Tuesday, April 24, 2012


On the east coast, there are few vineyard managers as famous as Lucie Morton. Lucie is an independent viticulturist. Trained in Europe and based in Virginia, she is an author, lecturer, and consultant on viticultural topics in the international arena. Areas of special interest are ampelography, rootstocks, grape and wine quality, and vineyard longevity.

She is revered, and with good reason. Her track record speaks for itself. More than me, I’ll let famed wine writer Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post tell you why:

Morton's influence skyrocketed in recent years with the initial success of three high-profile Washington area clients: Black Ankle Vineyards and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Maryland, and Boxwood Winery in Northern Virginia. She also consults for Chatham Vineyards on the Eastern Shore and Rosemont in southern Virginia, which won best of show at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition in July for its Meritage. She has other clients who have not yet released wines.

Her clients' accomplishments bolster Morton's argument that the herbaceous, underripe flavors that typically plague East Coast wines can be conquered through proper vineyard management.

"Everybody bought into this idea that we have a terrible climate to grow grapes," Morton says. "Sure, we get hurricanes. What wine region doesn't get messed up once in a while? With canopy management, French clones and crop control, we are able to get nice fruit with ripe sugars - riper than we ever thought we could 10 years ago."
Throughout the year, Morton can be found trudging through her clients' vineyards in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, followed by her constant companion, a Norwich terrier named Randy.

Lucie’s presence loomed tall and large over the most recent Eastern Wineries Exposition 2012 held in Lancaster last month. And with good reason….many of the attendees wanted to here what she ha to say. Not always affordable as a consultant for many smaller wineries, this was an opportunity to hear what the vineyard guru had to say. After all, if you’re a small winery, don’t you want to rub up against her an hope a little star magic rubs off? A lot of winery owners felt that way.

Lucie was the talk of the show. And when she spoke, it carried long and hard.
Lucie led two discussions and participated in a third from the audience where she was an active voice. The first seminar and most talked about was on the Benefits and Mechanics of Close Vine Spacing and Cane Pruning. According to Morton, “ Modern winegrowing east of the Rockies has evolved from native American grapes to European vinifera and vinifera hybrid grapes. First generations of these vinifera vineyards followed a vine-design model that is better suited to juice or high volumes of sweet or sparkling wines. Today, new generation vineyards producing dry table wines are finding success in taking a more classic European approach beginning with closer vine spacing.”

Each time Morton spoke, winemakers, vineyard managers, and owners took notes. Never did I see so many usually hardened faces, smug with a “show me” attitude become such good school boys. Each note was taken, references made, serious questions asked. After all, when the story about Boordy Vineyards goes around the hallways, people begin to listen.

The way McIntyre told the story, Moton was hired as a consultant by the legendary Boordy Vineyards of Maryland to help improve the quality of their wines. Bob Delford wanted to make serious dry table wines, but couldn’t seem to get the flavors right. Morton brought a bottle of wine made from a closely planted vineyard of her design. The wine was fantastic, and Delford was hooked. He ripped out more than half his estate, and replanted according to Morton’s instructions.

Morton didn’t invent this kind of philosophy. They’ve been doing it out west for more than a decade, taking a hint from the Europeans. But Morton brought the successful philosophy to the east, where wider spacing has held sway since the days of Philip Wagner and Dr. Konstantin Frank. The close planting model relies on not stressing your vines as much as allowing them to concentrate on setting ripe fruit. Canopy management, leaf pulling, and effective spraying schedule also figure in. But allowing each plant to concentrate its efforts on the few bunches of grapes you allow it to produce, seems to produce, according to Morton, deep, rich fruit, which does not have any herbaceous flavors nor green pepper. Just big, lush ripe fruit.

During this seminar, you could have heard a pin drop. Even the wine profs from Cornell, Penn State, and others, sat in the room taking notes.

Another seminar was the Vineyard Spraying Workshop which featured speakers Bryan Hed and Dr. Andrew Landers, with Lucie Morton moderating. Hed discussed various aspects of chemical grape disease management programs for conventional and organic production systems. An overview of fungicide spray timing and the materials currently available was provided to prepare growers for what and when to spray in order to control all the major grape pathogens including Botrytis. The availability and performance of new fungicides, particularly for powdery and downy mildew, was also discussed.

Bryan Hed is a Research Technologist in the Plant Pathology Department at Penn State University. For the past twelve years, Bryan has been conducting research to evaluate chemical and cultural disease management strategies for grapes in both conventional and organic production systems at the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center in North East PA. In addition to ongoing research, Bryan works closely with Penn State and Cornell extension to educate and advise eastern grape growers with the latest information on grape disease management.

