A MOMENT OF YOUR TIME

It’s about time. Who hasn’t heard this before, crammed full as it can be with meaning, conveying relief or frustration or scorn. But this is about none of those.  This article concerns  a winery after all and time, at this moment, is a subject for our consideration.  We take time, we make time, we find the time and we bide the time but when do we really consider time. How often do we consider it? Who has the time?

Let’s start with a bottle of wine. Right there on the label is a date, a vintage marking the wine’s place in time.  What that wine expressed in that place, at that time.  Prejean Winery planted our first vineyards in 1979 and opened our doors in 1986. Time again.  James and Elizabeth Prejean, the  winery’s founders, met in California , spending their early days together in the vineyards of Napa Valley and kindling a dream, fulfilled later in time.

Our tasting room overlooks Seneca Lake, an immense, deep lake carved out  when the Laurentide ice sheet, covering much of eastern North America, receded at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, around 11,000 years ago.  The vineyards are here because of the microclimate Seneca Lake provides, a longer growing season , warmer winters and cooler nights.  The glacier also left slopes behind allowing  for drainage so water and cool air do not stay in the vineyards for too long a time.

Prejean Vineyards

Fossilized coral found in Prejean Winery vineyards

Mastodons and Saber-toothed cats walked on a sheet of ice, a kilometer thick, above where we now grow our grapes.  When the glaciers receded, their bones were scattered and buried, marking their time spent here on the Earth and a landscape was formed that would, in time, make the Finger Lakes a great wine region.

Long before this time though, the Finger Lakes were covered by an inland sea that left behind sand, mud, salt and a type rock made up of the skeletal remains of sea life, also known as limestone. A soil ideal for growing grapes.

The European varieties, grown in Prejean Winery’s vineyards, are all clones, propagated from other clones of clones of clones going back in time to a mother vine that a Roman farmer or a German monk might have propagated. These vines are genetic copies of vines grown in European vineyards centuries ago.  In a sense these vines have leapt over time, they carry with them a glimpse of the eternal, of timelessness.

      These vines were brought to America by immigrants and monks, connecting them to their homeland, to their past, keeping their past with them in the present, taking the past out of time.  The monks brought the vines so their monasteries would have wine in order to celebrate the Eucharist, the sacred rite that once again connects the past with the present, connecting the eternal and the temporal, the infinite with the finite, in the fullness of time.

   A grape grower’s day oftentimes begins with a sunrise and ends with a sunset, the oldest timepiece we have. The heat and light of the day and coolness of the night determine the quality of the wine, ensuring that the wine in that bottle, from that vintage, from that place is memorable, carrying itself over the expanse of time.

So find the time to visit Prejean Winery, share your time with us. It will be time well spent.

Finger Lakes Harvest time at Prejean Winery

Sunset at Prejean Winery in the Finger Lakes

Happy New Year!

Goldfinch Dry Riesling

Goldfinch Dry Riesling

 

 

 

Prejean Winery’s 2013 Goldfinch Dry Riesling just won DOUBLE GOLD at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition!!  Over eighty judges, including winemakers, wine writers, wine shop owners and restaurateurs,  presided over the largest competition in America and the ‘little golden bird’ took Double Gold!

 

Columbus Day News!

Beeeeer

 

Yes, Prejean Winery is now serving beer, specifically Steuben Brewing Company beer.  Prejean Winery’s winemaker, Jim Zimar and his family have opened a brewery in Hammondsport, NY and Prejean Winery is now offering a selection of their beers!  Steuben Brewing Company is also offering  Prejean Winery wines, stop here and then stop there or visa  versa.

 

 

 

The other big news is:

WHITE MERLOT IS  NOW AVAILABLE!

Prejean Winery 2013 White Merlot

2013 Prejean Winery White Merlot is here!

Winter’s Hourglass

geeseInForm

The Snow Geese return in December.

     Below them is a vastness of white and brown, the green is gone and the earth’s curvature is visible on the horizon.  The earth is etched with lines that stretch and meander through a quilted landscape interspersed with patches of grey and reflected light.  But from this vantage point most of this is insignificant and the massive bodies of water are all they see. 

     Far below them and distant miles away, a middle aged man, sitting in an office, surrounded by vineyards overlooking one of these bodies of water, lurches and gasps through the barren landscape of his imagination, struggling for the words, the images and the metaphors to describe these travelers from another distant, barren landscape.  He needs the words to capture these travelers, to reach them, to hold them and caress them.   He needs the words to unlock the secret code, so he can finally enter, so he can immerse himself briefly, in their story, in order to better reveal his own. 

     The earth is flatter now  as they descend, brick and steel and glass extrude from the patches of grey.  The etched lines grow shorter and wider connecting these grey islands,  and one of these bodies of water now becomes a place of rest.

     In mid December in his office, he hears them high above, he leaves his desk, with the responsibilities and his struggles piled high and rushes to the door and looks to the sky.  The snow geese have returned. 

 A Blue Cauldron

     As winters go, this was a winter.  To call it a winter of discontent does not quite fully describe its malevolence.  I suppose also that it is an act of optimism on my part to shuttle it off into the past tense, because while it was a winter, as of the first days of March with the single digit temperatures and feet of snow, winter still  ‘is’ and its continued existence is an affliction to my own.  Enough already, somebody put a stake in this bastard.   

     If you live outside of upstate NY and care to visit Prejean Winery in winter, you might hold the notion that to travel here, you first head north on Route 87 or 81 and just north of Scranton or Kingston, you reach that foreboding X on the map.   That demarcation  is the point beyond which, you assume is best described as “BEYOND THE WALL” where White Walkers and Wildings prowl.  Well we certainly have our share of prowling, Wilding-esque types and plenty of pale, blue eyed ones, (melanin can be hard to come by in these parts) but it may surprise you to know that on more than one occasion this winter, I witnessed a rare occurrence, I looked upon Seneca Lake and discovered ice. 

     I have seen the north end of Seneca, near Geneva, partly freeze though only rarely and maybe once a winter, but this winter the lake battled mightily against the ice.  Islands of ice would form, the channels and rivulets would grow narrower and as the day warmed these ice flows would dissolve back into formlessness, consumed in a cobalt blue cauldron. On one occasion this winter, ice formed from the Dresden shore east to the navy barge. That is a first for me.  As much as things felt like we had gone “north of the wall”  this winter though, things could have been worse, if not for the lakes.     

Seneca Lake on a Frigid morning

Seneca Lake on a Frigid morning

There were mornings though, anxiety filled mornings for a grape grower, when Seneca was hidden beneath an impenetrable mist.  From the distance, what looked like phantoms and wraiths glided through the vapor, barely recognizable until a flutter of wings or a splash revealed them.  As foreboding and eerie as this sounds, that mist, that vapor is really a warm, protective breath, exhaled from the depths and one reason why these vineyards are here.  Relative to the surrounding air, Seneca Lake is a four trillion gallon heat sink. But as much protection as Seneca gave, the winter still packed a punch. 

Degrees of Loss

     Grapevines are tolerant of cold weather but extreme cold can take a toll on a vineyard and while a winter rarely kills our grapevines, it can be quite masterful at making them unproductive.  Thermometers are accurate enough if your only need is dressing for the weather but the border between cold and damaging cold in a vineyard is a finely honed edge; a few hours of arctic cold reaching across this boundary might prove that the fortification provided by eons of natural selection and 7000 years of grape breeding is not boundary enough. Or is it?  Is this borderline we call cold hardiness, our measurement, an agricultural tool like a plow blade or a pruning knife?

      The most accurate way(and it is imprecise at best) of determining the extent of bud damage in a vineyard is to check buds.  We can look at a grape bud and see whether it is alive or dead and prune accordingly.  This is a simple but time consuming process.  A representative number of canes are gathered from a vineyard and the buds are cut horizontally across.  If the bud is green it is alive and if brown it is dead.  The image below shows what a live Riesling bud looks like.  The image below this one,

A live primary bud on a Riesling cane.

A live primary bud on a Riesling cane.

deadPrimary

A dead primary bud and a live secondary bud.

 shows a dead primary bud next to a live secondary bud – built in redundancy.  Grapevines, like so many other species, have evolved traits that provide them with the means to accomplish the main thing they wish to accomplish, continued existence.  Not only are there primary and secondary buds, there is also a tertiary bud as a final backup.  A grapevine has three chances per bud at survival and there are hundreds of buds per vine.  If only a few buds survive a harsh winter, that grapevine could live another season.  

     Is this ideal for the grape grower or winemaker?  Of course not.  But grapevines could care less.  A grapevine whether it is Riesling or Chardonnay or Merlot or Cabernet Franc does not care whether it is super ripe, whether the sugar and acid are in balance or whether the tannins in its fruit are supple.  This grapevine wants its fruit ripe enough and tempting enough for a bird or other animal to consume it and carry its genetic message through time.  Our pursuits are just that and not a grapevine’s concern. 

An Ancient Text

    What is it in the genome that drives any of these pursuits?  What of snow geese?  On St. Patrick’s Day of this year, on my way home, as I reached the top of City Hill, once again I saw that the Snow Geese had returned.  Their winter southern sojourn was over and they were returning home to the Arctic, where they will breed and those offspring will then carry their genetic message through time.   How many millennia have these birds followed this path?

     Our vineyards survived the winter though not without damage, but I think that we can manage what the winter left us.  We have managed the aftermath of bad winters before and while it makes our job more difficult we are resourceful and resilient, much like the returning geese and the vines growing in our fields. 

