Vineyard Work Is Luxurious and Great for Your Skin ( 2021 Vintage Part III) – or – Obsession

It has been a busy few months between viticulture, Czech paperwork, changing homes and various but pleasant personal issues; an update has languished as vineyard work has continued. This post will continue to cover some of the practices that Bogdan Trojak, my employer, incorporates into the vineyard as we try to make a very direct line from the terroir and vines to the qvevri, to the bottle and to our palates.

Czech/Georgian Gothic – A light moment in the vineyard. We laugh while we work.

Much of March and all of April was dedicated to tilling around the vines and along the vine rows, breaking up the root systems of other plants that could compete for water, nitrogen and other nutrients. Tilling also allows air to reach down into compacted soils, especially sections with heavy clay. The air is helpful for plant and microbial growth.

No tractor, just shovels.

As the caption implies, we do not own a tractor for the vineyard, and all the work is done by hand. This allows for an intimate study of the soil which occasionally changes drastically from vine to vine. Briefly, this is what I discovered in my foray into the Riesling section of the vineyard:

1) The vineyard alternates between bands of dense clay, loose sand, and their mixture(s). While I did not systematically document every vine’s footing, I did notice that immediately below the densest clay sections, came the loosest sand. I do mean immediately below; abrupt and opposite changes often occurred in the roughly 50cm between each vine. On occasion, this change happened from one side of the vine to the other, the shovel struggling mightily just above the vine, and slipping easily into the sand just below it.

2) Both pedological extremes and their mixtures in the Riesling section did not seem to affect growth in the vines. Healthy trunks appeared in all variations of the soil, and the budding has been successful and even throughout the vineyard.

3) The soil seems healthy. Lots of worms, centipedes and other critters came up with the soil, generally around the roots I was extracting (sorry guys). Also, plenteous patches of nitrogen-fixing plants, like clover and vetch [Jetel a vikev] grow throughout the vineyard. Mostly, we have left these undisturbed, so they can share their production with the vines.

4) Different plants thrive in the different soils. In the most clayey areas, various grasses and especially crab-grass dominate. The fight to limit the crab-grass will be a long, physical, and chemical-less one. Hardier plants rose from the sandy soils, though in the sandiest there was little coverage at all.

5) The largest weed is probably the crab grass which wants to choke out the vine. My second largest concern is something called lopuch, burdock in English, because it has the potential [You know, I don’t want to interrupt the documentary flow of this post too much, but I have to unburden myself: Lopuch is a nasty, nasty weed. You might know it best for its second year, when it produces spindly hook-ended seed pods that stick to your clothes and then one inevitable works its way down to your socks, rubbing directly against the taunt skin protecting your Achilles’s tendon, gnawing at it until you think the cartilage will tear or your mind will, and you are left with no choice but to sit yourself down in the dust, among the creeping creatures of early spring, tear off your shoe and futilely hunt for the offensive husk. To your fingers it is so pliable and soft, and inevitably it hides itself in even the sheerest of sock fabrics; you think to yourself, “I must have gotten it out;” you tie your shoe, stand, and again the burning; the edge of its hook lacerates microscope tears into your skin. Will the pain never cease?] to overtake a vineyard, and severely diminish the quality of the vineyard in two ways.

