Friday, May 9, 2008

Pruning, Part II

BLOG # 2

Wine growers have forever argued about quantity versus quality. The conventional wisdom has long been that they are inversely related. Like Van Gogh, you have to suffer to produce great art, a great vine has to suffer to deliver a pitifully small amount of great wine.

That may once have been absolutely true. But like so much else in our lives, the more we learn, the more we realize that it’s not quite so simple. In 2007, we had a small crop, and very good quality. It turns out, however, that the small quantity was due to 2006-07 winter damage, and the high quality was due to exceptional weather during the summer of 2007—weather that allowed for optimal fruit growth, minor disease threat, and a long, dry harvest period that allowed flavors to concentrate in the grapes. We also had a small crop in 2004, but the quality was sub-par that year because both the winter of 2003 and the summer of 2004 were nasty—the winter had dramatic temperature swings, the summer unrelenting rain.

What we are now learning is that vines are like people—they have different strengths, they respond to different stimuli, they are capable of delivering different crops. One vine is simply physiologically able to deliver more pounds of fruit of high quality than the one right next to it, despite the fact that both are the same variety, the same clone, the same rootstock, planted at the same time, and pruned, tended, and sprayed the same way. The grower’s task, therefore, is similar to that of a good teacher, parent or boss—insofar as possible, treat every vine as an individual, set a quality goal, and then try to maximize the quantity of fruit at that quality level for each vine. In practice, of course, that’s impossible, but you do get to the point where you can tell from the look of a vine as you prune it in the dead of winter—its shape, its vigor, the cane size—whether you have to prune it hard (and settle for a smaller crop) or allow it to carry more fruit. Similarly, you can look at a vine in late July and see immediately that it simply hasn’t developed enough strong foliage to ripen all the fruit that’s hanging on it, and force yourself to “drop” some of the fruit, so that all of the vine’s energies will go into ripening the remaining fruit.

You have no idea how hard it is to drop fruit in July.

And don’t get me wrong, while all that is going on, there’s time for your mind to wander, it isn’t totally focused on the pruning. There’s an Amish farmer a few miles away from whom we buy produce in the summer. Ike Stoltzfus, or one of his many kids, is usually in the store, a small room with shelves for the produce, a refrigerator with butter and cheese, a counter with a bell, a scale and a cash register, and a blackboard with aphorisms and announcements. For the most part, the fruit and vegetables are grown on their farm, but occasionally they buy from neighbors. One day last summer I was in the store and Ike’s 10 year old daughter was behind the counter. I was buying corn, and, as you know, it’s hard to know if an ear is good just by looking at it, so I asked the girl “how do you pick the ears you eat?” She looked at me incredulously, and said “with our hands!” As I was gathering my stuff, she looked at me and said “if I wasn’t here, what would you do?” I said “well, either I’d leave the money I owe you on the counter, or I’d leave you a note and say I’d pay you next time. What would you have me do?” Again she looked at me with amazement and said “Ring the bell!” Finally, I picked up some pears—it was late in the season—and said “Are these your pears?” This time I got a sly smile: “They are now!” she said.

If only I could get her to apply to Andover, she’d get in in a nano-second.

Back to the vineyard. We’re also learning more and more about disease control, weed control, and how certain weather patterns may affect the fruit weeks hence. For example: the slightly ratty looking vineyard with a certain amount of weeds poking up among the vines may be far healthier than the vineyard with no growth whatsoever between the vines, or between the rows. Those immaculate rows look beautiful—lush green vines against the brown earth and blue sky, but it’s taken a huge amount of chemicals to keep the weeds and ground cover in check, and, more important, weeds provide nutrients to the vines, control water run-off, and provide habitat for beneficial organisms (as wellas the occasional wasps’ nest).

Which leads to a truism that still stands: wine in made in the vineyard. The best a winemaker can do is not screw it up. The flavor is in the grape, the character is in the grape, the surprise is in the grape. All the winemaker does—from the grower’s point of view—is take this great gift that is entrusted to him or her and simply by fermenting and clarifying the juice, transform it into great wine. It may explain why winemakers are often so, well, crabby, and why most of them finally succumb to the desire to grow their own grapes.

I would be remiss, here, if I didn’t say that most grape growers also, finally, succumb to the desire to make their own wine—how hard can it be, they say, and why should I entrust these jewels I’ve spend a year cultivating to some bozo who can ruin them in a fortnight?

The result, of course, is a bunch of brilliant winemakers who can’t grow crab grass, and a bunch of virtuoso growers who couldn’t get a decent glass of orange juice from a perfect Florida juicer.


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