It is June in the vineyard and our 15,000 vines are acting like teenagers with Spring Fever. The canes are growing like mad - at least an inch a day. The small two-inch-long bud bunches are clearly visible and just can't wait to be real, grown-up grape bunches. Each leaf is a perfect shiny dark green. The tendrils at cane ends that lead the way are perfect and pointing to the sky, looking for a vineyard trellis wire to grab onto for future support. The late vineyardist Bob Kunde told me years ago, “George, if you want to grow great grapes and make great wine you have to make sure the vines are happy!” Well, all are happy now and optimism rules! We will think about the dangers - insects, diseases, drought - another day.
Vineyard manager Chuy and his team have visited each vine to remove all new growth that is not an outgrowth of the buds left after pruning. These shoots are called suckers and vigorously grow out of the vine trunks and branches, bear no fruit, but consume water and plant nutrients, in addition to making excess canopy shade and reducing airflow around grape bunches. Chuy thinks that this year's unusually vigorous sucker growth is related to last year's heavy rains.
Now, lest you think this cultural practice of “suckering” is modern science, read your New Testament where over two thousand years ago we are told as vines to discipline ourselves and, “Remove all branches that do not bear fruit…”
The dye is cast for Vintage 2013
Visit the vines in late May and you will typically see two nascent grape bunches growing on each cane. This rule is not set in concrete and is a function of vine decisions made in May and June last year. Yes, I am telling you that this year's crop was cast last year. The buds we left after pruning are already encoded with data saying whether that individual bud will bear two bunches, one big bunch, two tiny bunches, or (perish the thought) no bunches at all. The vine's logic here is that it really does not care about me or you, but is primarily focused on bearing a crop that will mature and have fully developed seeds to insure propagation of new vines. So right now, even as the vines are working to ripen vintage 2012, they are evaluating their health, vineyard conditions, weather and deciding, “what kind of crop will we give the old patron next year?!”
Now we need to let our two grape “spokesvines” - Marie of the Sauvignon Blanc and Javier of the Zinfandel - give us the word on bloom time.
Marie and Javier on weather and bloom time
Patron, listen to your vines. You and vineyardists up and down the Sonoma Valley are out appraising our bunch count. Here at MacLeod Family Vineyard we are showing you almost two potential bunches per cane, and you are feeling very optimistic about our potential yield. But don't forget, there is yet another obstacle…we still have to get through bloom time. Remember that grapes are self pollinating; i.e., no bees or insects are needed. But this also means that any rain, wind, frost, or high temperatures at bloom time can significantly reduce our yield. Bloom time is just ahead of us. Remember, to get a good fruit set we need just six perfect days, perfectly timed to coincide with bloom time. Not too much to ask, n'est pas?”
Big reunion at the vineyard
Almost a lifetime ago, 40 years, as a Monsanto engineer I was given the assignment to take 15 young engineers from Monsanto's St. Louis laboratory to Silicon Valley, build a plant, and begin to convert new light emitting technology into commercial products that became what we now know as LEDs, Light Emitting Diodes. In retrospect we were young, exceedingly optimistic, brash, immature, you name it. We really thought that we as a group were going to, in time, make incandescent light bulbs obsolete! We made a wonderful run at it, but it turned out that we were 40 years ahead of market acceptance. Now this technology is really the way the world will be lighted. In our country this light source is so efficient that within the next 15 to 20 years it will enable us to shut down about half of our present nuclear power plants.
To make a long story short, this month some 90 veterans from this project joined us for a great reunion at our vineyard, and for an afternoon we relived those glorious times. The key theme from those years is that we made it possible for all of us to work without fear. We thought we could do anything and we almost did!
To conclude with a touch of humor
During research for the reunion, the committee came across hundreds of photos. One was of me at our 5th Anniversary Party, 1973. I am young with a peaked party hat and my arms around two beautiful young employees each wearing a giant placard saying in big letters “Your Touch Turns Me On.” At the time we were working on an optical switch that turned on with a touch. My family took one look at photo and said, “Dad, if you did that now they would put you in jail for sexual harassment.”