Bringing Up Baby, Syrah

I used to tell people that as grape-growers, Nick and I have 60,000 babies: that, (or to be exact, 58,754) is the number of vines we farm. Tending to this number of vines requires frequent and regular monitoring for the proper maintenance of their growth and the quality of their fruit production. Through the years we have observed and gained knowledge of our vines, how the different blocks grow differently, how even different sections within blocks behave differently. Nick even knows certain vines within the rows whose roots have found more or less water, and he cultivates them accordingly to adjust for this difference. His system for keeping track of these vines is so complex that I would be in a pickle if I were to be called to summon up this information, and perhaps he would be, too. So I’ve always likened the level of care and individualized attention we give our vines to what children must need. But now that we have a new baby boy, Julian, I have come to learn that this analogy is not so accurate.

For one, though our vines are regularly given a compost application, they do not need to be fed every other hour. And as far as I can see they do not need diapering ever, let alone twelve times a day. The waste product of photosynthesis is the fairly innocuous, (I’d say rather beneficial,) oxygen and not the fearsome poop. And when they show signs of distress, they do so much less audibly and never in the middle of the night (well, except for those years we have spring frost and are up at 3 a.m. dealing with freezing temperatures). At times I describe vines as being sad, but they are never cranky. Vines do not spit up. Most importantly, you can leave vines unchecked for a few hours, days even. They do require a lot of maintenance, and all by hand, but really they’re not all that fussy (except, perhaps, for Roussanne).

There are also some pretty startling contrasts in the management and dissemination of information pertaining to baby care vs. vine care. Before having Julian, I had never taken care of an infant; I had not even baby-sat to earn money as a teen-ager. My after-school job when I was in high school was at a wine shop, so the best I could do for a baby would probably be recommending a wine to go with strained carrots. With no job experience, I felt to be the least qualified candidate to care for a baby. At least I went to school to study grape-growing and winemaking, and traveled and worked in different vineyards of the world before starting our own vineyard and winery. But they don’t even have internships for baby care. I mean, what sane parent would allow some inexperienced person to be a caregiver for their child???

On the flip side, however, while it’s true that a baby doesn’t come with an owner’s manual, a quick internet search on “baby care” will get you 3,873 book titles on that topic. I myself have a small yet veritable library stacked on my nightstand given to me along with the various nuggets of solicited or unsolicited advice: “Spock is out!” “Try Sears if you are willing.” “Brazelton NBO’s is what you need to know!” As far as I’m concerned, there is no lack of guidance on this matter. By contrast there are really only a handful of books on the subject of growing grapes for making quality wine. Wouldn’t it be easier if we grape-growers had books like “The Happiest Vine On The Block” or “Secrets of the Vine Whisperer”? I’d sure like to try the Ferber technique for best vine dormancy. The truth is, though, that I don’t pay that much attention even to the few resources that we have for the how-to on grape growing. I find that while these resources are informative in a very broad sense, every vineyard is unique and the most useful things we know about vines are the things we have observed ourselves about our own vineyard.

In order to farm sustainably, one of the practices we employ is Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It has taught us an important lesson. Instead of following a regimental formula for farming on a schedule, we monitor our vines and assess the conditions to make decisions regarding their cultivation and treatment. For instance, we walk through all the blocks of the vineyard every week to check for insect pests and diseases. This year, at a certain threshold of a certain pest’s presence we have introduced lacewings as a way of managing the pest population (more on lacewings in Nick’s article). Nick and I go to our local monthly I.P.M. meetings. It is a lot like a parenting group for grape-growers where we commiserate on vineyard issues over coffee and cake. The group is as diverse as any group of parents. When asked how we deal with birds eating the grapes, and we tell the group that we net every vine in the vineyard, we get looks of incredulity as if we just announced that attachment parenting is the way to go. When others say they crop Pinot noir at 4 tons to the acre we “tsk-tsk” as if they’ve failed to set limits and now wonder why they have an out-of-control child. Discussions about tractor equipment run about as lively as debates about Baby Einstein products. Although we don’t always all agree on what is necessary to achieve high-quality grapes, we more or less share the approach that careful monitoring and assessment are part of mindful, low impact farming practices.

This individualized, responsive approach to farming has been important to developing vines that are able to reach their potential. Syrah, although robust and hearty in the winery, is no cake-walk in the vineyard either, especially in the climate where we grow it. Our vineyard is at the coolest limit of where you can ripen it. I always knew this but it didn’t really solidify in my mind until two years ago when our friend, Jean-Louis, was visiting California. He wanted to show his cellar-master some vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa areas and came out to our vineyard on the coast. We wanted to show him the various blocks of Syrah but first took a walk through the Pinot noir. I asked Jean-Louis when he typically harvested his Syrah in Hermitage. He replied, “Oh, about the third week of September.” Then he stood facing our Pinot noir vines and asked, “When do you harvest your Pinot noir?” I ran through the past vintages in my mind and stated, “Typically the same as your harvest, the third week of September.” He reflected on this for a few seconds then turned to me and with great astonishment asked, “So when do you pick the Syrah?” When I told him that we pick the Syrah the third or fourth week of October, he was flabbergasted because in the Rhône it would rain by mid-October. It would not be possible for him to pick so late in the year. This explains how we are able to grow Pinot noir and Syrah in the same vineyard. It is a cool enough site to grow Pinot noir and yet we have a long enough growing season to continue ripening the Syrah.

Well, 2005 established the edge for us being able to grow Syrah. We had late budbreak with cool spring temperatures and late spring rains. We didn’t harvest until November. Both our 2005 Syrah cuvées, ‘La Bruma’ and ‘Les Titans’ display the coolness of the vintage by exhibiting the most Northern Rhône-like character of any wine we have ever made. There are many things we do in the vineyard to optimize the ripeness of the Syrah fruit, though. As with all the vines we farm, we remove by hand the lateral shoots and certain leaves in the fruit zone on the morning sun side of the vertically trained canopy to allow sunlight exposure and promote airflow to reduce mildew and botrytis pressure. We also cut the wings or shoulders off the grape clusters just after fruit set because they do not ripen uniformly with the rest of the cluster. And we hand-position each of the clusters so they hang freely, preventing them from damage by the wire trellis or from getting squished as they are harvested. All this extra care is to nurture Syrah vines where it is seemingly most suitable to grow Pinot noir. In short, we kind of baby our vines.

So I guess I can say that everything I ever knew about grape-growing I can apply to bringing up baby: there is no formula, and a baby is as individual as vineyards and vice versa. It is like I can do Integrated Baby Management. Observe and assess before reacting to that cry. Hungry? Tired? Poopy diaper? In the end, however, even though taking care of vines is a lot of work and requires much attention and care, I don’t think I will ever say that our vines are like babies anymore. We care about them but they just aren’t as demanding and, alas, they aren’t as cute and cuddly either. And vines can’t smile.

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong