As I write this column in late February, Mother Nature has blessed us with a respite from the usual stormy, rainy, winter weather. The molate fescue and malva are thriving under the winter rays, while the mustard and wild radish are just starting to grow. We are steadily pruning the vines while the weather holds. We have to prune around the rain because of the fear of disease transmission — the spores of the Eutypa lata, the causative agent behind dead arm disease, are more readily transferred during wet weather. When it rains, we gather the pruned canes and burn them, choosing to remove the material instead of tilling it back into the soil. Otherwise, the Branch and Twig Boring Beetle Melalqus confertus infests the cuttings in the vineyard floor and migrates to the vines where it wreaks havoc. This cultural practice is the only option for controlling this pestÑno organic or non-organic resolution exists. Our proximity to the forest and our extreme isolation make this a greater concern for us. We continue the pruning process until all 48 acres are clipped back and poised for bud break in mid-March.

Each vineyard practice has its own distinct character. Pruning resembles sculpting. Some sculpting is additive, like welding and ceramics. Pruning is more akin to chiseling down a block of stone. Part of the reward for the pruner, though, requires educated eyes: pride in a job well done includes envisioning growth yet to come. At the base of each leaf stem where it joined the cane, a bud formed last spring. Each bud will become a four or five foot long cane and bear fruit whose destiny was determined last winter during pruning. The nascent shoot and its cluster primordia are hidden beneath bracts on the cane, forming a little bud about the size and shape of a popcorn kernel. Autumn senescence has left the bony skeleton of a year’s growth arrayed vertically in the trellis wires and the leaves including their stems litter the vineyard floor. This skeletal mass will be pulled down, emptying the pairs of foliage wires for next year’s growth. All of the buds with their cluster primordia on these discarded canes will return to the earth, their potential unrealized.

One main difference between Hermitage and Peay Vineyards is summer rainfall. While we had some lingering bouts of spring showers this year, and on occasion receive autumn previews of the winter to come (usually a special delivery of the “pineapple express”), we really don’t get any summer rainfall. Hermitage, however, receives a few inches in each month of June, July, and August. In years when the usually reliable summer rainfall fails to show up for a month or two (2003 and 1997, if I remember correctly), a bit of hand wringing is all that French law allows as plant growth and fruit maturation will halt and, if prolonged, the berries will begin to shrivel. This, though, is the most dire of pictures, since the old age of much of the Hermitage vines buffers against short periods of drought by providing a pool of resources to mitigate the conditions, at least for a short period of time.

There are two types of vine training we use on our vineyard: head-trained cane-pruned, and bilateral cordon-trained spur-pruned. Both methods involve cutting down last year’s growth to 1-3 inch “spurs” supporting two buds on each spur that possess this year’s shoots, leaves, grapes, and bottles of wine. In the case of bilateral cordon-trained vines, we prune the vine to ten to twelve spurs. In the case of cane pruning, we leave only two spurs and two one-year old canes. In every step, there are good decisions and bad decisions. So skill and good judgment are critical.

The crux of a pruner’s job is determining which canes to cut off completely (removing all of their buds) and which canes to cut down to two bud spurs. How do you choose which canes to cut and which to leave? A cooperative cane will provide you with low buds very close to the vine. Unfortunately, the first bud can be many inches up the cane, or sometimes a lower cane, which would be the preferred cane to choose for a spur, is too skinny to support good growth: A cross-section of a cane is a bundle of tubes through which water and nutrients flow, so a bud on a skinny cane has less vascular tissue to feed it. After a number of years, the spur position may elongate due to a succession of less than ideal circumstances—each time a lower cane is too weak or a bud on a strong cane is a little high, the permanent portion of the spur gets a little longer. The life of the vine is anywhere from 20 to 100 years, so a half a centimeter to two centimeters begins to add up and the lengthening spurs may grow into the foliage wires.

To add a wrinkle, shoot placement or positioning on a cordon trained vine effects how easily it will be to train the shoots through the foliage wires. The position is dictated by the direction each bud is pointing: When a cane is growing during the spring and summer months, new leaves are formed on alternating sides of the cane with next year’s buds at their base. I have yet to learn how to predict on which side of the shoot the first leaf will grow. And there’s the matter of rotation. How do you predict the rotational orientation? These randomizing factors can undermine your best efforts to prune a cordon arm that carries nice, evenly spaced spurs that are stubby and squat, since one might be tempted to favor a higher bud that is pointed upward over a lower one that is pointed sideways or down. To further complicate the pruner’s decision making process, an errant shoot may get knocked off by a passing tractor or may break when even a careful vineyard worker attempts to bend it upright into the wires. Argh.

As you can see, a skilled pruner will need to bring a great deal of experience with him/her. It is important to have watched the result of a clip of the Felcos to see how the new cane developed during the growing season from the bud that you chose to leave. I am very impressed with my pruners, their skill and the sound exercise of judgment they demonstrate every day. This is a craft it takes years to master. Come on out with your Felcos and I’ll show you how.

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