Kevin Celli has spent many restless nights worrying about his children.
Unlike most kids, however, Celli’s children don’t talk back, miss curfew or forget to call when they say they will. That’s because Celli’s children are plants — 13 high-maintenance grape varietals with different likes and needs. There’s also one human child, Annabella, age 12.
Celli is the farm director and wine maker at Willow Creek Winery, a 50-acre vineyard in West Cape May. In other words, he’s the father of the farm and it’s his job to make sure his kids grow up to be big, strong and sweet. That means knowing what each varietal needs to perform at its peak and caring for it in a way that allows it to thrive.
“The big brother of the vineyard is Cabernet Sauvignon,” Celli said. “He’s the heartiest of the bunch, the cold doesn’t bother him. He’s still napping.” Then, there’s Pinot Noir. “Pinot Noir is my finicky child. He wants it just the way he wants it.”
And he can’t forget his princess, Malvasia Bianca, “who I say is just like my Italian princess daughter, Annabella, a really tough, strong girl who has unique quality that you can’t find anywhere else.”
A grape vine’s main objective is to produce the prettiest, sweetest fruit so wild animals will want to eat it and, thus, spread its seeds, Celli said.
From the moment the vine wakes up from its winter sleep until bedtime comes again — which in South Jersey plant time is about 120 grow-degree days starting right about now — the vine’s only mission is to accomplish that goal. The farmer’s job then is to offer it guidance.
“As a mentor of mine always says, ‘The best fertilizer for the vine is the farmer’s shadow,’” Celli said, meaning the more time the farmer spends with his crops, the better off they will be. “The plants really do learn from you. For example, if you have a shoot and you remove its pinky, but leave the thumb, the next year that plant will try to produce only the thumb.”
Sticking with the father-child analogy, and understanding that the mother of the farm, who goes by the name Nature, is the big boss, one might assume Celli didn’t get much sleep over the past few months.
Mother Nature was pretty flaky this winter, as she dropped 39.6 inches inches of snowflakes on the Atlantic City area, making it one of the coldest winters South Jersey’s farmers have seen in more than a decade.
The good news is, the uncommonly low temperatures didn’t have a noticeable effect on South Jersey vineyards, farmers said. But Celli attributes that more to good parenting than to luck.
“South Jersey farmers, including grape farmers, are getting more hip to the game,” he said. “We now understand the different microclimates of the South Jersey region and know what to plant, where to plant it and how to spoil the plant just enough to get it to be cooperative.”
Larry Sharrott Jr., owner and farmer of Sharrott Winery in Winslow Township, Camden County, and chairman of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, said the wine industry in New Jersey has become more sophisticated in recent years.
“You really can’t go to another region of the world to see what they do and copy it. There’s too many variables,” Sharrott said. “We had to learn it for ourselves, and now we’re there.”
Sharrott said his farm experienced negative-4 degree temperatures this winter, which is almost 10 degrees cooler than anything it’s endured in at least the past decade, and it ultimately cost him about 30 percent of his harvest, but like Celli, he said it will have no effect on the quality of the harvest’s wine.
Another difference between human parent-child relationships and plant parent-child relationships: If a vine doesn’t perform to the best of its ability, it’s a goner.
“If I know my plant doesn’t have the right nutrient consistency, then I get rid of it,” Sharrott said.
Not to say he doesn’t also love his kids.
“I actually saw the first tiny shoot just this morning. They weren’t there yesterday, so that was exciting,” Sharrott said. “At this time of year, the biggest concern is when you start losing the buds. A frost event in the next two weeks can reduce our quantity even further.”
Celli agreed that Mother Nature had better keep herself in check. “I don’t want to see the temperature dropping below 20 degrees again,” he said, alluding once more to the night last week, which brought April snowfall to some parts of South Jersey.
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