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Journey to Harvest: 06/01/2015

Growing root stocks and planting new vines

This rootstock is just poking up out of its mound of dirt, waiting to grow enough to be grafted. Photo by Jay Gamel.

MacLeod Family Vineyard is planning to make a Sautern and some new Sauvignon Blanc blends in the years ahead. To make this possible we are planting two new grape varieties that will give these new wines the special character we’re looking for. It has been a while since we planted new vines on Indian Springs Ranch, and I doubt we have ever talked about it here.

Step one is to grow the new root stock, onto which the new grape varieties will be grafted. We have just planted a thousand or so 10-inch long vine cuttings – each about a quarter of an inch in diameter – in an area we’ve set aside as our root stock nursery. You can buy already grafted vines; however, as you might expect, it costs more money and you still have all the work to prepare the soil and plant the young vines. Our ranch manager Chuy, told me, “George, let us save you some money and we’ll grow our own root stock.

After a year in our nursery, the new cuttings will have grown a handful of small roots, plus three or four promising buds at the above-ground end.

At the beginning of the second year, usually in March or April, we will dig these plantlets up, and select those with the most promising root growth for replanting at the site where the new vines will make their permanent home.

Now you might think replanting is easy – just dig a new hole and put the year-old root stock in it. Not so fast, there can be lots of variables to consider. Has the root growth been vigorous enough? Is it still too wet in the vineyard so do we need to keep the new root stock in refrigeration until it dries out? If the vine is still cold from its months in refrigeration, you need to cover it completely with loose dirt until there is no vine in sight. Just a mound of dirt. This allows the vine to warm up gradually.

Then there’s the issue of water management. When the vine starts getting thirsty, we want its little roots to begin looking deeper for water, so we give the new vine very little water. The new little plants are fighting for their very lives as they try to adapt to their nearly waterless life. Eventually we will give the new vine some water, but we place it so the vine will have to reach for it. We want the vine’s mantra to be, “go deep.”

Through spring and summer the new vines will continue to grow. At present there is no sign of life on the dirt mounds, but eventually there will be several tiny green leaves appearing above the top sides, and in a month or so the mound will be covered with new small green leaves. And by the end of the second growing season, we should have a nascent vineyard full of potential grapevines that are ready for grafting.

In the autumn, the crew returns with their sharp clippers and lops off the top of the vine with all its new growth, leaving a stub that extends about five inches above ground. Now the root stock is ready for the professional grafters to arrive. Their job is to graft a bud of the desired grape variety onto the surviving five-inch root stock stub.

Grafting is a special skill. The grafting teams work with new vines all over the county, and are in high demand. Usually, all their work is done on their knees as they move from vine to vine. They keep the buds in their mouths as they go along, and always have a mouthful of new buds at the ready. They make a vertical incision into the root stock stub, take a bud from their mouth, and insert it into the incision such that the cambium layer of the root stock has maximum overlap with the active growing layer in the bud. When the grafted bud is in place, a half-gallon milk carton is fitted over the top of the newly grafted bud to protect it from sun and rabbits.

Their skill is astounding. Our experience is that they are able to achieve about a 95 percent success rate, getting the newly grafted buds to take on their new root stock hosts. Somehow, our traveling grafters remind me of the middle ages when all sorts of skilled personnel moved from location to location all over Europe.

Finally, note that it will be a full two years invested in this project without a single grape. And it will take at least two more years before we are making any Sautern. I sum it up this way … growing grapes is not for sissies!

Our mature vineyard is doing quite well. The Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Zinfandel are showing no effects of the drought and reduced water supply, and the vines have all passed bloom time. It is too early to properly evaluate crop size for vintage 2015. Chuy and his men think the crop may be 10 to 15 percent lighter, so we are leaving a few extra bunches as we thin.

Owner, Indian Springs Ranch and Vineyards

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