Monday, February 11, 2008


On Thursday evening, June 11th, 2009 Quinn Rosefsky’s exhibit of PA59ers art works—broadly defined—will launch the celebration of our having left Andover 50 years before. “Art” is so broadly defined that some of Maureen’s and my wine will be served at the opening. Since at least some of that wine—the whites—have not been made yet, I thought I’d take you through a year in the vineyard—to introduce you, as it were, to what you’ll be drinking. I’ll post new pieces to the blog every few weeks. The year in the vineyard starts in January.

Like spring training, when every team will make it to the World Series, the first day of winter pruning is wonderful! As you look out over the tangle of leafless, fruitless, brown vines, your mind’s eye can see them all green, laden with ripe purple or green fruit, each bunch ready to be converted into wine that rivals Chateau Lafitte, or even better, California’s Dry Creek Vineyard (owned by Dave Stare, PA ’58).

From the grapevine’s point of view, however, it’s all about sex—a grapevine’s vision of the world is every green spot covered with vines, and its mission is to propagate itself ceaselessly and shamelessly to achieve that vision. To insure reproduction, it covers its seeds with sweet, delicious grapes designed specifically to convince every passing bird to eat them, digest them, and excrete the seeds on every fertile spot imaginable.

So the vine’s goal is to maximize the volume of seeds, and it adds the fruit only because birds don’t like dry seeds. If we didn’t intervene, the vine would grow helter-skelter along the ground, and climb every tree, building or post in sight producing a huge, leggy plant with an immense number tiny grapes—seeds barely covered with enough skin to attract the birds.

The wine grower’s goal, in contrast, is to minimize the volume of seeds, and maximize the volume of sweet, juicy, and above all complexly flavorful fruit.

So we prune. We severely limit the amount of vine growth and confine it to a trellis so that the vine will put its energies into making a few, good grapes, so that we can keep them healthy by managing them throughout the summer, and so that we can pick the grapes without having to climb the trees.

A prototypical vine has three parts: a trunk, arms that grow horizontally from the trunk, and canes that grow vertically from the arms. The canes are where the leaves and the grapes are, and each year’s crop comes from a new set of canes. In the textbooks, the canes crow straight up, six or so inches apart, and stay where they’re meant to be. Since the canes can’t read the textbooks, they seldom grow straight up, so right after the harvest in the fall, the vines are a mess of intertwined canes, leaning on each other in exhaustion from the work they’ve done all summer. The pruner’s job is to make sense of the mess, to pick the four to six canes—which will become next year’s horizontal arms—from the two or three dozen on each vine that will produce the best wine for the next year. All the other growth—about 80 percent of the total—are cut off and discarded.

Pruning is also a kind of report card on the past year. If the trellis is full and the canes are neatly spaced, it’s likely that you read the vine right. If there are expanses of space with no vertical canes at all, it means disease, winter damage, or bad pruning judgment. Winter damage generally comes from a sudden drop in temperature. The vines can tolerate temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees, but if there’s a 40 degree drop overa few hours from, say, 65 to 25, it can cause serious damage. And if there’s a freeze in May after the buds have come out, it can take out an entire crop. The vine will survive, however, because it has secondary and even tertiary buds that will ensure the vine’s survival—without grapes—so that it can wait till next year. Just like spring training.

Unlike Ronald Reagan’s redwoods, if you’ve seen one grape vine, you haven’t seen them all—each is different, each poses a unique challenge. Pruning requires judgment, perseverance, strength, the idiotic desire to spend long hours in the cold, problem solving skills, the crazy urge to tackle the next vine even as you look back at the masterpiece you’ve just finished, and above all, the ability to appreciate and be inspired by the strange and wonderful things that nature does. That said, there is a certain repetitiveness to the clipping which can be either soothing, or drive you out of your mind.

So that beautiful line of lush green vines you see in mid-summer, six months later is just a trunk, two arms, brown, denuded, almost dead looking, but gathering energy to burst into that beautiful line of lush green vines you see in mid-summer.

Again, spring training—you’ve got a lot of raw talent on the field, and it’s the manager’s job to figure out which individuals will make the best team—sometimes it’s the huge kid with the great arm, sometimes it the scrawny one who brings spirit to the group. Always, it’s a judgment call.

So it is with grapevines. The pruner knows that there is a $150 bottle of wine in each vine. It’s his and her job to figure out which canes will deliver that bottle, and which, like some ballplayers, look great, but come up dry.

Sometimes we get it right.

David Othmer
January-February, 2008

A Technical Note on the Trellis. The long rows of grapes you see in a vineyard are on a trellis. There are many, many different forms of trellis, each attempting to achieve the same three, contradictory goals—to maximize the quality of the grapes, to maximize the volume of the grapes, and to minimize the amount of effort required to manage the crop. The different kinds of trellis reflect different attempts to solve the unsolvable problem. The most common trellis is a series of posts about six feet high and 25 feet apart, several hundred feet long, which hold five to ten horizontal wires to which the vines are attached, and which hold the canes upright. The space between the rows is generally six to nine feet wide (to accommodate tractors). The space between vines within a row is generally three to eight feet. The most common trellising system is to have a trunk rising about two feet off the ground, then two “arms”, extending horizontally in each direction along one of the wires. Each horizontal arm has a series of “canes” spaced 4 to 8 inches apart that grow vertically. Each cane bears one or two bunches of grapes, has 20 to 30 leaves, and 10 to 12 very small buds. This year’s buds are next year’s canes—next year’s fruit bearers, and next year’s arms are chosen from this year’s canes. In the textbook vineyard, there will be a cane growing vertically every 4 to 8 inches, every cane will have one or two bunches, and every vine will have between twenty and forty canes, depending on how far apart they are planted.

A trellis has fixed wires, to which the trunk and arms are attached with plastic ties (in the old days growers used twine), and movable wires—catch wires—that keep the canes from falling over, and try to keep them growing straight up. The catch wires come in pairs, and the canes are made to grow between them, thus keeping them from falling over. A six foot trellis has two, sometimes three, sets of catch wires, which get pinched together over the season to keep the canes in line.

Other trellising systems have taller posts to allow for canes to be trained both up and down (to increase the yield), or are “Y” shaped at the top for the same reason. And, finally, there are some pruning systems that do not use trellises at all—just a trunk with canes coming out of the top like an umbrella. The last is seldom used today.


Blogger Jack said...

Fascinating and beautifully written. Of course I read the posts with a glass of Sangiovese in my hand, so I had an emotional involvement.

Jack Starr

July 24, 2009 3:04 PM  

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