The Kenwood Press
: 04/01/2016

Bud break and other vineyard phenomena

George MacLeod

The MacLeod Vineyard is bright green with happily growing grasses between the vineyard rows. The grasses are an important part of son John’s erosion control efforts that have contributed to our vineyard earning Sonoma Valley’s “Sustainable” certification.

The bright yellow mustard flowers we reported on last month have concluded their brief 10 days of fame. We have been farming this rocky hillside of Indian Springs Ranch for 40 years and this is the first year that we clearly understood the fragile relationship of the tiny mustard seed’s ability to germinate to our disking of the vineyard soil. Of course now we are wondering what else is going on here at this ranch that we are not seeing? Do we not understand something that is right before our eyes?

One unwelcome visitor to the ranch has recently been detected: Eutypa lata. Eutypa is a fungus that grows on woody plant tissue and, when wetted by rainfall, releases spores that can be carried by wind for miles. These travelling spores can then wash onto new pruning cuts or even deposit on the clippers we use to make the pruning cuts, thereby infecting the vine.

At the MacLeod Vineyard, we’re careful to deploy vineyard practices to mitigate against infection. We wash our tools with Clorox prior to pruning and use pruning styles such as cane pruning to limit the number of pruning cuts per vine. Still, we must count ourselves lucky that we haven’t had any issues with Eutypa in our vineyards over the past four decades. Recently, we have spotted the Eutypa “dead arm” in our Zinfandel. We are removing and burning any affected wood, and taking extra care to paint every pruning cut with a protective sealant to block off any new entry point for the dastardly fungus.

Bud break is here

Bud Break 2016
Photo by Jay Gamel

But enough about farmer travails. It’s bud break time in the vineyard! A time when optimism rules and visions of a copious future harvest spring anew.

I have always felt that bud break is a special time. It’s when we get our first glimpse of what vintage 2016 might be like. Pre-bud break, the canes are bare as the leaves have fallen or been blown off. Where each leaf was once attached to the cane, there is a tiny brown bud about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter and one-eighth of an inch high. When you first see them they look like nothing of any interest. But looks can be deceiving. If the buds could speak for themselves they’d say, “Patron, if you do not let your workers prune us off, we promise to deliver to you two beautiful bunches of grapes … each! Are you paying attention Patron? Your future profit is in the hands of you and your workers. Leave too many of us, and it’s hard for all of us to get ripe. Leave too few, and you’re leaving money on the vineyard floor.”

As the month of March rolls along, the buds begin to swell, and you start to see a faint white line across the surface of the bud. This is the top edge of the first leaf that will emerge when the bud breaks open. With gentle fingers you can push open the beginning leaves and see the tiny clusters that will become the grapes. I am very emotional with these first views of the harvest to be. Such a new and vulnerable microscopic scene holding the full promise of vintage 2016. I take a deep breath and soak it all in.

Turn the page … new subject. Your humble reporter George is in the process of writing a new book on the subject of terroir. While doing research for the book I am finding competent stories and instructions dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times. It’s amazing how attuned people were even then to the concept of terroir – even to the point of offering instructions on grape vine selection as a function of the different soils and climates. One of the most impressive stories comes from the Roman writer known as Pliny the Elder. Pliny wrote in the time period 23 to 76 A.D. and was a keen observer of just about everything. He wrote about an amazing array of topics: from how to throw a spear from a galloping horse to … you guessed it, how to identify different grape varieties and where different varieties grow best. He was observing and writing when he met an untimely end … out at sea observing the eruption of Vesuvius near Pompeii where he was overcome by volcanic gasses. He had asthma. My advice … turn off the TV and get yourself a copy of Pliny the Elder. My daughter helped me buy a copy from Amazon.