The Kenwood Press
: 04/01/2015

Springtime in the Vineyard

Jay Gamel

With the words “it’s bud break in the vineyard,” I feel a surge of personal responsibility. I now have a giant family out in the vineyard, beginning its journey to becoming vintage 2015 wine, and I need to protect all of those nascent grape bunches from disease, insects, sunburn, and drought. During winter pruning, we carefully counted and selected the strongest buds. Each remaining bud promised to provide two mature grape bunches come harvest time, and allow us to tailor the crop size to the available resources.

Lots of action in the vineyard

Spring is a busy time in the vineyard. We are building trellises to accommodate the 600 new vines we will plant later this month, as well as repairing broken or damaged metal vine stakes throughout the existing vineyard.

There’s lots of work in progress repairing and replacing broken or damaged irrigation lines and emitters so that no water will be lost. During winter months, the raccoons randomly bite holes in the black plastic irrigation lines, an easy way to get a drink of water.

We are mowing the grass in every other vineyard row, and disking the alternate rows. We bought a new mower to pull behind our tractor, but we have to clean potential blade-breaking rocks out of each row before we can use it.

Where are the bees?

Our peach and plum trees are in bloom and should be swarming with bees. But this year for all practical purposes we seem to have zero bees. In years past, we’ve had two or three active hives plus some wild bees in a hollow oak limb on the ranch. But the bees just disappeared last fall. Professional papers postulate that the most common cause of bee disappearance is the use of systemic insecticides. Experts believe that when the bees land on a leaf or flower from a systemically treated plant, it somehow affects their direction-finding system. The bees cannot find their way back to the hive and simply get lost. Exit your bee hive. This shouldn’t impact the grape vines as they are self-pollinating, but we’re keeping a close eye on our fruit trees.

We are just completing a very mild winter season. Most plants require minimum frost levels to push the vines into full dormancy. Without this cold time, a vine does not get a clear signal of how to proceed in the new season. Some level of global warming? Our vineyard manager Chuy reports it has now been four years with no damaging spring frosts.

There’s history in our terroir

We have some interesting history on Indian Springs Ranch that is part of our vineyard terroir. Some hundred years ago this land was the headquarters for a large quarry operation, producing cobblestones to pave the streets of San Francisco. We now know that literally thousands of these finished stones were shipped from the railroad siding at the foot of our driveway on Lawndale Road. The quarry, reportedly called “The Lawndale Hill Quarry,” closed around 1920.

There are pieces of cobblestones and antique artifacts all over the ranch, including the foundation ruins of what was the quarry headquarters. We have one of Bob Nixon’s historical photos of the old barn where the draft horses lived. (The old barn burned down in 1966. Our existing barn stands on the original site.) We are always looking for more artifacts and data to support this more than 100-year-old story. It’s all part of the terroir story that affects the wine we now make here.

Finally one more new subject to think about. A few days ago, son John and I attended the presentation of a research paper sponsored by Mike Benziger, head of Benziger Winery. The speaker was John Reganold, a world famous soil scientist, and his topic was the role of carbon in our soils. It was fascinating to learn how much our survival on this planet depends on how we manage the presence and quantity of carbon in our agricultural food supplying soils. This was a new subject to me. Before this meeting, I pretty much believed that the move to organic farming was a subject for high income foodies with no real relation to how we are going to continue to feed the planet with decreasing resources. But Reganold’s talk added to my growing appreciation for Sonoma County’s big push to be a leader in the area of sustainability.