Dave Komar, owner, Top-Notch Grafting & Vineyard Services
Glen Ellen native Dave Komar grew up in employee housing in Jack London State Park and found his way to wine via a career aptitude test while a student at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC). After a decade managing vineyards for the Benziger family and others, he found his niche in the business of grafting young vines, a highly specialized operation done in the field. Komar lives in Kenwood with his wife and two young children.
Q: So what is grafting?
I always try to explain it by talking about the trees here in the valley. You can see how the walnuts have black wood on the bottom of the trunk and lighter wood on the top. The trees have a rootstock, which sends roots down into the ground, and a scion, which is the part above that grows the fruit. The rootstock and the scion are joined together by a graft – that’s where you see the junction of the two different woods in the trunk.
Commercial vineyards in California are the same way. The rootstock is chosen for disease resistance or certain growth conditions. The top that is grafted on is the scion, the grape varietal that you want to make into wine – cabernet or syrah or whatever you choose.
Q: How is the grafting that you do different?
Well, you can buy vines to plant from a nursery with the grafts already done on a machine in the greenhouse. But we specialize in grapevine field grafting. When people are planting a new vineyard, they can plant the rootstock that’s best for their goals, and later we will come out to the vineyard and graft the grape varietal onto that rootstock that’s already growing. Or we can take an existing vineyard of any age and cut the tops of the vines off and put the buds of a new variety onto the rootstock that’s planted there. Within a year we can change that vineyard from producing one type of grape to producing another kind of grape. A lot of people don’t know that.
Q: Why would someone choose to plant their rootstock first and then graft onto it?
A lot of growers believe that if you field-graft, you end up with a stronger vine faster. The rootstock is essentially a wild vine; it’s got the tough mindset of a weed. It wants to seek out deeper depths for water and nutrients, so it establishes really well.
Q: How did you find your way to such a specialized role in the industry?
After SRJC, I transferred to Cal Poly to study viticulture. We had a class where we learned about vineyard propagation and we spent one day on field grafting, so I knew it could be done. Later, I was working for a vineyard management company and I wondered whether there was enough work to specialize. I did my research and found out that there was, so I made the leap. Now we’re going into our tenth season.
Q: How big is your team?
We’ve got two crews of 10 guys, and that’s where I plan to stay. I visit each vineyard, meet the clients, coordinate the job, the budwood and supplies for my guys. I haven’t ever had to turn any work away, but we’re busy every single day of the season.
Q: How many vines can one crew graft in a day?
Each person can do a couple hundred grafts in a day. It’s crazy how quickly it adds up. Some jobs, we’re in and out in a day.
The guys who do it are artists; it’s such a unique skill to have. The layer of tissue we’re trying to align from the bud onto the layer of tissue on the vine is paper thin. It’s all in the way that the budwood is cut off, the flatness of the cut, the way it’s lined up. It’s family teaching family, father to son.
It’s kind of funny, but there are not that many businesses that people start where they know less about what they’re doing than the people they’re hiring – but this is totally one of those situations. I soaked up everything like a sponge those first few years.
Q: What kinds of tools do you need?
The grafting is done with a simple pocketknife with a straight blade. The key is that the blade needs to be kept crazy sharp – like, if you can’t shave your beard with it, it’s not sharp enough. The crew will stop every few vines and touch up their knife on a leather cord, and when we stop for a break, they’ll get out their stone and sharpen it again. When we’re top-working, changing over a vineyard from one varietal to another, we use a chainsaw to cut the tops off the vines. That can be shocking for the client if they haven’t seen it before.
Q: You grew up here. What do you love best about our part of Sonoma Valley?
I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the beauty of the Sonoma Valley. I love being outside so I’m always up in one of the parks; I feel so attached to the landscape. From a wine standpoint, the climate here is awesome for wines I really like to drink, like Sonoma Valley cabs. And I just love the vibe; our wineries are approachable and there are still a lot of family wineries.
Q: Do you like to drink wines from vineyards you’ve worked on?
We have over a hundred clients each year, and some of them are people with smaller brands I would have never known about. Even if you’re just ordering one bottle in a restaurant or grabbing one off the shelf at Oliver’s, you’re supporting those efforts. It’s a no-brainer.