Saturday, December 8, 2012

Keeping an Open Mind

I have been busy absorbing this new place I call home. I have had many experiences and not much time to actually write about them. Here’s one I’d really like to share.

I have been visiting this region for the past 25 years and have owned a house here for seven years. During that time, I have mostly interacted with locals through the hardware stores, grocery stores, and fast food lines. In the process, I formed the opinion that people around here aren’t very friendly. In the very places where I would expect a smile and friendly greeting in the Northwest, I was not greeted at all and rarely even given a smile.

Honestly, it’s one reason I didn’t want to move here.

Now I am working full-time at the local hospital and part-time at the winery. I have found that I misjudged people. It may be that people in minimum wage jobs are unhappy and lack the people skills that are necessary to survive elsewhere. But it’s also true that the professionals I work with at the hospital are a great group of people. They are intelligent, friendly, and fun to be with.

When I’m at the winery, I make a point to welcome each guest when they walk through the door. I always smile. These people show up expecting to taste some wine and leave feeling like they have just had a fun experience. That’s my goal. I want everyone to feel like they are welcome and comfortable in our tasting room. In the process, the customers tend to return the friendliness and share a bit of themselves. It is really fun to hear about people from near and far, their connection to wine (or lack thereof), and how they ended up in our winery.

I look forward to more interactions with the people here as I settle in. I have barely scratched the surface of the quilting scene. Someone asked me which guild I had joined. Though I haven’t joined any, the message was clear that I have several to choose from. I’m not currently involved in education, but we are hoping to move our son here next year. That will also open some doors and enlighten me. I will now know to walk through those doors with an open heart ready to receive new friends and ideas.

Thank you, Southern Maryland, for showing me you are more than I thought. In return, I hope I can live up to your expectations of me.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Vineyard Year

It is November, and the grape growers in my family are ready for a break after the long, arduous harvest of this fall. Unfortunately, we have very little downtime in a vineyard the size of ours. With smaller vineyards, growers can take most of the winter off. With much larger vineyards, corporations use machinery or legions of migrant workers to help them. We, however, only have ourselves and a few local teens who help us out. Here, in a nutshell, is our year. It tends to consume every weekend. Rarely is there a weekend when no one is in the vineyard.

Pruning – This is when the canes of dormant vines are removed (cane pruning) or significantly trimmed to within 2” (spur pruning)of the cordon. Pruning allows all the energy to go into forming new growth in the spring. The goal is to have all vines pruned by bud break.

Shoot thinning – After bud break, the vine will start producing many new shoots from which grapes will emerge. We want to limit the number of shoots to concentrate the energy to a few strong shoots.

Shoot positioning – The vine doesn’t know that growers prefer that all shoots go straight up. We must train them with special notions such as tapes and rubber bands for just that purpose.

Fruit removal – As in shoot thinning, our goal is to concentrate a plant’s energy on a limited number of clusters per shoot.

Leaf pulling – With warm days and occasional showers, leaves tend to suddenly sprout everywhere. The goal in pulling is to protect the fruit from the harshest sun while still providing airflow and enough sunlight for ripening.

Hedging – We cover our vines with bird netting (see below), so we need to hedge the tops of all vines to keep them clear of the netting wire.

Netting – Our particular farm happens to be along a major north-south flyway. As the birds fly over us, they see an opportunity to refuel. We have seen blocks of the vineyard stripped of grapes by birds. As a result, we cover all our vines with very large nets.

Lateral removal – The vines are always looking for ways to grow and expand. We, however, prefer that they only concentrate on ripening the grapes. Lateral shoots are like a distraction, and we try to remove them.

Harvest – Before the actual harvest, we clean the clusters of any bad fruit. We also try to remove leaves to help the harvesters find and access all the clusters easily. All at once, we canvas the varietal and snip off the fruit before placing them into lugs (ventilated plastic containers).

Net removal – The final big job in the year is to remove all those acres of nets and then store them until next summer.

Downtime – This is not an official term, but one I made up. It’s essentially the time between the last harvest and when the vines go dormant. This year, we expect about six weeks.

Since we are a young vineyard and are still expanding our fields, our downtime tends to be spent working on residual planting activities in new blocks of vines. We might be found running wire for trellises or prepping land for spring plantings. Once we are more established, we will have less of that. We also use the time to do maintenance on fencing, tractors, and other machinery. The house on the property could also use some maintenance as could the Christmas trees that we grow in adjacent fields.

This list is very generalized. The details can differ among regions, varietals, and farmers. I don’t include any irrigation because we are a dry (non-irrigating) farm except during severe drought. I also don’t include the spraying of fungicide (necessary in this humid climate) or regular mowing to keep the land between the rows passable and the grasses from competing with the vines.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Name Game

When we began having children, we had to tackle the question regarding how our children should address adults. Many of our adult friends wanted children to call them by their first names. (I’ve noticed that a majority of those people are also Baby Boomers.) We decided, however, that we wanted our children to use a title in addressing adults. For the most part, adults were Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. (We made exceptions for our very close friends like Hope and Theresa whom I’ve known forever. They are honorary family, so we didn’t require quite the same level of name respect.) We knew that we were considered old fashioned, but the policy seemed to work well for us.

On the flip side, we also asked to be addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Byrne by the many youth that we worked with. Consistency is important in raising kids. No sense in requiring them to say Mrs. Smith while allowing Mrs. Smith’s kids to call me Lyrel. Again, it worked for us. I don’t mind the “old fashioned” moniker for this issue.

Fast forward to present day Charlotte Hall. This is a rural village located in the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. I don’t work with youth here, but I’ve encountered quite a few adults. I’ve noticed that many of those adults insist on calling me Mrs. Byrne even after I’ve pronounced my first name for them. I’m not talking about one or two people. It’s the culture here. In fact, I’m working with a fencing contractor right now who refers to himself only as Mr. Jones. I don’t know what his first name is. He always calls and says, “This is Mr. Jones of Jones Fence.”

Suddenly, I’ve gone from being old-fashioned to progressive without even changing my views! (Sounds a little like a political race, don’t you think?) I don’t know if this approach to names is localized to my village or region or if it extends beyond and is an East Coast thing. Maybe most of the country is this way and only Seattle (or more likely, the entire West Coast) is progressive.

It’s a weird transition. Just as my adult children’s friends are starting to call me Lyrel, my new adult acquaintances are calling me Mrs. Byrne. Either way, I suppose it’s better than, “Hey, You!”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Festival Time

I worked my first wine festival this weekend at the Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster, MD. I spoke with a couple who said they last attended this festival about ten years ago when there were 18 wineries represented. There are now 60 wineries in Maryland, and I suspect most of them were at the festival. That’s a lot for a small state.

We were swamped the entire first day though the Baltimore Ravens seemed to suction off the crowds the second day. People told me that the Port of Leonardtown Winery had one of the busiest tents, which says a lot about our wines. I didn’t talk with anyone else from any other wineries. I didn’t taste a single drop of wine. I don’t even know the names of the wineries who shared our small pavilion with us. It was that crazy. Rumor has it that our sales more than doubled a busy day at the winery. One of our customers was a judge in the recent Maryland Governor’s Cup Wine Competition (where our Chambourcin won Best Red, McIntosh Run won Best Fruit, and Autumn Frost won a gold medal). He came to our booth because he said he was impressed with our wines and wanted to buy some for himself. Yes!

Law enforcement officers were plentiful both at the event and on the roads surrounding the town. They take drunk driving very seriously. That’s a good thing because next week at the same general location is the Carroll County Craft Beer Festival. (Is there not much else to do in Westminster?)

I naïvely thought I would get a chance to walk around and talk with other wineries about not only their wines, but their vineyard activities. I had no idea that festivals were manned primarily with volunteers. Volunteers promise to help out a winery for a given number of hours. In return, they get free admission to the event, a free wine glass, and a free bottle of wine. They usually aren’t grape growers, winery workers, or investors. They are wine drinkers who like working with people, love the freebies, and take the burden off of those who are already working so hard to make the wines. Now, if we could only offer them a crash course on how to pronounce rosé (roh-SAY), chamboursin: SHAM-bohr-sin, and Wicomico: Why-CAHM-i-ko.

Wineries attend festivals to promote name recognition, encourage people to become familiar with their wines, and to move product. Volunteers attend because they get to do a few hours of work and then play the rest of the time for free. The public attends because festivals make it easy to sample a large number of wines without having to purchase a large number of bottles. They can do side-by-side tastings and compare with ease. Participants also get live music, good food, wine-related vendors selling wine supplies and various arts and crafts. They seem to attend in groups of friends or families with blankets and chairs, coolers, and plans to stay the entire day. I’m sure many memories are made – and some are lost due to excessive alcohol consumption.

One common question I heard was, “Where is the port in Leonardtown?” Thanks to Connie and Wikipedia, I now know the answer. Sadly, I didn’t know over the weekend. Wikipedia states, “During the Civil War …, Leonardtown served as a busy port and steamboat landing. Until the passing of the steamboat era, steamboats carried goods and passengers all over the Chesapeake Bay area well into the 20th century, and a floating theater docked each year at the port, providing entertainment.” So now you know, too.

Honestly, this was a Maryland festival, but so many people didn’t seem to even know their own state. Here are some real conversations I had:
Him: What is near Leonardtown? I don’t know where that is.
Me: Uh, near Patuxent River NAS.
Him: Nope.
Me: Waldorf.
Him: Where?
Me: Washington, DC. [We’re an hour and a half south of there.]
Him: Okay.

Him: Where are you located?
Me: In St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland.
Him: Where’s Southern Maryland? [no kidding] Is that the Eastern Shore?
Me: Think of us as the Western Shore. [We are the peninsula on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay.]

The skeptics were in plentiful supply, too. The following conversation happened way too many times:
Me: Hi, can I interest you in a taste of our 2010 Chambourcin? It recently won the 2012 Maryland Governor’s Cup gold award for red wine.
Him: I’ll be the judge of that. [tastes] Wow! That’s good!

