An Appeal to Passion, Rationality, and Vertical Integration

To My Wife Caitlin,
I’ve been reflecting on the tagline for our blog: wine and winemaking in the greatest city in America. We’ve covered so much of the winemaking process (crushing, pressing, and aging), and we have a lot more to talk about as we get closer to bottling next year. Now that we’re in a quiet period, however, I want to take some time to look forward, to when we’re back in our house, and plan for our future adventures.

When we set out to make wine, the goal was to learn everything about the process of winemaking from start to finish. With that in mind, I’d like to propose something: I want to grow wine grapes in our “new” rowhouse in Baltimore City.

I can sense your skepticism already. Think about it, though. By which, of course, I mean, calm down and think about it. If we’re going to really learn everything about making wine, we have to go to the source. Learning how to grow, train, prune, protect, and harvest grapes is a huge part of the winemaking process and significantly influences the final product. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve thought long and hard about your potential objections and have prepared the following responses:

Objection #1: We’ve never been able to keep a plant alive in our lives.
I don’t know what the opposite of a green thumb is (magenta thumb, if we’re using color theory), but you are well aware that we cannot keep plants alive. We’ve owned many plants. They always end up…shriveled. Brown. Unidentifiable. You and I both know they always go before their time. How are we going to keep a significant number of grape vines alive, you ask? Motivation. Motivation and tough love.

Caitlin, I hate to tell you, but I think it’s us. I think we lack sufficient motivation to make sure our plants stay healthy. Speaking for myself, plants are fine, but the truth is, I get distracted easily. I know that’s probably a surprise to you* and I am sorry to break it to you this way. If it comes down to watering a houseplant or starting a new project (like making wine), I’m much more likely to do the latter. With wine grapes, however, we should have significantly more motivation to make sure they’re thriving, because they’ll be our wine someday. It’s like taking care of wine in utero! “Parental instincts” will have to kick in. I assume.

The very convenient thing about grape vines is that they produce better, more complex fruit if the conditions are less than ideal. Winemakers plant them close together in rocky soil and limit their water intake to concentrate the flavors in the grapes. Having well intentioned but novice “parents” should give our grapes a plenty hard upbringing, which could, in theory, produce complex juice.

Objection #2: We don’t even have a yard, how are we going to grow grape vines?
I’ve been doing a lot of research on this. It’s why this blog post is so late. It turns out that it is possible to grow grape vines in containers. This is good news, because you’re right, even if we did have a yard, the heavy metals leeching out of our Baltimore soil would make wine toxic enough to kill someone.

Since we’ll be using containers, we can control our soil type. Grape vines grow best in sandy loam soil, meaning a roughly equal proportion of sand, silt, and clay. As it turns out, we can buy potting soil that is perfect for grapes.

We’ll also need to select a grape vine that can handle our local climate. According to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, Baltimore City is Zone 7b, meaning our average lowest temperature is 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We need to find a grape varietal suited for this climate zone. After some research, I think our best choice is Cabernet Franc. We already have a lot of experience making wine with Cabernet Franc grapes from Dr. Bob. Cabernet Franc is rated down to a 6a climate zone, so we’re well within its comfort zone.

Finally, ever since our house burned down, we’ve been daydreaming about small changes we can make as we re-build, like finally putting in a light over the kitchen sink. As you know, we used to have a trellis on our deck, which we were growing roses on. Roses are nice, and I’m sorry our roses were victims of the fire, but imagine a rooftop deck with trellises full of grape vines! We’ll be like that retirement commercial where they talk about owning a vineyard except that we won’t have to liquidate our 401ks.

Objection #3: We don’t have enough room on a 16-foot wide house to grow enough grapes to make any wine.
After lots of research on Google, I think we do have enough room. Let’s work backwards. The smallest amount of wine we could realistically make is 1 gallon, since that’s the smallest carboy we can get. Using this year’s harvest as a data point, we got about 1 gallon of finished juice for every 15 pounds of grapes we bought from Dr. Bob. The average grape vine can produce 8 to 12 pounds of grapes per year. If we plant three grape vines (and assuming potted vines don’t have quite the yield of their traditional counterparts), we can produce enough juice to fill two 1-gallon carboys with a little left over, which is enough for about 10 bottles. People talk about small production vineyards, but who can top less than 1 case! Ultra exclusivity. Which you like**!

Objection #4: Growing grape vines takes way too long.
This is a very real objection, Caitlin, you’re right. Grape vines only grow grapes on old wood, meaning we won’t get any fruit until at least year two. Grape vines have to be pruned and trained to only grow two strong vines, which allows them to concentrate their fruit production for maximum yield. We’d be looking at a multi-year investment. On the other hand, grape vines have a productive life of 30 to 35 years, so we’ll ultimately get hundreds of bottles of wine from our vines.

Let’s be honest. Winemaking is already an exercise in delayed gratification. And patience is a virtue! It takes us 18 months to produce a single year’s vintage of wine. Two to three years to grow our own vines seems like a worthwhile investment.

My research and planning should assuage your concerns. I do, however, have several other positives worth considering, assuming you are still reading:

  1. We can legally add the phrase “estate bottled” to our wine labels. According to federal regulations, in order to be labeled estate bottled, one hundred percent of the wine must come from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, and the winery must crush, ferment, age, and bottle the wine in a continuous process on their premises. Our rowhouse in Baltimore, with its rooftop vineyard and basement production area, would absolutely qualify.
  2. We would be the first estate winery in Baltimore City. There are technically other wineries licensed in Baltimore City, but none of them are growing their own grapes. We’d go down in the history books! And I know how much you love attention***.
  3. As you know, my grandfather was the CEO of a small fruitcake bakery. He always used to say that he was never intimidated when talking to CEOs of larger companies, because they were both CEOs and equals, sharing similar goals and concerns. With our own vineyard and winery, we’d be in the same league as our wine heroes all over the world. If we ever had the occasion to meet, say, Jayson Woodbridge, we could strike up a conversation on common terms. “We use a Bordeaux mixture spray twice a week to control our bunch rot, how about you, Jayson?” He might laugh at us, but that part is not our problem.

By now, I assume I’ve won you over. Wasn’t this the perfect mix? I appealed to your romantic side, but also your business instinct. And no doubt “business Caitlin” will see the immediate value in further vertically integrating our supply chain. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the only thing left to do is contact our architect and tell him to make sure and plan for planters, trellises, and irrigation when they rebuild our roof deck. Baltimore’s first estate winery.

Love,
Robert

*It’s not a surprise to her.
**No, you hate it. You like inclusivity. But work with me here.
***I know, I know. You also hate attention. But like I said. Work with me on this one. It’s going to be fantastic!

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