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Geoff Heinricks

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A Fool And Forty Acres

A Fool And Forty Acres

Conjuring A Vineyard Three Thousand Miles From Burgundy
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“There’s a fair!”

“Yeah, there is a fair!”

Or so my two elder daughters squealed when the car pulled into the farm to pick me up. Their younger sister echoed their excitement. And I guess it does look like a fair. Bright yellow balloons hang over the Pinot Noir, and metallic red and silver tape flashes brilliantly in the sunlight. It all lends an undeniably festive air. Though mildly disappointed there wasn’t a fair at their farm, they still seemed pleased with the idea that it looked an awful lot like one.

I have been tying together the sections of bird-netting that I have finally hauled out. The outer rows of the Pinot Noir have been picked pretty clean. If I am going to take complete advantage of the glorious ripening weather we’ve finally been enjoying and get the potentially excellent sugars and flavours out of the grapes, I have no other choice. The yellow scare-eye beach balls and the tape deterred the birds from trial maraudings, but now that the sugars were 18 Brix, the siren call of the berries overwhelms natural caution and fear.

Crows caterwaul to each other in the hedgerow as I work, telling their comrades to wait but a few minutes until I am gone. Cleverly out of sight, too. Following the string of calls down the trees, I finally spot one crow, sitting atop the highest maple. That is the only one I can see.

The next morning, I finish covering the Pinot Noir with the netting I purchased last year, along with more sections bought this fall to cover the new fruit-bearing rows. It’s a nice, light black plastic mesh that doesn’t break down in sunlight.

I have also bought my own affordable refractometer from Watson’s Barrels & Winemaking Supplies in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s not a toy. It’s a fairly costly piece of equipment that’s invaluable out in the vinerows right now. It looks like a small collapsed telescope, with a little hinged lid at the end opposite the eyepiece. By squeezing a drop or two of juice from a berry on a glass plate and closing the lid, a system of prisms and temperature compensation devices calibrate the sugar of the sample in degrees Brix. Looking in the eyepiece in the direction of the sun shows one the reading on the Brix scale. It’s an amazing, easy-to-use tool. Last year, Phil Mathewson lent me his expensive, older, French model. This year it was definitely time to get my own, and, luckily, cheaper ones made in China are suddenly everywhere.

The refractometer is a good teaching aid. As in all things, constant repetition, in this case plucking, squeezing, tasting, and then looking at the reading, helps train the taste buds to recognize the sugar percentage. Most of the time I find I’m within a few tenths of a degree Brix. The next phase of tasting comes only with more experience: the ability to recognize whether the acid is in good balance with the sugars, and whether the skins and the grape taste “right.” Even with good sugars, a grape can still taste green and underripe if it comes from a vine that is too vigorous and out of balance. That kind of judgement may take quite a few harvests to develop.

At this point the samples in the refractometer are reading 20 or 21 Brix, and the grapes ripen fast in the intense sunshine and 30 to 31 degrees Celsius heat we enjoy for a few key days after the rain. The nights drop quickly into the teens, which helps keep the grapes from losing too much acidity.

The voles have started to help themselves. Some ravaged and even undamaged clusters show the signs of nocturnal visits: mud on the berries. The cool nights have caused very heavy mists and dews to settle all around Hillier for the past few weeks. The moisture on the fruit turns the dirt on the fur and paws of the voles to mud as they clamber over them, and so each morning there are streaks of dry clay on the berries. It ruins that wonderful heavy grey-white waxy bloom on the blue-black Pinot Noir. And it’s just plain annoying, like waking up to find graffiti tagged on your house or store.

Do I have the character to let our Pinot Noir hang for another week or so, to get the raw material I need to make the wine I tell people I want to make?

I debate that each morning when the weather turns wet once more. Grey days and steady drizzle from the remains of a hurricane have kept the ground and fruit sodden. So far the Pinot Noir is free of disease. Their thinner skins and tight clusters make Pinot susceptible to botrytis, or grey rot, which leads the disease parade now with the rains and the mists and heavy dews. Our grapes are healthy, the skins tough. Unfortunately, I’m not the only creature that has noticed.

Every night the ripest clusters, with berries around 21 to 23 Brix, disappear. Or they are obliterated, left nearly naked on the stems, with a paving of plucked but forgotten berries around the vine trunks. The voles mock me not only with what they take, but with what they leave carelessly strewn about.

That little detail is bothersome. The voles, it seems to me, have to work too hard to abandon fruit without taking the seeds. Also, some of the windup traps I put out to thin the population have been batted about, even after I weighted them with chunks of limestone.

I decide I’d better make a surprise night visit to the vineyard. What I find is a patrol of raccoons stalking the edges of the netting. One, an immensely fat creature, is leaning against the netting, helping himself to grapes from the outer row.

I scream and yell like a madman, and they slowly waddle to the hedgerow. I pull the netting away from the clusters where the giant raccoon has pushed in, and add more stones to anchor it. My heart sinks, and I know that the share taken by voles and birds is nothing compared to what I now recognize as the worst thieves.

The next night I come to spend all the hours until dawn guarding the fruit. I have a gun — an air rifle, because, after all, this is Canada, and I haven’t done the paperwork that would allow me to own a shotgun or proper rifle. It will at least get their attention. And I have a few good clubs as backup.

These are some of the hardest hours I’ve put in among those rows. I patrol, then crouch down and wait for half an hour or so to set up an ambush. The cool evening temperature, so good at holding acidity in the ripening fruit, forces me every hour or so into a lawn chair to drain more of the tea and coffee I’ve brought, and to fume about wasting my time.

Not a single raccoon shows up.

When the darkness gradually begins to lift, I walk towards the car. The sound makes me jump: the fenceline is suddenly filled with clicking, the strange tcchk-tcchk-tcchk raccoons make. The damned things have been watching all night, waiting for me to leave so they could get down to work. I just shrug, and when I get to the car, my sense of defeat is complete. I’ve locked the keys inside. I’ll have to wait another three hours before I can knock on the Van Lunes’ door to use the phone.

I stop by to check things again, after some breakfast and a shower, and startle two raccoons at work. They turn, and without much haste make their way down the unnetted young rows, where they have been helping themselves to the odd cluster that wasn’t worth protecting. The only signs of their displeasure are the purple turds of skins and seeds they leave, either to hasten their taunting, sauntering escape, or to let me know they didn’t much enjoy being put off their schedule last night. I have the air rifle with me, but of course the tin of lead pellets is in the trunk. I peel to the car, but by the time I run back the raccoons are nowhere to be seen. I scream in frustration, and ping off a few shots into the trees like a fool.

There are only three things to do. The first is to ensure that next year I put up electric fencing around the perimeter. The second and third are to hope for a return to fashion of coonskin coats and a worldwide Davy Crockett revival. Roadkill for me is now one less mouth to feed. I have not hit a raccoon myself yet, but cheer whenever I spot the good civic work performed by another driver. The turkey vultures can have all they want.

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