Give fools their gold, and knaves their power; let fortune's bubbles rise and fall; who sows a field, or trains a flower, or plants a tree, is more than all.John Greenleaf Whittier1807-1892
Any smart winemaker worth his salt knows that “wine is made in the vineyard.” It’s never about how fancy the winery is or how much equipment you have in the cellar. If you haven’t got what it takes out in the vineyard – both in terms of terroir and vineyard management – you’ll have a hard time making good wines. So today I’d like to add another phrase to the winemaking lexicon – “behind every good winemaker is a great vineyard manager.”
Growing grapes on the East Coast is not for the faint of heart. There are constant forces of nature that will either work with you or against you, but one thing is certain - you are never in control of any of them. One of best vineyard mangers in the business is Dave Thompson, vineyard manager at Bedell Cellars. Dave has been managing vineyards since in the early 80’s when he helped Kip Bedell plant his first vines. Few people in our district know more about the climate, soil and process of growing vines than he does – and few have as much intuition about it.
Unlike many annual vegetable and fruit crops, grapes are around for a long time. Once their roots take hold in a vineyard they can live about as long as people do (70-80 years on average) before they become less economically viable. Because of this, a good farmer gets to know his vines in all seasons and a healthy and happy balance is achieved by keeping a close eye on the vines. I’ll often hear Dave say half-jokingly that “the vines are speaking to me” – or the vines don’t seem to like this or that. Dave almost knows how the vines feel by being around them all day. He lives and breathes the cycles of the vineyard as well the natural world that surrounds them.
Along with mastering the art of growing wine grapes, Dave has been keeping bees on the vineyard property since 1986. He got into it because he felt a connection to his past. As a young boy, Dave spent many days at his grandfather’s farm in Harbor Creek in Western New York. During the summer months, Dave helped out on the farm, working in his grandfather’s planting of peaches plums, apples and Concord grapes. One day when he was very young, Dave got lost on the property and wound up behind a barn sitting between two bee hives. He became fascinated watching the bees flying in and out of the hives toward the fruit trees and not only felt safe but completely entranced by how they seemed to know where to go and what to do. His family finally found him, completely happy and without a single sting. He was hooked.
Bees are very important as pollinators for fruit trees like apples and peaches but as Dave mentioned, “they aren’t important at all for growing grapevines – I just like to have them around.” Grapes are self-pollinating and don’t require bees to do any of the work of producing fruit. But other flowers and plants found in a vineyard do benefit from bee pollination. Yellow clover and the wildflowers that cover the row middles rely on bee pollination for survival.
I always love to see the honeybees flying around at harvest time. They travel to the winery in the baskets of fruit and we try to wave them off when we’re ready to put them into the press. Dave is always looking out for them, shooing them back into the vineyard and telling them to fly back home. Today all of our vineyards are certified as “Bee Friendly” as we have become members of the Partners for Sustainable Pollination Initiative. This national group pursues collaborative approaches between farmers, growers, beekeepers and scientists to develop ways to improve health of honey bees in pollination services and support native pollinators.
Making great wine is all about farming. One needs suitable soil and just the right weather conditions with lots of sunshine in order to guide grapes from vine to bottle. But another part is equally important – a vineyard manager like Dave Thompson - who can steward the vines throughout the year, caring for them in the dead of winter, helping them to wake up in the spring, keeping them healthy and happy all through the growing months of the summer, and guiding them to their natural conclusion of maturity in the fall. No easy task - and one that requires intense dedication, enormous patience and unbridled passion.
Farmers know that in order to succeed they need to be in close touch with their surroundings – with the change of the seasons and vagaries of the weather. For as much as they closely manage their crop, there is so much more beyond their control. A great vineyard manager knows he can only care for the vines and give them a good healthy place to grow –but at some point, they need to be able to prosper and succeed on their own. Like children, we provide care, training and guidance but eventually we have to set them free into the world of nature. Dave has and continues to be the best parent our vines could ever have.
He is the Farmer in Bedell.