Winters are pretty much quiet in the vineyards, very much like the dormant vines waiting for spring. As it's impossible to get into the fields with a tractor because of the wet soil, only minimal activity, mostly involving manual labor, is done until the weather warms.
But when the truck with the port-a-potty arrives, we know there is a crew following close by and there will be work to do!
The first big job of the season, the one that really requires skilled laborers and knowledgeable managers, is the pruning. This is the first step to assure a balanced crop of just the right proportion for the vintage. Our crews pre-prune in February or early March, making sure the cordon (or arm) length is equal on both sides of the trunk and spaced correctly with the adjoining vine. They tie the cordons several times to the trellising wires and make sure the stakes and end posts are solid and can support the row of vines.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the last varieties to bloom, set and ripen at harvest, so we have the luxury of waiting until just before bud-break to prune, usually mid-March, while the earlier ripening varieties may already have been pruned a month earlier and may even be budding out. The crew will cut off the 5-7 foot canes from last years’ growth right down to the main cordon, leaving only 2 buds on each spur or the knuckle-like growth from last year’s cane on the cordon. Here we try to equally balance the vine with corresponding buds and spurs (and growth) on either side of the main trunk to support the vine.
Like a massive hair-cut, the vines go from sprawling, leafless masses to neatly trimmed, skeletal structures overnight! The piles of canes are stacked at the ends of the rows, to be dealt with at a later date.
Shortly after the vines are pruned, the sap begins to flow and the vines finally come to life after having slumbered all winter. Within weeks, as the weather warms and the daylight lengthens, tiny buds develop on each spur - sometimes called Q-Tips or popcorn in vineyard jargon – the beginnings of a new vintage.
Each vineyard creates an awful lot of excess canes at pruning, which the industry used to just pile up and burn. To see the valley shrouded in smoke that hangs over us like a fog at pruning season is never a pretty site, so we were thrilled when our vineyard manager initiated a shredding program several years ago, and the huge pile of shredded canes that is created is used all year to mulch the vines, our landscaping and garden.
Spring has just arrived - the vines are neatly pruned and now budding out, the fruit trees have flowered and the soil is almost warm enough to plant our summer garden. Another season, another crop, and all we can try to do is farm the best we possibly can and hope that Mother Nature is on our side.
Let the vintage begin!