Vineyard Manager Thom Bechtold
As a member of the tasting staff in the winery I have only spent time in the vineyard a handful of times. When Chris, tasting room manager of King Ferry Winery, asked me to interview people about the wine making process I immediately selected Thom, the vineyard manager, who has worked in the vineyard for about fourteen years. His insights into the growing process extend from the structure of soil kernels to the taste of ripe grapes.
I could have asked Thom hundreds of questions but his depth of insight would have kept us chatting for hours. He said that his favorite time in the vineyard is, not surprisingly, the harvest. Thousands of grapes and dozens of people sounds like a good time! So when you sneak a grape into your mouth during harvest does it actually taste good? According to Thom they are delicious and the gewürztraminer grapes are especially tasty. He praised the location of the vineyard not only for its benefit to the vines but also for its interesting variety of wildlife. Because of its proximity to the lake, many bird migration routes pass over the vineyard. Thom said he has seen ravens, trumpeter swans, and caspian terns. He says there is something new to see every day.
One question that I have gotten a few times from customers in the tasting room is whether or not our wines are organic. I always answered that although they were not organic we practice sustainable agriculture. My understanding of what exactly “sustainable agriculture” entails was quite lacking. Thom gave me a brief introduction to the extensive worlds of organic and sustainability. Little did I know, these terms are not necessarily congruent. Sustainable, in economic terms is reducing or eliminating social costs for example the carbon foot print. He explained that many of the pests that harm the vines originate in the north east so pest control is a major concern in this area especially. Because of this fact, organic farming may not be sustainable. If the grapes are gobbled up because there are no certified organic methods that control pests in this area it is not sustainable to be organic. King Ferry Winery works with Cornell Cooperative Extension on a program called Vine Balance: Sustainable Viticulture in the Northeast. The program ensures that the vineyard is doing all it can to practice sustainable agriculture and produce excellent grapes. Some of the practices that Thom has instated include eliminating herbicides and synthetic insecticides and using alternative control measures such as neem oil, types of bacteria, and bio-pesticides. Currently Thom is working towards improving soil management in the vineyard. Soil is much more delicate than one might think. Once it is broken up by plowing or tilling the soil structure is damaged and it does not support the health of the vines as well. Thom is exploring alternatives to turning the soil so that soil degradation is limited. Organic is not out of the question for the future of the vineyard but sustainability is the priority for environmentally minded farmers like Thom.
Our conversation gave me just a dusting on the complex nature of vineyard management but it proved to be very informative! Keep an eye out for future insights from Thom. Questions upon questions are cropping up since our discussion so it is only a matter of time before I pick his brain again and I will be sure to share the knowledge.