A Year In the Life Of the Vineyard
Pruning marks the beginning of the viticultural season. The pre-pruning we did in the fall makes the work a little easier. Cold winter weather helps reduce the risk of fungal infection caused from water sitting on fresh cuts. As an added precaution, we prune the older established vines first. Once the vines wake and bud break begins, the vines ooze sap that naturally seals the cut and protects the plant.
During this time we also make the rounds checking for erosion, repairing our trellis systems and assessing the vines. To determine if our vines are in balance, we will check the fruit to cane ratio by pruning three vines from a specific block and comparing the cane weight to the fruit yield from those same vines the previous harvest. Bud break begins in April and continues into May, depending upon the varietal. As the tender green shoots push through, fear of a heavy frost becomes the dominant concern as we have had May frosts the last 3 years in a row. A heavy frost during bud break usually leaves the vine without fruit for the year. Beginning in May, we spray the vines with sulfur to prevent the onset of powdery mildew or botrytis. Mid-to-late May, we focus on replanting and new development. We will replace any vines that died the previous year.
While some of the vineyard crew are busy replanting, the rest of the crew is equally busy training the new vines and positioning shoots. At the start of the season, the wires are positioned close to the ground but as the shoots push, the wire is carefully lifted and clipped in place, training the shoots to grow vertically.
Following bud break, as the shoots begin to develop, our vineyard crew walks the rows suckering unwanted shoots and dropping extra clusters. During this first thinning, the shoots are weak and easily removed by simply rubbing them off. Depending on the variety and location of the vineyard, the vines begin to bloom in late spring. Each cluster of grapes has a cap on its end that eventually falls off and a stamen emerges. In a process known as "set," the pollen on the ends of the stamen pull into the center of the cluster and the berries self-fertilize. Heavy rain, a frost, or too much heat can interfere and cause a poor set, jeopardizing the full potential of the crop.
In June the cover crops go dormant. We wait for the cover to flower and go to seed before mowing so it will emerge again during the next season. By leaving the dry grass in between the rows, we create a natural environment for beneficial insects such as wasps and mites to harbor. The only "discing" or tilling we do is in our newly planted blocks where we don't want the young developing vines to compete for water or soil nutrients. By analyzing stems samples we determine the nutritional status of the plant and make decisions about irrigation and fertilization. A delicate balance, we want the plants to be suitably stressed.
August marks the beginning of veraison when the berries soften and color. We continue to walk the vineyards assessing the vines, training the shoots, thinning the canopy and dropping any clusters maturing behind the average. We drop any clusters that overshadow one another to encourage good air flow, color development and uniform ripening.
As the grapes ripen we continue to monitor for any pest or disease pressure and will do some final leaf pulling. Depending on the year, we may start bringing in grapes in late August. The average harvest occurs over a one-and-one-half- to two-month period, usually in late August, September and into early October.
The period following harvest determines the health of the vine for the coming year. We hope for an early and hard frost to shock the vines into dormancy, but only after the leaves have had sufficient chance to send energy back into the roots. Immediately following harvest we lavish the vines with attention and lots of water to store up for next spring's push.
By November, five or six good frosts have put the vines to sleep and most of the leaves have fallen. The few remaining are in senescence and it is only a matter of time before these yellow and orange leaves fall to the ground as well. The vineyard crew takes advantage of the down time to repair equipment and maintain the vineyard, This is our "down time".
Pre-pruning in December is done with our "over the row" tractor. A series of blades run along the vines cutting approximately nine inches above the cordon. The buds left behind will be pruned by hand beginning in March, but clearing the bulk of the vines mechanically saves the vineyard crew considerable time. In December we also review the results of any experimental projects and determine whether to continue the work. We are always searching for innovations to improve our farming practices.