Vineyard and Winery Management, February 1992.
by Richard Figiel
Vineyards flourish in deep gravelly soil along the south end of New York’s Seneca Lake, then abruptly vanish where bedrock shale wells up. Further north the shale loosens and recedes enough to give vines another foothold, marked by the road sign for Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards.
Like Wiemer’s wine label, the sign bears a medieval-looking seal with lions prancing amid clusters of grapes. It sug gests an imprint in wax on 17th century parchment. Hermann traces an unbro ken family line growing grapes and making wine for more than three centuries along the Mosel River of Germany and, for the last 20 years, now also along the Finger Lakes of New York.
Working with the German govern ment at the Geisenheim Institute, Hermann’s father supervised replanting vineyards in the Mosel River Valley decimated during World War II. He ran the country’s largest commercial nursery operation, where Hermann worked as a child when bench grafting WaS still all done by hand. Hermann went on to study at Geisenheim. There the renowned viticulturist Helmut Becker put him in touch with a young American looking for a winemaker. Wiemer had already spent a year in America working for the Oneida Wine Company, a Finger Lakes producer of sacramental wines. In 1968 he returned with Walter Taylor to make wine at Bully Hill.
The driveway at Wiemer’s sign curves between his refurbished-barn winery and elegant ltalianate house to a low, plain metal building. Here he runs one of the East’s largest grapevine nurs eries. On a warm, clear morning in early May, wooden callusing boxes are lined up in the shade of a hedgerow, each bristling with tender green shoots, each box worth thousands of dollars-if all goes well.
Wiemer walks across the lawn from his house with an air of distraction. He has been waiting for weeks for a ship ment of German grafting wax held up by bureaucratic snafus. In its absence, this year he has been forced to graft part of his nursery output without the wax used to protect and reinforce the graft union. Also for the first time this year he did not soak his nursery cuttings in Chinisol, a specialized fungicide imported for years into the U.S. without registration. The Environmental Protection Agency has finally clamped down and Chinisol is no longer available.
Without Chinisol and sometimes without wax, there were some problems with graft “take” this year, but not too serious, says Wiemer. Botrytis is the major disease threat to newly grafted vines. It was the main target of Chinisol. This year Wiemer sprayed the budding vines in callusing boxes with Rovral. He 100ks for an overall 60-70 percent sur vival rate with his grafted vines, losing about 10 percent in the boxes and 25 percent in the nursery.
Rooted vines are broken out of their boxes in 1ate May and set out in sprawling, groomed fields behind Wiemer’s vineyard on overcast days, to limit dehydration of the exposed roots during
planting. But this May there were few clouds and almost no rain; one more unpredictable shortage Hermann Wiemer oversees a business triangle of nursery, vineyard and winery. Each of the three parts contributes to and benefits from the others. The vineyard sends grapes to the winery, prunings to the grafting room. The winery monitors the quality and character of varieties and clones. The nursery supplies vineyard expansion and replacement vines. Customers for grapevines often also buy wine, and the other way around wine drinkers get interested in growing their own.
Hermann says it is all part of a whole for him personally, as well. “I like doing the grafting and nursery work,” (it appears to be more of a passion for him than winemaking), “but by itself it would get boring.”
He says this as he leans against a 20- foot table rimmed with Pfropf-Star German grafting machines, the scene of long, long hours matching sizes and shapes of rootstock and scion, and endlessly kicking footpedals. At two kicks per graft, these grafting machine foot pedals swung 700,000 times this year. Wiemer has trimmed production from 400,000 to 350,000 vines, eliminating most speculative grafting and concentrating on contract work. He is trying to reduce the uncertainties and risks inherent in the business.
Typically clients supply their own bud wood (scion material), but Wiemer must first either inspect the source vine yard himself or implicitly trust the client’s viticu1turist. Besides being healthy, free of crown gall and virus symptoms, he insists that “the scion must not come from over-cropped vines. This is most important for a good take at the graft.”
