These Boots are Made for Walking
Yes, I am the winemaker but the other hat that I wear is my self-proclaimed job title of “Assistant Grapegrower.” That is to say, I help Nick in his job of farming our estate grapevines to make wine. His job of “Chief Grapegrower” is often usurped by his job of “Head Equipment Maintenance Person” or should I say “Only Equipment Maintenance Person?” So, during the growing season I regularly check the vineyard to monitor and assess vine growth, health and phenological stages. There is no corner office that goes with the job, actually there is no office unless you count trying to find a bit of space among the irrigation fittings and pruning shears on Nick’s cluttered desk. And the use of the company vehicle is sometimes granted provided you can pull-start the engine on the old ATV. Hence, the job requires a lot of walking. A lot of walking.
During the winter before we start pruning, we look at the length of the canes to assess the overall vine vigor for the various sections of our vineyard. This is easier when the leaves have all dropped off of the vines and we can see their bare canes. From this we can determine how to prune the vines: how long of a fruiting cane to lay down for the next vintage’s growth or how many buds to leave. We check on the pruners’ work to ensure they haven’t left too many buds and that the buds they have chosen are well-positioned to continue the ideal architecture of the vine for future good bud fertility and position. A poor choice in bud position or cane length might result in bad vine shape that could take years to correct. We walk along after our crew and then go over with them the fine tuning of the pruning to match the vigor of each plant, picking out their just pruned vines to use as tutorial examples.
As the winter progresses to spring, I walk the rows of hoar-frosty cover crop getting my rubber boots slick with wet or sticky with mud as I check for signs of budbreak. About this time, Nick embarks on his months-long undertaking of under-vine tilling and he needs to know where my boots get stuck on my walks. Boots are easier to unstick than tractors. I look for dormant buds swelling and then those telltale signs of imminent buds breaking out: puffy popcorn transforming into little cottony knobs. If I see these, I alert Nick and we discuss which blocks we need to finish pruning, assess which blocks need to be preferentially mowed and weeded as the lengthening cover crop and weeds can pose a frost risk, and figure out which areas have dry enough soil to be tilled under-vine.
The spring season continues and I keep walking and keep checking: assessing shoot growth; looking for thrips; observing the leaf patterns symptomatic of various nutrient deficiencies or the subtle bronzing at the leaf sinus indicating an incursion of mites; at which I whip out my hand lens and peer through the magnifying loop to search for the offending pests. Should I call General Nick for a counter-attack of organic oil spray? I look out for the health of the young plants and mark vines that have died with fluttery flagging tape: blue for re-graft, yellow for replant.
Walk, walk, walk, up and down steep slopes and across side slopes. Flowering begins in late spring and early summer and I help Nick with petiole collection. We snap off fifty leaf stems per sample for the lab to analyze the vine nutrient status. Sometimes I follow a pattern: I head northwest counter clockwise across block 10a, then 9, through and back around block 8, return between the Pinot noir and Syrah of 10b, 11, 12 and 13, and finish by wending my way through the sections of the various clones of Chardonnay in Block 4. Or I try a new path to randomize my data collection a little. Walk, “achoo,” walk. I subject myself to paroxysms of sneezing as I meander through the heady scent of the grape flowers and their invisible clouds of allergenic pollen. It is an occupational hazard. I shun the steroid nasal spray the doctor prescribes me as it interferes with my sense of smell. He advises me to try saline nasal rinses instead and, in general questioning of my health, asks me if I exercise. “Hmmm…I do yoga… er…occasionally the elliptical thing-y at the gym.” The doctor arches an eyebrow, reproachfully. “Oh and I walk. A lot…for hours…on hills!” If he only knew.
