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My technical skills are really limited so I can't explain why the photos from my last post, Time for Rose, are rotated in various directions on Smartphones. It's all good on the computer.  I'm in touch with my "happiness engineer" and will hopefully be able to correct this problem soon!  In the meantime, if anyone is a Word Press Pro, I'd love your help.

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We had this amazing moment two springs ago when we realized we had transitioned from Middle Fork Farm to Middle Fork Farm and Vineyard.   Now, we are one step closer to becoming not just a farm and vineyard but also a winery!

It takes three years for vines to produce a healthy harvest and 15-18 months of barrel aging to make a good red wine. As our first vines were planted in 2012 and our goal is to open our tasting room in the spring of 2016, we had a challenge. The solution was to buy grapes—Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, and contract for custom crush at King Family Vineyards in Crozet. At King Family, Bruce is working with expert winemaker, Matthieu Finot, to make a Bordeaux blend as well as individual varietals.

A couple of weeks ago, equipped with lugs, needle nose snippers, and gloves Rick, Bruce and our crew got their first picking experience. With the help of the vineyard owners, they harvested about 700 lbs of grapes.   They opted to sort as they picked so it took about 3 hours.

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Bruce compared it to taking ornaments off a Christmas tree—there’s always one more ornament/cluster hidden among the branches. He also noted that it is definitely not unskilled labor as you have to be able to distinguish between ripe, not yet ripe, and rotten fruit while lifting the bird netting and moving down the row at a reasonable pace.IMG_2474

To begin, you grab a cluster and check for ripeness and a deep color (not green). Ripe healthy grapes are snipped at the top of the cluster and dropped in a lug. Grapes that are rotten, not yet ripe, or pierced (in this case by wasps) are rejected and either left on the vine or thrown on the ground.   The lug is kicked forward until full, somewhere between 20-30 lbs, and a new lug is started.   Full lugs are left for later and stacked in the pickup truck to make the trip to the winery, where they get sorted again.

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We also purchased grapes from California due to the grape shortage in Virginia. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc arrived last week and Bruce, Rick, daughter Beth, friend Nancy, and I sorted. If I had to pick one word to describe the experience, it would be sticky!

Matthieu, Bruce, and Rick set up the equipment and we went to work.

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Bruce unloaded the fruit, Nancy and I sorted for leaves and sticks (except when I was taking photos).  Initially the sorting table was going a bit fast for our novice hands so Bruce slowed it down. But then Matthieu came by and sped it up—oh no! Nancy and I both remembered Lucy and Ethyl at the chocolate factory and felt their pain. If you haven’t seen this episode of I Love Lucy, it’s a lot of fun. Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NPzLBSBzPI.

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Next, it went by a conveyer belt to the destemmer, which shot the stems into a bin and the fruit fell out the bottom to a vibrating table.

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Beth and Rick worked the vibrating table, removing  any stems and nub grapes left by the destemmer.

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The clean grapes traveled by another conveyor belt to a bin where they'll ferment and become wine.

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We've got more picking and sorting to do.  Next time we sort, we know to wear long sleeves, pants, and comfortable closed shoes—grape juice has a way of getting everywhere!

The next day, Bruce and Beth bottled the strawberry wine.  Bruce added a wine tannin so it's a dry fruit wine and quite tasty!

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We are VDACS approved! Our spreads can now be sold at stores in Virginia! Sara, Pam, and I spent a long, productive day at the Prince Edward Cannery (http://www.co.prince-edward.va.us/cannery_index.shtml)

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In addition to receiving VDACS approval, we made lots of strawberry spread. At the end of the day, we were tired but very pleased to load up 347 jars of strawberry balsamic, strawberry lavender, and strawberry vanilla.

We got an early start with coolers full of 5 lb bags of defrosting strawberries as well as sugar, IMG_4724lavender, balsamic vinegar, vanilla beans and Pam’s amazing industrial immersion blender. It could easily be mistaken for a jackhammer. Sara and I were a bit intimidated by it, so there was no question that Pam was responsible for pureeing all the berries.

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Once we unloaded at the Cannery, Emily did the general orientation and began the paperwork process. Next, Chris, my VDACS inspector, went through an overview of the inspection process. Then we donned the very stylish hairnets and plastic gloves provided by the Cannery and got to work.