Timing is critical in the nursery operation. As with many vineyard jobs, there is a small window of opportunity to do the work most efficiently and success fully. Wiemer starts grafting in February or March, mobilizing six part-time
grafters who have worked for him for many years, plus two callusing box packers. The goal is to do the work quickly and minimize the time new plants spend in the boxes, particularly their stay in the callusing room when heat and humidity transform two sticks into one new vine but also put that ten der infant at risk for Botrytis infection.
Wiemer started out as a supplier to eastern vineyards but he now sells half his vines in California. Phylloxera problems as well as general expansion have brought big orders from wineries such as Buena Vista, Newton, Kendall Jackson, and Atlas Peak Eastern sources of reliably phylloxera-resistant root stock have given Wiemer a leg up in supplying west coast vineyards traumatized by the failure of AXR-1. He grafts about half his nursery output on 3309C, most of the rest on S04, 5C and 5BB.
But Wiemer downplays the impor tance of phylloxera in grafting. He sus pects many of the problems California growers are experiencing have more to do with overcropping, management shortcomings, and a poor match between rootstock and soil. “The main function of grafting is adaptability to soils; matching the rootstock to soil characteristics like lime content. This is very important.”
Assembling enough rootstock is a challenge. This year Wiemer supple mented the cuttings he takes off his own rootstock vineyards by buying all the rootstock materials from the Konstantin Frank nursery on neighboring Keuka Lake and Schloss Tucker in Virginia two well-established nurseries dropping out of the business this year. Rootstock resistant to all biotypes of phylloxera is in short supply and likely to get dearer.
Wiemer packs up orders ranging from 25 vines to 50,000. While he cul tivates big contract jobs, he steadfastly supplies the dabblers and backyard growers. They are often good customers at the winery. Wiemer’s nursery work on this side of the Atlantic began as soon as he arrived, when he persuad ed Waiter Taylor to start the Bully Hill nursery in 1968. While he made Bully Hill wines from French-American hybrid grapes, trumpeted by Taylor as the varieties of the future, Hermann quietly began grafting vinifera vines. “Back then,” he recalls with a bemused shrug, “we used Baco Noir for root stock. It has nice straight canes, good take with the scion, and we thought we needed vigorous rootstock to make the vinifera stronger. It was all wrong, of course”.
Now Wiemer likes the low-vigor of 3309C, but the Baco legacy lives on in his own vineyard and others. He recalls grafting an order of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir on Baco roots for Dick Vine at Ontario’s Chateau Gai Winery 20 years ago. When Vine took another job, Chateau Gai canceled the order and the vines ended up on Long Island, part of the original planting at Hargrave Vineyards.
Other pioneer vineyards once bun dled beside Wiemer’s grafting machines include Long Island’s Mudd Vineyards, Virginia’s Meredyth and Rapidan River Vineyards, Michigan’s Chateau Grand Traverse, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate, the Hudson Valley’s Millbrook Vineyards, and Llano Estacado in west Texas.
Wiemer’s own vineyard began with vines grafted at Bully Hill. While he was still Bully Hill’s winemaker he bought a 140-acre abandoned soybean farm on the west side of Seneca Lake. The 10cation on a larger, warmer lake was calculated to support vinifera, but the site itself is less than ideal. Relatively flat and back from the lake, it has some air and water drainage prob lems. To deal with the latter, Wiemer put in a 10,000-foot network of diver sion ditches and drainage tile.
Why did he pick a site with such problems? “It was what I could afford” shrugs Wiemer with a pragmatic, even casual air that coexists in an odd way with his perfectionist zeal. The soybean farm had been worked with horses in an essentially organic regimen. Although the soil type is relatively infertile Aurora silt loam over soft shale, decades of manure build-up gave his vines a running start. He has used no nitrogen fertilizer until this year, when`he noticed signs of declining vine vigor. He relies on visual observation; no soil or petiole tests.
The vineyard has stabilized at 50 acres, including Riesling and Chardonnay at about 17 acres each, 10 acres of Pinot Noir, 5 acres of rootstock and one acre of Gewurztraminer. He wants to add Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc-joining an increasing number of growers intrigued by the possibilities for Bordeaux-style Seneca Lake wines. but he would only do this on another site closer to the lake.