Working all day at a festival beats working all day at the farm. I guess I like the hubbub and multitasking of the event over the peacefulness of a field. I prefer interacting with interesting humans over interesting wildlife. I’d rather cut some foil than prune some vines. I suspect I’ll be volunteering at more festivals and building a collection of stories to share.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tully, Come Home

My dog, Tully, walked away from home last Thursday night. Almost exactly eight years ago to the day, he walked into our lives with the same love for life that probably caused him to leave us last week. In 2004 we found him at the Bellevue Humane Society where he stole our hearts. He loved nearly everyone he met with an enthusiasm we humans could learn from. He was playful and smart and loyal and lovable. He really was nearly the perfect canine companion for our family.

Tully was cared for by my parents for the last two years to help out my family as we were in the middle of the extended move. Mom and Dad needed a dog in their lives, and Tully took his duty as lovable pet very seriously. Other family members have also taken care of him on occasion. I have heard time and again how great a pet he was for them.

Tully has been a loyal companion to me. By night, he lies next to me on my bedroom floor. By day, he is usually within inches and always within feet of me. When I move, he moves with me. One of his few faults is that he likes to roam the Charlotte Hall neighborhood in the evenings if he can sneak away. Even then, he usually returnes within a couple of hours. Sometimes he smells like skunk; always, he returns smiling and eager to tell of his adventures.

Last week, he didn’t return.

I have searched the area roads around our house, reported him missing to several local authorities, and I have longingly stared out the back porch hoping to see him romping back home. Thinking anything could have happened to him in the vast woods adjacent to our property, I searched the area with my nephew. We found no evidence of Tully. I shudder to think of the possibilities, so I try not to. Instead, I hope that either someone took him in, or he suffered a quick end.

I miss your unconditional love and your yips while you dream. I miss your smiling face and your warm greetings for everyone you ever met. I miss the only dog I’ve had in my life since I was four. Please, Tully, come home. You are loved and you are missed.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Allison's Umbrellas

When I decided to make Allison a quilt for her high school graduation, I thought about who she is and how I could best represent her in fabric. I also wanted to honor her Seattle roots. I pored through quilting books and browsed quilt shops, but nothing really grabbed me. It was evident that Allison’s quilt was going to be another Lyrel original. With the help of Pam at Quiltworks Northwest in Bellevue and Wendy at Material Girls Quilt Boutique in La Plata, I was able to pull together my various scraps of ideas into a cohesive pattern that tells the story of my girl. In the process, I also pulled together the two cities that I have been living in.

Allison’s Umbrellas is based on the theme of using eight-sectioned umbrellas as the basis of telling the story. Although Seattle natives rarely use umbrellas, the image works. The spotted blue and gray fabric (which I found in Maryland) signifies the raindrops. The gray field behind the umbrellas signifies our constant gray skies. I don’t want to sound dreary, but that’s the reality of weather in the Northwest through much of the year.

The twelve umbrellas each have a different theme: drama (with pictures describing the titles of some of the plays Allison has been in),


family (I won't divulge these, but Allison knows what represents who),


Maryland and DC (with fabrics found in Washington),

school (her high school mascot was the Totems; she was very active in Club Operation Smile),


Sammamish/Santa Clara,



Washington State,

and Coldstone (her employer).

The backing is made of solid dark blue minky fabric (found in Maryland). Allison has asked me for years to make her a minky quilt. This was a concession to her. If you’ve never felt it, suffice it to say that it’s the softest fabric ever made. Period.

The quilt had been put aside when I left Maryland in April because the sewing machine was also left there. I didn’t rush into working on it when I returned in July because of the chaos of the move and how warm the quilt would make me while I was working on it. Last weekend, Peter asked me to finish it by this weekend so Charles could take it to Allison. I finished it last night.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Taxes, Schmaxes

Let me begin by saying that I have nothing against paying taxes. I know that the taxes I pay go for services that I appreciate: police, roads, education, libraries, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

The owners of our farm have discussed turning our farm ownership from a partnership to a limited liability corporation. I don’t know much about the differences between the two, but I’ve heard that we would be at an advantage to do so. This discussion has been going on for several years. Today, I asked what was keeping the owners from completing the process.

In a word, taxes. Apparently, the State of Maryland believes that it’s entitled to a large chunk of change when businesses change their legal designation. Rumor has it that the cost runs at about one percent of the total value of the business. I suppose that large businesses that have substantial income can afford such things. After taking a very close look at our books today, I discovered that our farm wouldn't be able to afford to stay in business if we changed our designation. We simply don't have it.

So, Maryland, how can you justify such high taxes? What benefit will we – or the people of this state – gain from them? Especially in this economy, it seems that the state should be trying to help businesses succeed. Sure, charge a reasonable processing fee. Even the government has its expenses. But allow businesses to make smart financial choices without the state greedily consuming more than the businesses would gain.

I’m getting my information second and third hand, so I may be missing a big piece of the puzzle. I’m happy to consider such information should I become aware of it. In the meantime, I’m going to start paying more attention to how our elected officials approach small businesses. I have a lot to learn about both politics in Maryland and being part of a small business. I hope the learning curve isn’t too steep for me.