The first begins from its germination. Lopuch likes nitrogen-rich soils, upturned by a hoof or other disturbances, OR in our vineyard, upturned by plow and fertilized by manure. [Sorry to rant again, but because our focus in the past years was elsewhere, lopuch had a good chance to take a substantial hold in the plot; hundreds of them are still sedulously thrusting their roots into the soil. MY GOAL FOR THE PAST MONTH AND A HALF HAS BEEN TO RID THE PLOT OF THIS WEED, AND THE LABOUR IS AWFUL. As I toil now in the Pinot Noir section of the vineyard, they lie, mocking me, their broad, turgid leaves still low to the ground. A lopuch does not survive by camouflage – no, they are much too overbearing and stupid for subterfuge – the only way a lopuch survives is by the ignorance, laziness, or the sheer lack of guts of the gardener to extract them. I have the tripes! Do you know how deep the roots grow? Almost 1 meter, more than 3 feet. I dig down into the soil (Which soil, the more perceptive among you ask? Neither those of the heaviest clay, nor those of the pure sand, they feast on the gentle milk of the most balanced soils, often insinuating themselves among the vetch and clover, taking all the nitrogen those plants so freely yield. Tearing out the villain, harms the other plants, but if innocents must die that the lopuch be eradicated… so be it), the spade head sinks down to its top. Leveraging the shovel handle against the plant’s long radix I tug and tug, wondering if now is the time that it finally cracks against the weed’s deep resistance. So far, the handle and I have bourne victory. Satisfaction come when a deep pop resonates from the soil; again I have broken the weed’s spine. With a heave I bring the mortally wounded to the surface; it still, vainly, greedily, grasps the earth, worms, and other roots to siphon more life from the vineyard. The clamour announcing the breaking of the interloper is satisfaction indeed, but still more I take pleasure when, with great struggle, the root is drawn to the surface without sound; this means I have wrested the near totality of the root from the earth; here in this place, I am assured it shall not rise again.] I guess one positive of seeing the lopuch is that it indicates a satisfactory level of nitrogen [ HA! Like saying, “I guess one positive of seeing thieves in a bank is that their presence indicates the bank has money.” They are marauders! And what do I do with the thieves in my garden? Is there forgiveness? A warning? Do we practice a weak allowance that might provide the lopuch a return to this fair vineyard? No, we destroy. Do we practice an “eye for an eye? No. We practice “eye for a breath” – It exists and we will eradicate it. What the lopuch has taken, I will return to the vines! I grab the root – sometimes the root is as broad as a chair leg – shake off the innocent dirt, misguided worms, and confused flora – Did these call the villain, friend? – I place it at the base of a trembling Pinot vine -they are weaker than the Riesling; I will expound upon that another time – and I thrash the beast, rending leaves from base, and base from root. It is torn and buried in a few efficient motions, buried at the base of its victims, the Pinot Noir vines who immediately begin to feast on the nitrogen-rich juices of their vanquished oppressor, growing strong that they may rule as kind and just lords of the vineyard, harmonious with all except those weeds which would dare take from their royal stature!]. Extracting the lopuch, mulching it, and placing the remains at the base of the vines allow us to return some of the nitrogen to the grapes.

Withered burdock (lopuch) waiting to be mulched.

When allowed to monopolize a vineyard and grow to full stature, the specific plant we have, lopuch větší, (greater burdock) can reach over 3m (9’10”), with enough broad leaves to shadow low-hanging grapes and impede the ripeness of grapes already lacking the potential nitrogen of the terroir – all another reason to keep this weed in check. Even if one does not intend to uproot the pest, one must keep it low so that it does not grow tall, and certainly not let it produced fertilized seeds [ …and the burrs that carry them to all unsuspecting soils! I have read it, certainly scribbled by fools, that lopuch can be a good for hard soils, that it breaks up hard soils with its profound and nefarious tap. Like bringing a fox into a hen-house to control mice! Would someone ever be idiotic enough to try this? And yet, even more there are those who swear that it is a kind and beneficial flower, that its sun-choking leaves are useful and practical, that its root is salubrious and kind to the stomach as medicine and victual – Blind guides!]

The third worst weed in the vineyard is the blackberry, or ostružiník. The spiky shoots of the blackberry can travel long distances from the mother root, and to ensure survival, young, low-lying branches produce roots to ensure a second footing in the ground for nutrients. They are very vigorous plants that left to their own devices can suffocate the vines, and their long-travelling, deep-coursing roots make them a bear to eradicate. Of course, blackberries also can draw blood. [And yet why do I hate the lopuch more? I cannot say. Is it the name, burdock, containing within it the shortened word of burr, its seed pod? But why do I use the Czech word, lopuch more? Because it reminds me of Loup? Lupine? All from the latin for “wolf”, “lupus“? Because, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it hides itself under a soft and welcoming coat, the betraying softness of its leaves? Maybe I hate it more because it reproduces efficiently and with alacrity; if 12 seeds fall to exposed ground, 11 spawn will rise. I do not totally understand my hatred for the plant. But to understand this, I think I have found a way. Lopuch větší is a virile plant, fecund and powerful; dabblers and naturopaths and hoodwinked mystics have called it edible, healthy, and even delicious. And though I find them stupid wonderers, I too, after much internal wrestling, have ingested the root. I shredded the peeled radix to a near paste, sauteed it long with oil and butter, then added more coarsely shredded carrots. In the last two minutes I added vinegar, dark soy sauce and some brown sugar. The taste: Earthy, with a touch of peanut and BBQ. The texture: crunchy.

It is excellent for the skin I have heard, and I believe it. It is good for the macrobiotics of the gut I have heard, and I believe it. It is a powerful cleanser of the lymphatic system – I believe it! But LO, it has sent a strange and tenacious strength coursing through my limbs. I am just beginning to grasp its power.

I have told all my friends and they do not believe me. My girlfriend avoids the subject. No one has spoken to me in days – why are they so stiff-necked? None of them will dine upon its flesh with me. The lopuch speaks to me more with each root I tear out and bring it to breast. I ingest its power, just like the vines take its noblesse. Does it speak to the Pinot like it speaks to me in my room? I hear its whisper from the refrigerator…

…In its sauté sizzle it sings concealed truths. I begin to understand. It is not obsession if the object of your love contains all wisdom, and no wisdom exists outside the object of your love… Just one more root…]

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