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Journey to Harvest … and Beyond

Journey to Harvest … and Beyond

Wearing many hats

By Squire Fridell

Those folks who grow grapes and make, market, and sell their own wine will don many different hats during the months of the year, depending on the chore(s) at hand … sometimes wearing more than one hat during any given day.

Here at GlenLyon, late February is when we proudly don our Vineyard Hat. Why? It’s finally time for pruning those seemingly random, willy-nilly, out-of-control grapevines. Then in March, we switch to our Winemaker Hat because it’s time for the spring bottling.

But first things first … let’s slip on our Vineyard Hat and chat about pruning. We’ll talk about spring bottling in the next issue.

When you drive through our valley this time of year, it’s easy to see how the vines are trellised and pruned. So pull your car to the shoulder and really look at those grapevines. If there are no support wires (and sometimes no drip wire), it is “head pruned”; if you see one, two, or four permanent horizontal “arms” coming off the vine, attached to fruiting support wires, with five to seven stubby “spurs” sticking up on each arm, it is “cordon”; if you see two, three, or four fresh, new thin canes coming off the vine that are trained on two horizontal wires, it’s “cane pruned.” There are many variations with each system, but the above is a rough starter. With practice, you can identify and impress your driving companions!

Now that you can identify how vines are pruned, the next question would be why prune grapevines at all? Why not let Mother Nature take its course and let the grapevine produce as much as she wants? The answer is that quantity (pounds of fruit per vine) conflicts with the quality we desire. Unchecked growth might create more clusters of grapes (albeit smaller clusters), but the quality of the fruit desired in to make terrific wine will be greatly compromised. Thus, after harvest and after the vines have become dormant, we severely cut back the prior year’s growth. This is the way we balance each individual grapevine so that it will develop what we want in new green growth and produce the desired number of grape clusters.

Many books are devoted to the different methods of trellising and pruning wine grapevines that explore why there are different methods and what might be the best choice for you, your variety of grape, and your vineyard site. If you really want to learn how to prune grapevines, take advantage of Santa Rosa Junior College. The viticulture classes in “Canopy Management” are fabulous (and almost free). You’ll get hands-on experience and meet lots of interesting, like-minded folks!

The second question would be if you can prune grapevines any time after harvest, why do most farmers wait until late February or even March to prune? The answer is early spring frost. If you prune early, the new buds will begin to develop early in the spring … and inside that new, delicate, green growth tissue is water. When the temperature drops below freezing, the water inside the new bud freezes and expands, blowing out the cellular wall and destroying the new tender tissue. I’m convinced that’s why nurseries, in early spring, start displaying and selling their cute little tomato plants that have been grown in warm greenhouses. How many times have you bought those tomato plants in March or April, planted them in your garden and then had a spring frost hit? (I know I have!) Guess what? You had to go buy another cute little tomato plant to replace the dead one. The nursery sold you the same plant twice.

Early morning frost in the spring is also when those pesky, noisy wind machines all over our valley kick in to move the warmer air from the upper elevations to the lower parts of the vineyard, where the air is coldest. It’s also when those overhead sprinklers start spraying water. Why spray water during a frost, you ask? Believe it or not, water on those vines freezes and creates an “igloo” around the new buds, insulating the delicate tissue so that the temperature inside the “igloo” won’t drop below freezing. Aside from simply watching the weather forecast (which is never correct), many farmers have an alarm system to alert them when early morning temperatures are dangerously low, so they can get up and turn on the overhead misters. (Our alarm is in the bedroom. Ask Suzy how much she enjoys hearing the alarm blaring at 3 a.m…) Please raise a glass of wonderful Sonoma Valley wine tonight, along with Suzy and me, and toast the men and women that grow the grapes that will eventually become wine in your glass.

“Just Drink It!”

If you have any questions or comments, give a shout: [email protected] I promise to answer you.