2002, the vineyard was ours. Over the course of one afternoon that September, we went from anticipating a full grape harvest to realizing that we would only have enough harvestable Chardonnay to produce a single barrel of wine. What stole away or damaged all of those grapes? Flocks of birds that came around when we weren't looking and apparently had no respect for the loud electronic "squawkers" we had in the vineyard, mimicking the sounds of predatory birds. Birds came and went while we weren't watching. The grapes were gone. I remember feeling disbelief that our fortunes could turn so quickly. Oof.
So, beginning with the growing season of 2003, you can bet that we started putting bird nets out over all of the vines in August. To way understate things, bird nets are a pain. They get damaged. They get tangled. Vines get tangled in them. Snakes get tangled in them. They are a pain to put on, to take off, to roll up, to store. They are a real pain during grape harvest days. But all of that pain still doesn't outweigh the pain of losing a full crop to a rogue feathered gang.
These days, as the vineyard management has become more seasoned, Allegro has adapted our bird netting, now using narrower nets that don't have to go all the way over the top of the rows. The black nets are more aesthetically pleasing than the old white or emerald green nets, but they still do the job. The worrying part of me is always grateful when I see those nets come out every summer. It takes hours and ours of time in the vineyard to get all of them in place, but it's nice to have some measure of peace regarding one thing which we can take some control of.
We are vigilant these days, keeping an eye out for the likely inevitable future infestation of spotted lanternflies, the strange invasive insects which have the power to devastate vineyards. Remarkably, we have not yet seen the lanternflies in our vineyards, though they are in counties all around us and have even made it across the country from Pennsylvania to Napa Valley. Nets won't help safeguard us against those bugs. (Here's a local news story which includes an interview with Carl.)
Some days, it does seem like there isn't much we do have the power to control. Some days, we do feel vulnerable. Farming does take a strong gut. And humility. And vigilance. And, sometimes, miles of bird netting. But still, it is rich with rewards. Every year we grow here, we get to anticipate and realize the vineyard's potential. Like all of the farmers before us, we get to look forward to what comes next.