October 25, 2019

There's Science in that Bottle!

Wine seems like a pretty straightforward, simple product.  It’s just chemistry isn’t it?  Add some yeast to grape juice and wait for the yeast to convert the sugar to CO2 and alcohol, and voila – you have wine!   But, just like most wonderfully elegant things, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.

I am blessed to be in such close proximity to the Sunnyslope area, the heart of Idaho's wine country.  With the grapes and winemakers in the same place I have been able to see the process from 'dirt to shelf'.  I've written a blog on planting a vineyard before so naturally, I wanted to take you on a quick tour of a vineyard during the growing season.

Grapevines thrive in well-drained soils that allow for deep root structures.  They also are planted in rows for ease of maintenance and harvesting.  In Idaho, we have the space to do this and have adjusted our row spacing to allow for machinery to help us.  Some places, like Portugal, were planted so long ago and on such steep slopes that there isn’t any way a tractor can negotiate the vineyard so the farm laborers are one of the biggest assets a grower can have.

Back in Idaho’s Sunnyslope region the vines are on smaller slopes and are managed depending on the orientation of the particular rows to the compass.  On a recent hosted trip by Martin Fujishin, Fujishin Family Cellars vintner, out to Skyline Vineyard, the largest vineyard in Idaho coming in at 400 acres. Thie vineyard supplies several different wineries in the region. On this tour, we went up to see an older block of vines that are planted in a north to south direction, used by Sawtooth Estate Winery in their wines.

These rows get kissed by the sun in the morning and so they have trimmed a lot of the leaves off the east side of these rows so the early warmth will help evaporate the dew off the fruit itself so they can decrease the risk of mildew and pests that can attack damp grapes.  The sunlight also helps develop the sugars and color of the grapes.  As the day gets hotter the light moves over to the other side of the canopy and the farmers have left a lot more leaves on the west side of the row.  These protect the grapes from the harsh afternoon blasts of heat common in Idaho and also avoids sunburn!

The growers call this canopy management and it encompasses everything about how you trim your grapevines.  Different winemakers can specify how they want the grapes they are buying trimmed and when they want them trimmed (for a price). These particular vines had just been mechanically trimmed. Again the magic of wine is manifested in the vineyard so the grower and winemaker collaborate a lot.

Canopy management changes depending on the growth phase of the vineyard too.  What about those new vines I helped plant in my previous blog?  Since there will be no fruit harvested from them this year what do you do with those?  Well, these cute little vines will be trimmed way back this year to help focus growth into the root structure of these plants.  Current pain for long term gain applies to grapevines too!

Now that the vines are growing happily on the trellis, water has been delivered to them via a drip irrigation system and the canopy has been optimized, what happens as we get closer to harvest?  One big thing the growers have to worry about is birds.  A flock of hungry starlings can decimate a vineyard overnight and wipe out a crop.  What can a farmer do about birds?  A lot of things it turns out.

Sunnyslope fruit farmers have been battling these winged enemies for years.  Cannon devices that do not shoot anything, but create sounds similar to shotguns scare the birds away are pretty common but are a bit annoying for the neighbors. Some folks use kites shaped as birds of prey. Grape growers have also used nets that have to be draped over the vines as the sugar levels grow into the range that the birds’ love.  Some folks bring on live falcons that are trained to scare away other birds.  All these options are time tested and none are 100% effective. The majority of the technologies are crossovers from efforts at airports to keep birds away for incoming and outgoing aircraft.  But there is new science coming into the vineyards to help!

Turns out those pesky birds have an extra cone on their eyes that we don’t.  That means they can actually see the beams emitted from a class 3 laser.  To them, it looks like a broomstick waving over the crops.  If you think about it, that would scare us, humans, off too and it works just that way on the birds!

So, when you enjoy a sip of Idaho wine, take a moment to remember the science involved.  From how the vines are planted, how the water gets to the vines, the prevailing wind direction, the movement of the sun through the sky, that extra cone in a bird's eye and the science of lasers, it’s all in that very glass!


The amazing thing is that a number of the wineries on the Sunnyslope Wine Trail actually host tours of their vineyards with the winemakers and growers (like Mike Williamson) throughout the year.  Now, you do have to sign up for these in advance and they are only scheduled when the crop spraying has been completed a certain amount of days in advance and the machinery and crews aren’t in the fields so you can NOT just wander through these private farms on your own.  Contact your favorite winery and see if they run a tour sometime during the summer then plan your trip for that month!   It’s a great way to learn more about how wine gets in your glass!

If you just want to get up close and personal with some vines WHILE you enjoy a glass of great Idaho wine I’d suggest a visit to Bitner Vineyards where the tasting room deck projects out into the vineyard itself.  Ron Bitner has also taken time to build out a pollinator garden as well so there is more science to enjoy there as well. You can see the canopy management process in action as you while away an afternoon soaking in the views!

Cheers to Science!

The Idaho Wine Ambassador

© 2019 Jim Thomssen


About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador:  Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics.  He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential.  Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, Great Northwest Wine, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines.  Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal.  He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.

Sunnyslope Wine Trail


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