Friday, February 12, 2016


A view across Lake Gervasi, from the foot bridge at the site of the old sawmill.

It's a surprise to many, but to those of us who work in a vineyard, these darkest, coldest months of the year are the peak of our season.

By the time our vines unfurl their fresh new tentative leaflets, hopefully no sooner than early May, the hardest work of our year will have been completed.

A Marquette tendril in late May. Marquette is our first variety to break bud in the spring, and our most vigorous grower through the summer.

From then on, it's just a sprint to keep up with prodigious summer growth.

So what occupies us these cold, snowy, and / or muddy months, depending on the vagaries of a given season?

Lots of meticulous detail work.

Canes from the previous season are carefully cut, measured, weighed, and tallied, to record the vigor of the previous season's vegetative growth.

Gathering canes to weigh in the North Vineyard.

Data gathered from the whirlwind months of rampant summer growth and eventual harvest are compiled and compared to previous seasons.

We reach out to other growers, state university research specialists across the midwest, and farmers of all types, to compare the details of our seasons, and make our best assessments of what is likely to come.

In our specific viticultural microclimate, winters can be quite varied, and extreme.

A windswept winter afternoon.

So we make several rounds through all the blocks of our vineyard, gathering cane samples, and bringing them in to the warmth, where we can begin slicing open hundreds of dormant grape buds, to gauge the effects of the winter so far.

Slicing open dormant grape buds to measure the effects of cold temperatures on bud survival.
Every season is different: although we have so far avoided the extreme cold temperatures of the last two Polar Vortex winters, our unusually warm and balmy December and January created new hazards, by preventing our vines from achieving maximum winter survival.

We can only measure the effects of our unusually warm early winter by cutting open hundreds of dormant buds gathered from all across the vineyard, and examining them to see if the primary, secondary, and tertiary buds have all survived.

Only then, can we begin the true winter work amongst the vines: our annual dormant pruning.

Piles of winter prunings on a sunny winter afternoon.
You'll see the effects of our winter pruning work, in the form of enormous mounds of tawny reddish grape canes, pruned from the vines in each of our vineyards.

Because our vineyard site is vulnerable to very cold spring temperature dips and frosts, we follow a double pruning strategy, leaving twice as many fruitful buds on the vines as our crop projections require, in case some of the buds succumb to spring injury.

Once we think we are safely out of the frost period, a second round of pruning must quickly commence, before the rampant green growth of the new season gets too far ahead of us.

But it's not all drudgery and detail work.

Long shadows across the frozen lake in February.
Winter months in the vineyard are also a time of serene beauty: not only in the serene white landscape of snowy trellis rows, but in the bounty of future harvests which fill our mind as we count buds, cut canes, and try to coax our vines into giving us the bounty we envision.

And perhaps not least of all, it's a season of mystery, especially once mid-February rolls around, and love begins to stir among the critters with whom we share the landscape.

So yes, these are our peak months.

The height of our season.

For a brief moment in winter, all of the vines are lush, all the clusters perfect and succulent, existing as they do only in our minds.

Virgin and Child with Grapes, Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1537

Friday, October 30, 2015


Autumn’s glory descends on our corner of Stark County, Ohio.

In our neighboring crossroads cemetery, a weathered limestone maiden, missing an arm, maintains her perch atop a stone pedestal. She surveys the blaze of sugar maples, late but resplendent in their color this year.

In just a few days, the shortening days and lengthening rays of autumn light have drastically changed the colors in the scenery all around her. Her stone countenance, impassive, takes it all in.

Having surveyed this crossroads plot of gravestones and maple trees for decades, I imagine our stony maiden has gained enough wisdom to avoid declaring this year’s fall color better than that of any other.

October 5, 2015: Aromella vines in the South Vineyard begin to display their varietal fall color.
I have only tended the vines in the neighboring vineyard for half a decade.

But in those years of watching the seasons unfurl and then retract, I have absorbed the deep seasonal rhythms of this fixed spot on the globe. I have learned that no one season is like any other, and comparisons between them are hard to make.