Sara and Pam were the best helpers I could have had—besides canning experience, each had specialized experience relevant to our task. In addition to operating the industrial size blender, Pam’s experience in a commercial kitchen meant she immediately knew how to use the tools, follow the necessary procedures for cleanliness, and keep the flow going.   Sara’s USDA experience paid off when it came to completing the paperwork, documenting the process, and generating our batch code system. Thank you Sara and Pam! My job to actually make the spread and answer questions posed by Chris, was from my perspective the easiest.

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Sara and Pam were as impressed with the giant steam kettles and 2 minute dishwasher as I had been on my earlier visit. At canning time, the thermal gloves were also a bonus. All of us liked the clean look of our new straight-sided 9 oz jars and appreciated the timesavings generated by the single piece lids.

After making the balsamic spread and before making the vanilla spread, we had a very enjoyable lunch (and caffeine) break at the Fishin’ Pig in Farmville (http://www.fishinpig.com/). By the time, we thoroughly cleaned the Cannery, packed up our boxes, and drove home it was a 12-hour day!

We still have to label all those jars, with our beautiful new labels, but that is getting done IMG_4735slowly on an as needed basis. We discovered that placing a rectangular label on a round jar can be challenging, so Bruce designed a jar holder to assure that the labels go on straight (old engineers never stop engineering, they just become farmers and make everyone’s life easier).

In addition to the Fluvanna Farmers Market and Farmers in the Park, you can now buy our spreads at the following locations:

Great Harvest Bread, Charlottesville (http://greatharvestcville.com/)

Jefferson Pharmacy, Palmyra (http://jeffersondrug.com/)

Salt Artisan Market, Charlottesville (http://saltcville.com/)

The Bakery, Farmville (http://www.thebakeryfarmville.com/)

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IMG_6084In my last post I said that spring is fickle (and that rain was coming) – both were an understatement! The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster (or maybe farming just makes us manic)---one day we’re euphoric and then bam, spring’s fickleness hits again and we’re sad and frustrated (but not defeated!).

After the April freeze and midnight bonfires, we were feeling quite accomplished. We’d planted our new grape vines and populated berry field #2 with about 20.000 daughter plants. Life was good! Or so we thought…

On the night of April 30, the rains slowly hung over central Virginia and by morning portions of our new berry field had transformed into a fast moving stream. Many of the new beds were flattened, daughter plants, plastic cloth and irrigation lines were scattered in the fields, creek, and wrapped around trees.  It was not a pretty sight! The creek flowed over the bridge and carried away trees and the natural bridges we’d made, as well as an Adirondack chair and a 60-gallon tank. Rick philosophically said, “who needs Las Vegas when you’re a farmer?”IMG_6030IMG_5986

Like beavers, with our wonderful crew, we put it back to together. The sun shone and life was good again, for a while! Every day we watched the plants produce more blossoms and eventually we saw the first reddish strawberry. Our lovely green fields were speckled with spots of red. Rick guessed that our first harvest would be yesterday but the forecast said rain. So to be safe we opted to harvest on Thursday, using our brand new strawberry carts designed and crafted by Rick. IMG_6072

It was a small harvest but, oh what beautiful, delicious berries! Life was good!

And then as predicted the rain came, again—about 6” of it! It didn’t start gently, it just poured and kept going through the night, along with its sidekick, the wind.   Because of the intensity and the wind, the damage was different. The daughter plants in our newly rebuilt and smaller berry field #2 were undamaged (yeah!) but the water in the creeks and the wind ripped out a portion of the anti-critter fence surrounding field #1 and flattened six rows of mature berries. It also took the other Adirondack chair and all but one of our picnic tables somewhere downstream.IMG_6061

The good news is the plants will recover; the bad news is we lost a substantial part of today’s harvest and we have to delay Pick Your Own.

Even so, today ended with the roller coaster going up. Our friends at Jefferson Pharmacy at Lake Monticello invited us to put a strawberry table in front of the store. Customers were thrilled to find local organic strawberries and strawberry spreads available. One customer bought strawberries, tasted one and came back for more! Pretty cool!IMG_6075

A musician friend of ours used to end his shows by saying, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, see you next time.” Jimmy, we’re going to borrow that salutation and say, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (again), starting in June we’ll be at the Fluvanna Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Farmers in the Park (C-ville) on Wednesdays. And, we’ll definitely post dates and times for Jefferson Pharmacy and Pick Your Own (hopefully) on our Face Book page.IMG_6020