     Resilience is not the only trait we share though.  We are all connected to these grape vines through our own genome, sharing about a quarter of the very same genes.  We share a large amount of our genome with Snow Geese, as well as every other species.  So much of what we perceive of these other species, we perceive as instinct, as a response guided and formed by the interaction between the environment and this genetic code within each and every cell.  What guides our pursuits?  How much of our behavior is influenced or formed by our genome, some or all?  How much of what we do is a response to these strings of chemicals?  Might each of us just be an avatar for this genetic code, a vessel made to carry this message over the expanse of time?  I do not know, this is far beyond my training and education.  But I think it is fascinating that we share so much with everything surrounding us, a commonality with every species that exists here and now on the earth and all that have preceded us.

We are all of us braided and woven together by an ancient strand of crystals.

The Eternal Return

     Like an ancient time piece the snow geese return with the Spring.  The Winter chased them south and now its receding draws them back home.  They are always just passing through the Finger Lakes as their ancestors have and what have they witnessed?  Did they see the glaciers receding and the mammoth’s last wanderings?  Did they see the Iroquois gathered in their villages and did they flee the cannon fire that followed the Europeans?  Did they see the early settlers clearing forest and planting crops or see the Irish immigrants building the Erie Canal?  Did they hear the men mining salt or flee the steam boats chugging up Seneca?  Did they see Harriet Tubman under “the midnight sky and silent stars” as she led slaves to freedom?    Did they see the arrival of mighty companies like Kodak and American Can and did they see them go?  Do they see us toiling in the vineyards? 

flyingSnowgeese

Snow Geese landing near Prejean Winery.

     Buildings of glass and steel silently withdraw into patches of grey again as they ascend.  I rush to the door with my camera and as I open the door of Prejean Winery, they turn away from that slight break in the light.  I guess they have learned to be wary of us and that is why they stay so far above.  Perhaps though, from that altitude and that vantage point, they see us also recede back into those patches of grey and see us as who we are, a very small part of vast, ancient landscape.

A persistent question

James Prejean

James Prejean 1922-1989

“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

       Charles Dickens
    Why am I here?

     I hear this question frequently and the question usually pertains to how I came to find myself working in a winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I have been at this business, this wine story for awhile and answer the question almost on a daily basis.     

     My parents, James and Elizabeth bought the property in 1979 and opened the winery in 1986. I was here on and off from 1979 to 1989, returning full time in 1989 after my father died.  This somewhat boilerplate version masks my disbelief that as of January 19th, 2014,  twenty five years have passed and here I am, at this time, at this place, in this life.

    And still I wonder, why am I here?

     My father, pictured above, was a corporate man and a mid-twentieth century one at that. ‘What was good for the company was good for him’ was a credo that he lived by and came to regret. He went where he was told and we as family followed. I lived in nine different neighborhoods in five different states before I got to high school. It was the last move to Connecticut, when business brought my father to the Finger Lakes.

  The portrait of my father was painted after he left the hospital during World War II. He was in the Battle of Guadalcanal and his ship, a destroyer named the Cushing was sunk during the November night battle.  Terrifying and horrific probably inadequately describe that battle and unlike 72 others, my father survived. He was lucky and he had a savior. My father was badly wounded and temporarily paralyzed.  A Bosun’s mate was in much the same condition but he managed to direct another sailor, panic stricken but unhurt, to fetch two powder barrels and tie both he and my father to them and heave each of them over the side, all while Japanese artillery was exploding around them. The ship eventually sank and my father after 36 hours bobbing in the water, tied to a powder barrel, was rescued.

      So here I am but still this question dogs me.

NavalGuadalcanalNov13_mod

How the Naval battle began-Source                                                              Wikipedia

     I met my wife at a farmer’s market. I was selling wine and she was working at her mother’s bakery selling cookies, cakes and most fortuitously, key lime tarts. I always wanted to try key lime tart and 23 years later, I can stand in my kitchen and watch my daughter dance between the chairs and see my wife’s face and be just as enchanted as I was on that summer’s day when I first saw her smile.

    But what If…

     My father went into the hospital on Friday the 13th, January 1989 and he never made it out alive. I never have been superstitious about the date but I think it interesting that he survived the night battle of Guadalcanal which began at 01:48 hours on Friday the 13th.  If events and circumstances had been different on either of those two days, I might not be here in this place, with this life.   

My daughter Cassidy

My daughter Cassidy

 When I walk out into a vineyard and I see the first buds of spring I am enthralled again and I know how lucky I am.  I think of a bleeding, wounded young man struggling to survive in the warm waters of the Pacific.  I see my wife and daughter, and I think, what if that grapefruit sized piece of shrapnel, that gouged out and scarred my father’s back so, had been lower or higher or if he had been two steps here or two steps there. And I think about that Bosun’s mate, always I think about that Bosun’s mate and I think, what if….     

      I can stand under a vast October sky, in a vineyard overlooking an enormous, magnificent lake among ripening grapes, grapes which tell a story about this time at this place, and I ask the question again. But the universe does not answer and it does not have to. Because I know how fortunate I am, to be walking through swirling vines with bluebirds and gold finches fluttering about, under an endless sky, so very fortunate to even be able to ask this question at all, ‘ Why am I here?’.

Thomas Prejean 1/23/14