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Journey to Harvest: 09/01/2012

What makes a vine happy?

Some very happy Sauvignon Blanc grapes, getting ready for harvest.
Photo by Jay Gamel

Over the years writing this column I have always stuck with the personal security of really knowing what I was writing about. For once let's pry ourselves loose from our tight grip on security and venture for a few paragraphs into the world of uncertain.

For the first 40 years of my work experience (pre-ranch) I dealt with known issues - products that we could hold in our hand, repair, sell to customers, and generally make a dollar and earn a return for our work. This was my mind set when we bought this lovely 50-acre patch of Sonoma Valley and began to plant grapes.

While I was still gainfully employed by Monsanto we came up here on weekends to begin planning and learning how to proceed. Sometimes on Saturday mornings I would visit with the late Bob Kunde with a list of questions on a yellow lined tablet. Bob and his family have been growing grapes here in Sonoma Valley for over 100 years. One morning he put the yellow tablet down and said. “George if you want to grow great grapes and make great wine you have to make sure your vines are happy.” This was a shocking statement. What do you mean, “Happy?” Finally I got up my nerve and replied “How do you know when a vine is happy?” Bob slammed his coffee cup down, jumped up, threw his hands in the air and shouted with a few cuss words thrown in, “George, the vines will tell you when they are happy!!!” For the past 35 years this scene has played over and over and over in my mind as I planted vines, pruned, harvested, and as I write this. Are my vines happy? And what are the consequence of this question?

Some decades later we began making some of our own wine. When our first wine was ready I drove out to our winery to taste the new product. It was wonderful and I drove home to explain this good news to the family. The next day I drove back to the winery to ask our lady winemaker for some small bottles of our great product to take home to share with all. Back on the highway, I reached back, picked up one of the small bottles, unscrewed the cap and had a good mouthful. The wine was awful!! I made a hasty U-turn and returned to the winery. With some indignation I asked our winemaker, “What have you done to our wine? It is just awful.” Her reply, “George! I decanted your wine last night and hurt its feelings. Go home and give the wine some time to rest and it will be great again.”

This was the beginning of my learning that wine is a very sensitive product. It is indeed easy to “hurt its feelings” and make it not happy. I later discovered that this particular case of hurt feelings has a name, “bottle shock.” So now I am trying to manage the feelings of both the grapes and our wine! Let's switch back to the vineyard.

Over the past several years we have been pruning our Zinfandel with both head pruning and cordon pruning. Our mentor over all these years, late winemaker Mike Lee, told us he had been making Zinfandel wine for 20 years or more with both head pruned and cordon pruned Zinfandel. He stated that without question, the head pruned vines always made a little better wine. He thought this was because there are fewer grapes on the head pruned vines. But if you go out and look at vines, both cordon and head pruning, it becomes evident that the head pruned vines are just plain happier! They are not tied up with stakes and multiple trellis wires. Each individual bunch hangs freely in a home of its own, without touching another bunch. All are equally spaced around the vine with speckled sunlight for all filtering through the vine's canopy. As a grower, I get fewer bunches per vine (and don't like that). But we have been winning some impressive gold medals with wine made from these head pruned vines, and that makes me happier. What goes around, comes around.

And if this was not enough, we and our manager Chuy are experimenting with different pruning configurations for our Sauvignon Blanc. There is a clear suggestion to date that a method with significantly less fruiting wood and fewer pruning cuts may be producing the same amount of fruit but with bigger bunches and what appears to be a happier vine.

This is our 35th year at MacLeod Family Vineyard. Our 32nd harvest, and my 91st year. Could it possibly be that we are finally figuring out how to make our vines “happy?” I am sure Bob is thinking, “That young George fella is a slow learner.”

Owner, Indian Springs Ranch and Vineyards

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