Through every season, we observe and record sequences:

October 15, 2015: sweetgum branch against marsh reeds
In the spring, we anxiously record for our phenology log when the wild plants on our farm break bud and then set flower. The first to emerge, melting a hole through the snow covering them, are the skunk cabbages, arising steamily in the marsh with an aroma of carrion to entice flies and wasps, the season’s first pollinators.

October 19, 2015: late ripening apples in the orchard
Months later come the apple blossoms, wafting a sweet scent across the orchard to attract the honeybees.

Although the sequence remains largely the same, the calendar dates of when plants choose to leaf out and then blossom varies from year to year, as does the exact overlap of when various species are in simultaneous bloom.

In a year when many things bloom together in a flowery riot, it is easy to declare that it is the best spring ever.

But then comes a season when blossoms are more evenly spaced, the season’s flowering more staggered. The staggered season is perfect in its own way: a chance for us to appreciate each flower, a chance for the honey bees to enjoy a more consistent diet of varied nectar.

Once summer arrives in the vineyard, it is the rainfall and accumulation of growing degree days that we observe and record.

Newly furrowed vineyard rows in North Vineyard, couched by October frost.

The flavor of the grapes we harvest are a record of the heat and relative wetness of the summer that ripened them.

In our minds, there is always a perfect ideal for the balance of sweetness, acidity, and juiciness that we hope the ripe fruit will attain.

Frontenac Gris block, North Vineyard: early leaf fall this year.
But no growing season is like any other.

The humans who tend the vines can do some things to subtly affect ripening: we can pull more or fewer leaves from the green buckshot berries to encourage and speed ripening, we can limit the size of the crop to condense the plant’s energies into fewer, more flavorful clusters.

But what happens on the vines is largely a product of the season, and the effect of our human efforts, subtle.

Like the stone-faced cemetery maiden, we learn to regard each season, and each vintage, as its own perfection: it is what the earth yielded.

We may prefer an autumn when the Virginia creeper, the sweetgums, and the sassafras all blaze together.

But some years the season chooses to color each one on its own schedule.

Sassafras foliage along North Vineyard, dispalying varietal leaf shape variation.

And so in the vineyard, in the last days of October, we find ourselves in the season of senescence, when this summer’s green and rampant shoots finish hardening and maturing into next season’s fruiting canes.

South Vineyard, October 24, 2015

Last year, the grapevines luxuriated in a lazy, lengthy cane ripening season: our vineyard was striped with each variety achieving its fall color in its own sweet time, the leaves fully maturing, then falling to the ground.

Frosty vineyard roses, October 20, 2015

This season’s foliage color and cane ripening was more condensed: a hard frost on the morning of October 20th kissed the vineyard roses, and before the afternoon was over, green and golden grape leaves that were frost crusted at sunrise were brittle and brown, hastening the dormancy of the canes, signaling the end of the growing season.

October 20, 2015: Morning sun melts frosted grape foliage. By afternoon, the leaves will shrivel and shed.

As perennial woody plants, our vines accumulate the events of each season. Next year’s vintage will be a record of not one season, but all those the plant endured before it.

We watch.

We record.

We hope to gain the patience, and the wisdom, of the weathered cemetery maiden.

On a radiant October afternoon, slanting autumn sunlight colors the lake a deep blue and reflects the crimson of maples, the golden orange of sweet gum, lingering despite a recent storm.

Our swans, sturdy swimmers, struggle to remain upright as remnants of a tropical storm whip the usually tranquil waters into choppy peaks.

The lake is full to the brim with fresh rainwater, and with the emergence of welcome afternoon sunshine, the swans dive and splash extravagantly, exhibiting what to my eye seems something like gratitude, for this day, for this season, for this final blaze of autumn glory, before the next season unfolds, with whatever it may bring.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


2015 Festa Gervasi Harvest Wagon
Each year at Festa Gervasi, our vineyard crew builds a celebratory harvest wagon. It's become something of a tradition.

Everywhere in the world grapes are grown, elaborate traditions have arisen to celebrate the harvest.

