The Kenwood Press
: 04/01/2014

Buds break out

George MacLeod

Photo by Jay Gamel. A new bud (top center) pokes out behind older, more defined buds with leaves.
Every spring, the terminal (some would say almost fatal) optimism of those of us in the wine grape growing business renews once again, like the Phoenix, symbol of immortality from Greek mythology. It begins sneakily enough around the middle of March when you can detect some gentle, pregnant-like swelling in the dormant brown buds left after winter pruning. As unimportant and innocent as each of these tiny, quarter-inch buds appear, they are the heart and soul of the coming vintage. In some strange way, these tiny brown buds have made a commitment to the authority figures that if they were left after pruning, each one would promise to produce two bunches of grapes by mid-September.

When pruning, we leave about five percent of last season’s buds at the base of each leaf stem. As an experienced grower, I know that some 85 percent of the quality of a glass of wine is formed in the vineyard, so you can be assured that I am going to be out there in the vineyard keeping a close eye on the action as these buds break out.

When bud break first gets going, close examination will reveal a tiny, fuzzy white line on the top of the bud. This is actually the top edge of what will become the first leaf. The brown halves of the bud open like hands in prayer, offering a blessing for the coming vintage.

By the time a week has gone by, the bud grows a spiral of three or four tiny, gray-green leaves painted with a hint of pink around their serrated edges. A few more days and the bud has opened to about an inch in diameter. Be patient. If you take your fingers and carefully spread apart the tiny leaves, like magic you can see the fuzzy beginnings of two one-millimeter grape clusters. That’s the vintage 2014. Break out the Champagne!

As the days go by, the base of the bud gradually begins to develop into the beginning of a grape vine cane, a sign that there are more delights to come.

Earlier I wrote that these tiny new leaves have a serrated pink edge. If you go out to the vineyard at dawn, when there is a morning dew, each tip on the serrated leaf edge will have a tiny water droplet that, when struck by the sun coming up over the eastern horizon, shimmers like a diamond necklace. The whole vineyard sparkles. This answers my long-time question, “George, why in the world did you quit your good job at Monsanto years ago?”

And now for the vineyard reports from Marie and her Sauvignon Blanc vines and Javier and his Zinfandel vines. New readers of this column should know that each month we give voice to the vines themselves to get vineyard views and opinions from the vine’s perspective.

Marie’s Sauvignon Blanc report

Speaking for all the Sauvignon Blanc vines, I can tell you we feel we are really on a roll! We have just heard from winemaker son Richard that he plans to make a special wine from selected portions in our vineyard to be called...ahem…“Marie’s Cuve.” This cuve will be styled after the highly popular blend that won the top honor “Governor’s Selection” award in the Stanford wine program last year. We are quite optimistic and expect this new wine to be very successful. Marie’s Cuve, welcome to our wine family.

Javier’s Zinfandel report

Well, I don’t want to say that we Zinfandel vines have our noses out of joint , but we do feel we have a much better idea for a new MacLeod Family Vineyard wine than Marie’s what-do-you-call-it…cuve? Who has ever heard of a cuve except the French? And how do you spell it anyway? We Zinfandel vines plan to lobby all summer for Richard to make a traditional American Port. Ports, after all, have been important beverages throughout American wine history. Do “We the vines” have to give our winemaking team a lecture about the fame and importance of Ports? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regularly imported barrels of Port from France. I wouldn’t be surprised if our founding fathers drank sips of port off and on all day. I ask you, how else could they have written the constitution in that blazing hot, un-air conditioned hall in Philadelphia in June?

Danger in the vineyard

At this early stage of annual growth there is still danger lurking in the vineyard – frost! The tiny shoots and new leaves can be killed if field temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Some growers use fans, water mist, or even diesel heaters, but gravity works for our vineyard. Remember, our vineyard is planted on hillsides. Since cold air is heavier than warm air, the frosty air tends to flow downhill. But there is no free lunch: to make this happen, we have to mow the spring grasses between the rows so that the cold air can move downhill unimpeded. This usually works for us.

Old Patron’s report

Our quest for quality never rests, and we continue working to improve our ranch. During pruning this winter we converted another portion of our Zinfandel vineyard from cordon style to head pruning. To meet growing demand, we are making plans to increase vineyard capacity by increasing vine density. Presently we are at 425 vines per acre, but with our improved practices we believe we can increase this to nearly 1,000 vines per acre.