Next to the winery, a Pinot Noir vine yard demonstrates the latest, most extreme version of a high-density, low trellis system that has evolved at Wiemer Vineyards over the years. The vines are spaced 3 feet apart in-row, 8 feet between rows. The top wire of a simple 3-wire vertical trellis is only about 3 feet high.
“I want to create a competitive envi ronment. Keep vigor down. Small vines make better quality wine.”
When I ask why this is so, Wiemer shrugs. “It works in Burgundy. I don’t try to figure this out. The researchers can do that.”
Vines are pruned and tied in a very individual, variable manner leaving 2-6 canes, some only a few buds long and tied along the bottom or middle wire, some long enough to loop over the mid dIe and down to the bottom wire.
When I start to question the number of buds left per square meter of vine yard floor, the standard German formu la, Wiemer dismisses it. “I just want to fill the trellis.” He explains that he keeps vine training uncomplicated so he can bring people into the vineyard without a lot of training. An endemic shortage of willing and able vineyard help is a recurring theme in Wiemer’s description of his vineyard manage ment practices.
Older blocks of Chardonnay and Riesling are trellised somewhat higher and spaced further apart. He started out with a standard Finger Lakes spacing 9×8. The earlier trellises also have mov able catch wires. “Too many wires,” Wiemer now declares. “Too expensive and too much hand work.” Instead of drawing shoots up with catch wires, he now runs through the vineyard twice each summer with a hedger, once just after bloom on one side of each row, then again in late July on the other side. With a minimum of hedging, this keeps at least one side of the canopy opened up all season for spray penetration and air circulation. Wiemer uses a Stockmayer hedging machine from Germany. He is interested in leaf thin ning to further expose grape clusters but rules it out as “too expensive.”
On May 13, with Chardonnay shoots out 3-5 inches, Wiemer says its time to get the sprayers mobilized. This year he applied only one spray in May before a beginning-of-June prebloom spray. Black rot is his biggest concern, then powdery mildew. He ‘has found hedg ing more effective than Rovral sprays for Botrytis control.
Vine rows are hilled up and hoed out every other year, in combination with weed sprays. Wiemer uses a Gregoire take-out hoe made in Cognac by a new vineyard equipment company he has found to be innovative and first-rate. Exasperated by the annual trauma of rounding up grape pickers, he recently bought a $60,000 Gregoire mechanical harvester, a tractor-pulled machine with self-contained storage compartments.
Wiemer says he aims for a 2.5-3 ton yield per acre with Chardonnay, 4 tons with Riesling. He favors small-cluster, small-berry Chardonnay clones. Several years ago the scuttlebutt around the Finger Lakes said Wiemer had furti ve plantings of esoteric Riesling clones from his family connections in Germany. Now he rattles off the num bers of clones in his vineyard and says he doesn’t notice much difference between them. He believes the differ ences in climate here and the experi mental nature of winemaking tech niques obscure clonal distinctions. But he does acknowledge the greater vari ability and importance of Pinot Noir clones.
With Pinot Noir, Wiemer keeps one eye on the fruit, the other on weather reports. In years when he can get it ripe enough, he makes a red Pinot. In other years it goes into his Blanc de Noir sparkler, which is actually half-and-half Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with no dosage). He also makes a 100% Riesling dry sparkling wine.
Dana Keeler, who once worked with Wiemer at Bully Hill, is the winemaker. In 1990 he made a Reserve Chardonnay from exceptionally ripe, 24 Brix grapes, in addition to a regular Chardonnay. He makes two Rieslings, a dry and a sweet er version with residual sugar depend ing on the season and marketing con siderations. Some 1989 semi-dry still in inventory encouraged him to make a sweeter, “A us lese-style” in ’90.
Total production, including a basic blended white table wine, hovers around 13,000 cases. Wiemer plans to stay at this level until market demand picks up, “when consumers realize how many very good wines are now coming out of the Finger Lakes.” He sees it happening. While he still couldn’t resist a little hybrid-bashing in a recent Wine Spectator interview, Hermann Wiemer has mellowed dramatically in the near ly 20 years since I first met him at Bully Hill. He expresses pride in his region and confidence in a bright future for Finger Lakes wines, a future he has played a key part in shaping.