Our Canton, Ohio harvest wagon is an adaptation of Italian harvest traditions. when the last grapes from the vineyard are loaded onto a decorated wagon and hauled into the village, where blessings and celebrations ensue.

Our Festa Gervasi wagon is a celebration of our Canton, Ohio acres and the bounties they yield: everything on the wagon comes from the 55-acres of this old farm.

Festa Gervasi always an enjoyable day, and has the added benefit of helping raise funds for the United Way of Greater Stark County.

The harvest wagon begins inauspiciously, as a pile of scrap wood scavenged from the property, including a few vintage barn boards from our 1820s Ohio bank barn:

Asters, goldenrod, and other wildflowers are gathered from our meadows, a few hydrangea blossoms from our landscaped grounds.

Crabapples, pokeberries, and black walnuts come from our fence rows, along with bushels of apples and pears from our orchard.

Our actual grape harvest dates do not always coincide with our harvest festival date, but we bring in any late grapes that may still be lingering on our vines  (this year, it was a few Vignoles and a second crop of Frontenac Gris.)

In the past we purchased our pumpkins and gourds, this year we grew a few of our own, in straw bales, along the road to our South Vineyard.

And this year, our newly released Family Reserve wines, from the grapes patiently nurtured in our own vineyard, had a place of honor on the wagon:

Every year the harvest wagon is different: different flowers, fruits, and foliage will be at their peak at the end of different Septembers. Each wagon is a snapshot of a particular date in the harvest season.

Every harvest is different: some exceed our expectations, other years we may have hoped for more.

But the celebratory spirit is constant.

 (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Stark County)
Tending the earth in all seasons, coaxing a crop, you are acutely aware of all the things that can prevent a harvest at all.

So when harvest arrives, you take some time some time to celebrate, before the work of the next season begins.

Vineyard Assistant Holly Brown. (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Stark County)
So the morning before each Festa Gervasi begins, we spend a few pleasant hours building our wagon and piling it high with the fruits of our fields.

We then throw the vineyards open to our guests, and celebrate the abundance of this place, and the slow patient magic of baby grape plant to vineyard, and of grape into wine.

Vineyard Manager Brian Gregory.  (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Stark County)

Vineyard Assistant John Minor.  (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Stark County)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Leaf Out

An early May sunrise slowly burns morning fog from the lake.

Guiseppi, one of our resident mute swans, reaches his long neck up into a newly leafed-out willow tree.

Just yesterday, it was colored with gold catkins. Today brings fresh green leaves.

He strips the tender new foliage from a weeping bough, and dips his spring salad into the water before eating.

Unlike geese, who grub voraciously through the turf for victuals, swans will only accept food submerged in water.

After a winter of sustenance pulled from sediment at the bottom of the lake, Guiseppe seems invigorated by his meal of fresh green leaves.

Those of us who tend the vineyard know just how he feels.

All winter long, we tromped through snow, pruning dormant brown vines. Spring brings mud, and the promise of new life.

And so May has dawned, and brought with it, welcome warm temperatures.

The soil warms, and welcomes the new vines  we nudge into it.

After a brutally cold winter, and a relatively cool and wet spring, the growth we see all around us in May is welcome, and rapid.

As if on cue, our earliest budding grape variety, Marquette, broke bud on May 1st.

Marquette block, North Vineyard, May 1, 2015
Each day, additional buds unfurl, slowly clothing the North Vineyard in fresh green foliage.

These warming afternoons will bring rapidly elongating shoots. We'll likely see several inches of new growth a day later this week, as temperatures climb into the eighties.

Elsewhere on the property, our later budding varieties continue to slumber. Swelling buds will continue to break open over the next several weeks.

In the fence rows and the orchard, blossoms abound.

Honey bees luxuriate in golden pollen, in apple blossoms that change from carmine to pink to white as they open.

Every year, all of this happens.

But the sequence is never precisely the same. 

Although this spring seems cool and damp, our Marquette vines broke bud nine days earlier than they did in 2014.

Bred in frigid Minnesota, it's as if our vines couldn't stand to miss a single May afternoon of pleasant Canton sun. I think Giuseppe, as well us we who tend the vines, feel exactly the same way.