Dr. Andrew Landers discussed methods of improving spray deposition and reducing drift in vineyards. A basic understanding of volume rates, targeting spray and controlling airflow is needed to combat some of the problems seen in the latter part of the 2011 growing season. Attention to detail and good timeliness are, as always, keys to successful spraying. Dr. Andrew Landers studied and taught agricultural engineering in England before he joined the faculty at Cornell University in 1998. He is based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva where he directs the application technology program and his teaching/extension/research appointment involves the use of engineering solutions to provide safer spraying. In 2007 he was presented with the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences at Cornell University award for outstanding accomplishments in extension and outreach.

While the two men provided the in-depth knowledge of the seminar, Morton was asked as many questions from the audience as both men. And she had as many or more questions or clarifications than the rest of the audience combined. She was never pushy and never overshadowed the speakers intentionally, but her philosophies were as evident here as they were in her own seminar. And again, when she spoke, notes were taken.

The last seminar, and one of the best in the whole show which was filled with great lectures, was that of Growing Cabernet Franc for Fine Wine which featured Mark Chien and Adam McTaggart. Wrote Chien, “ It caught my attention when no less a respected wine consultant than Stephane Derenoncourt from France claimed that Cabernet Franc was the red grape variety for the Mid-Atlantic region. Because of its Bordeaux heritage and proven cold hardiness, Cab Franc has gained in popularity in the region. Yet it is a finicky vine and needs careful attention in the vineyard to nurture high quality fruit. It tends to be vigorous and productive so good canopy and crop management practices are necessary to produce fine wines. I’ll discuss post-planting management of Cabernet Franc for high quality wine production.”

Chien is a well respected wine prof. A UC Davis grad, his first job was at Pindar Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island where he eventually became vineyard manager and its first winemaker. In 1985 he migrated to the Willamette Valley of Oregon to manage a 220-acre farm. In 1999 he became the first wine grape extension agent for Penn State Cooperative Extension, based in Lancaster. In 2005 he was assigned state-wide responsibility for wine grapes. His experience is grounded in commercial viticulture, and he delivers a wide variety of educational materials to local and regional wine growers.

Adam McTaggart discussed his impressions of Cabernet Franc Clones 214, 327 and 623 in a Northern Virginia vineyard, including similarities and differences between these clones, importance of sourcing plant material, and importance of rootstock and site selection to maximize quality. Adam began his career in the wine industry at The Malivoire Wine Co. in Beamsville ON, Canada as a Viticulturist during the spring of 2000 while earning his BSc. Biology (2004) and completed a Wine and Grape Technology Certificate from the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI, Brock University) in 2005. While at Malivoire, Adam was instrumental in implementing an organic vineyard management strategy which ultimately resulted in Organic Certification for two of the company’s vineyards. In 2005, Adam joined Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Virginia as Cellar Master and quickly assumed Vineyard Management and Winemaking duties.

It is in this capacity that McTaggart works closely with the vineyard consultant Morton. Renowned Bordeaux-based winemaking consultant Stephane Derenoncourt advises on the winemaking side. The three of them make a formidable team. Boxwood Winery has gained a reputation for producing terroir driven wines that have been well received by the consumer and critics alike, while sustainably tending and expanding the vineyard with carefully sourced plant material.

McTaggart brought many of the wines to taste. It was a real treat, since the wines were barrel samples of each of the clones, and sometimes the same clone form two different locations. It was an incredible learning tool.

Here, Morton’s presence was also felt. More questions of close planting and vineyard management were thrown at her, and by her, asking questions, throwing out advice, and participating in the conversation. Again, both men were never overshadowed, and Morton’s interjections (or answering of questions from the audience) seemed welcomed…invited even.

In the hallways people were commenting on her prowess of knowledge, and avidly discussing her theories and results. There was no question…if you were an attendee, and you were planting a new vineyard, you took copious notes.
The results seem clear. With quality wine producers on her list like Black Ankle, Sugarloaf, and Boxwood, all of whom make opulent, impressive wines of great integrity and elegant character, Morton’s words take hold quickly. She has that confidence and swagger of a grizzled, successful veteran, but the enthusiasm of a young woman. There is a star quality about her. Maybe it’s her hardened pragmatism, her seemingly good sense of humor, or her no nonsense approach, but the men and the women in the room just ate her up. And they were all grateful, if they couldn’t afford to hire her, to listen to her talk for a few hours.