Stranger than Fiction
From streaking naked to serenades, weird customs in the vineyard produce results.
Some winegrowers believe there's more to cultivating grapes than just watering, pruning and thinning out clusters. A growing cadre of maverick winemakers is using techniques that are truly off the charts, but they swear it has made them difference between good and great wine.
Claus Preisinger, an Austrian winemaker for Vancouver-based importer Farmstead Wines, believes that spraying certain teas in the vineyard helps his vines thrive. His strategy is threefold: first, he brews a tea made from the horsetail plant to counteract fungus, next, he applies nettle tea to boost vine immunity and vigor. Then he sprays chamomile directly on vines to calm them and reduce stress. Preisinger also hangs bags of sheep wool in the vineyard to keep deer away because as he put it, "deer don't like sheep."
Other growers have turned to music to coax grapes into reaching their full potential. At Summers Estate Wines in Calistoga, California, Gerardo Garcia sings mariachi and ranchera songs in the vineyard and cellar while he works. He thinks it adds depth to the grapes (specifically the Zinfandel) and that his serenades serve to marry the wine with spices in the soil. Marcelo Doffo of Doffo Winery in Temecula, California, strings speakers in the vineyard to broadcast classical music to his vines. "I share my music with the plants," he says. He prefers Vivaldi and Verdi, though he'll occasionally switch to jazz.
One night during his first vintage in 1994, Miguel Merino, a Rioja winemaker, noticed that the temperature gauge on a vat filled with 9,000 kilos of Tempranillo grapes picked the day before was rapidly climbing. He watered the vat with an irrigation hose, but the temperature continued to rise.
So he decided to treat the grapes as though they had a fever: he wrapped the vat in a towel and turned on the hose. The next morning, the danger was past. Merino still refers to that night as "the chickenpox night," adding that the procedure worked so well and resulted in such a fine vintage that it became standard operating procedure. He doesn't think other winemakers will adopt his technique. "Normal people don't stay up all night with a watering hose in their hand," he said.
Perhaps the most unorthodox growing technique takes place at Lakewood Vineyards in New York's Finger Lakes district. Though he would publicly deny it, fourth-generation grower David Stamp continues the annual spring ritual of running through the vines buck-naked, a custom that supposedly began with his great-grandfather. One balmy spring day, Charles Stamp stirred up a beehive while tying vines and the bees worked their way up his pants. He yanked off his overalls while running through the vineyard, and the resulting harvest was one of the best yet. Not wanting to chance future vintages, the Stamps have been streaking through the vineyard ever since.