Kenwood Press

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Journey to Harvest: 07/01/2015

With wine and grapes, every detail matters

Dear Readers,

By the time you read this, it will be early July and I will have celebrated my 94th birthday. Over my long and generous life I have been involved in the production and manufacture of many products: agricultural, semiconductor materials, light emitting diode materials and devices, and oil explorations both on land and over water. I have Masters and Bachelors degrees in geology. But none of these projects had as many issues as trying to make a great glass of wine!

Details of the last two months

Our grape crop was three weeks ahead of our typical schedule at the beginning of May and everything seemed under control. Despite the lack of winter rain, the vines were growing rapidly. The vines were approaching bloom time – their normal time for pollination. The road to an early harvest seemed clearly laid out. Optimism ran rampant! We were almost ready to take money out of the bank and head off to Maui for vacation.

Enter May and almost a solid month of cold, foggy days. Bloom time was very spread out, causing fruit set to be irregular from vine to vine and even from bunch to bunch. This means that the tiny grapes on each bunch would be irregularly spaced with large gaps. Now fear enters our thinking: the crop could be small and well below budget.

irregularly sized Zinfandel grapes

Cold, foggy weather during bloom time has led to irregularly sized Zinfandel grapes on this bunch.
Photo by Jay Gamel.
And that’s not where the worry ends. Now that we have fruit set, it’s time for Chuy and his army to remove some of the leaves and canes so that each of these tiny bunches gets its share of sun and air. This is called de-leafing and suckering, and is very labor intensive. If done properly and timely, the little bunches will begin to grow with just the perfect balance of light, sun and shade for proper development without danger of sunburn or mildew.

Critical days are passing and Chuy and his men are still not here! Because our borders with Mexico are now properly tight, it is much harder for new farm workers to arrive. Chuy tells me he is trying to get the suckering and de-leafing done with a crew that is 30 percent below normal. He manages farms on some 400 acres here in Sonoma Valley, and it’s getting harder for him to take care of his growers. Every day of delay means the tiny bunches are not getting the optimum exposure to achieve the quality that will make our magic glass of great wine.

But wait – there’s more to worry about! Without timely de-leafing, suckering, and tucking within the trellis wires, the vineyard canes now reach out across the vineyard avenues so it is difficult for John to pass through with his tractor to disc or mow the vineyard weeds which are drinking up scarce soil moisture. Remember at the start I wrote, “Every detail matters!”

Optimism returns

But enough about worries. Right now on this ranch there are three details that – even with the labor and water issues – can make a grown man smile.

First, growers historically dry farmed wine grapes, i.e., without irrigation. Here at Indian Springs Ranch we have a four-year-old experiment with 50 dry farmed Zinfandel vines. I’m pleased to report that nearly 90 percent have survived their unirrigated youth, and are looking to the future. The excess time to get into production, and reduced future yield is the price you pay, of course.

Then there’s the pruning experiment. Four years ago we began farming a three-acre plot where we trained the vines with a pruning system that dramatically reduces the number of pruning cuts. Our old pruning system required some 50 to 60 pruning cuts per vine. The new experimental plot needed only 12 to 15 pruning cuts per vine. Last fall we made wine from these grapes that had fantastically different and impressive flavors and aromas. Could this mean that the vine reacts positively to fewer pruning cuts? If I were the vine, I think I would.

Now, last, the vine report that really makes me smile every day: The newly planted vines that will in time be our Sauterne grapes, a varietal we have expanded, are courageously pushing up through their protective mound of dirt covering and are beginning to produce new tiny canes and leaves. They are now fully a foot or more in height. If they can keep up this pace, perhaps we can graft them in September. I ride the ATV down to encourage them every afternoon.

Owner, Indian Springs Ranch and Vineyards

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