Friday, May 1, 2015


For those of us who work at Gervasi Vineyard, one of the great pleasures of our workplace is the setting itself. There is an intrinsic beauty to this property, one of the early farms settled on the Stark County frontier.

After springs were dammed to create a lake to power a sawmill, these acres were carefully tended first as a dairy farm, then a tree farm, and most recently a vineyard.

As far as I know, we are the only working farm remaining in the city of Canton.

It is a diverse and varied agricultural terrain of gentle slopes, still and flowing water, historic farm structures, evocative new architecture, meticulously groomed landscape beds, highly managed vineyard rows, fallow fields, and wild fencerows teeming with wild flowers, brambles, and apple trees.

We not only get to enjoy this beautiful property in all seasons, but those of us who work here also get to experience it with our guests each day, some seeing it for the first time.

Occasionally, we also have the opportunity to hit the road, and take a small piece of our Canton vineyard with us.

On Friday, May 1, it was my great privilege to visit with some exceptional students, and their dedicated teachers, at Archibald McGregor Elementary School, right here in Canton, for Farm to School Day.

Arriving at the corner of 17th and Vine Street (aptly named, I thought), McGregor anchors one of those old Canton neighborhoods of red brick streets and two-story wood frame homes.

The Timken Company's historic and state-of-the-art Harrison Steel Plant rises over the neighborhood.

Stepping into the school's sunny yellow hallways, there was a buzz of activity.

Teachers and students, many dressed as farmers for the day, made their way through the hallways. The school's energetic principal greeted visiting parents and grandparents, offering farm-themed books to the kids to take home with them.

Part of the Healthy Schools Initiative, I was one of two farmers there for the day, sharing the gym floor with Ann Taub, a Stark County organic vegetable farmer.

I toted vases of grape canes from our vineyard, blossom-laden branches from our orchard, and some baby grape plants nurtured over the winter in our greenhouse.

Ann had baskets of fresh herbs and vegetables, and two of her chickens.

Anne shows a fresh sprig of parsley from Grassy Treeland Farm
All through the morning, classes of kindergartners through second graders made their way to the gym for their assembly period.

Ann and I were peppered with excellent questions.

Photos courtesy of Canton City School District

Ann talked about how small organic farmers grow very healthy and chemical-free produce, available for purchase at local farmers markets.

She explained that the chickens not only provide fresh eggs, but help to fertilize the vegetable fields, and consume any produce that may be past its prime for human consumption.

The chickens may have been a little nervous...
I talked about how fruit is grown, and all the many colors and varieties of grapes that can be grown right here in Canton, Ohio.

I have to confess, I was a little nervous, at first, about sharing a stage with chickens!

I wasn't sure how the kids would respond to vases of grape canes and tiny potted grape plants, newly leafed out.

I shouldn't have worried.

The kids seemed to love hearing a little about what happens at the only working farm in their own hometown, and seemed just as enthusiastic as I am about the miracle of newly emerged grape leaves, and the beauty of an apple tree branch decked out in blossoms.
The kids did a great job with their farmer outfits...
Even the plastic grapes I brought to represent the varied colors and flavors of grapes that can be grown right here in Canton (stand ins for the real ones that won't show their color until August) elicited some great questions and conversation. did many of their teachers.
Energized by my visit, I wasn't quite ready for it to be over. 

After Ann and I loaded up our props, and I said goodbye to the chickens, I strolled around the neighborhood for a bit. 

The bright May sun illuminated streets of red Canton paving bricks. 

I paused to appreciate some Bartlett pear trees on the schooolhouse lawn, dripping with extravagant blossoms. 

Somehow I'd missed them on the way in (nervous about the chickens, I suppose.)

Pear blossoms on the McGregor School lawn.
Looking at the school, and thinking about the creative, energetic teachers I had just met, I couldn't help but think our old farm in Canton isn't the only parcel in the city that glows with the radiance of decades of nurture and care. 

I farm. 

They teach. 

It never occurred to me until this bright sunny first day of May, how similar our vocations really are, and how much like a farm a school really is.