Everything I observe I report back to Nick: locations of broken drip hose and ruptured irrigation pipes; outbreaks of dreaded blackberry or bindweed among the vines; or the discovery of mole tunnels whose underground network collapses underneath my weight causing me to twist my ankle. With what I observe, we prioritize the work that needs to be done: “We need to shoot thin in block 7.” “Block 5 need shoot tucking into the top wires.” “Vertebrate feeding in block 8, it might be a bear!!!” Thus, we move our crew accordingly to the viticultural tasks that need to be done. Can I add “Stat!” to the “do something about the bear in block 8?”
Sometimes on sunny, summery days I get lulled by the warmth of the mid-day sun shining down on my faded floppy hat and the sound of the dragonflies humming in my ears. I pause to take rest from all this walking and crouch in the shade of a vine row’s shadow. Every so often I am attracted to a bird call and I prick up my ears. I follow the song to find the singer. When I spot the bird I try to creep ever so closer to it. Close enough to observe it and perhaps snap its picture with a little camera I carry with me to record my vineyard observations. I track the bird until I realize I have veered from my task of taking viticulture notes. I shake myself from my reverie à la David Attenborough and resume my vineyard walk.
Walk, walk, walk. Berry set, count clusters, estimate crop load. Mid-summer I count clusters on ten vines for every acre and a half. That’s about 340 vines or upward of about 7,500 clusters. Thus, I enlist Nick to help me. I cannot wait until my oldest son learns to count (reliably) for I will enlist him to do this counting, too! I crunch numbers on my computer spreadsheet to estimate out how much fruit we will get at harvest time based on this mid-summer sample. Summer marches on and I observe the grape berries changing color. Time to tell Nick to get the nets up to keep those birds I keep gazing at from eating our grapes. Bird watching is not my only distraction. Sometimes I find myself inadvertently studying all manner of bugs, not just the ones that are grapevine pests. Really, all of nature’s bounty catches my eye; lizards, snakes and frogs, even flowers. Then I snap back into it and say to myself, “I am supposed to be working!” and keep walking on.
Summer turns to fall and my vineyard walks are faster paced with my stride brisk and more purposeful. I have to keep moving to collect grape cluster samples pausing only briefly to clip the clusters and to taste the grapes. I taste a whole lot of grapes while jog walking through the vineyard. Tasting the grapes is how I determine when the grapes are ready to pick, perhaps the most important winemaking decision I make. The whole vineyard and winery crew is waiting for me to let them know which blocks we will be picking the next day. No time for vineyard distractions. Every so often, however, I do stop walking after I climb a hill to pause and catch my breath. I stand on a hill and look out over the vineyard, facing west to feel the breeze on my face. I can hear the wind rustling in the grasses and the trees and marvel to myself, “How beautiful this place is.” I feel fortunate for having such an amazing view to inspire me in work and in life. I stand mesmerized taking in the view of the vineyard and the air and the quiet for a long while. Then I remember I have more samples to gather and I scurry back to my truck with my bags of grape clusters in hand. I have to keep on walking!
Checking Off the Bird List and Other Vineyard Distractions
Birders are a quirky lot, never without a pair of binoculars and often zealous with that bird list. Nick and I compiled for your birding pleasure our own bird list containing the birds we have spotted here at Peay Vineyards:
- □ White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus
- □ Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
- □ Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
- □ American Kestrel Falco sparverius
- □ Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
- □ Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
- □ California Quail Callipepla californica
- □ American Coot Fulica americana
- □ Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
- □ Band-tailed Pigeon Columba fasciata
- □ Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
- □ Barn Owl Tyto alba
- □ Anna’s Hummingbird Calypte anna
- □ Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
- □ Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpesformicivorus
- □ Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
- □ Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
- □ Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus
- □ Red-breasted Sapsucker Sphyrapicus ruber
- □ Stellar’s Jay Cyanocitta stelleri
- □ Common Raven Corvus corax
- □ Barn Swallow Hirundo rusitca
- □ Western Bluebird Sialia mexicana
- □ Varied Thrush Ixoreus naevius
- □ American Robin Turdus migratorius
- □ Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
- □ European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
- □ Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana
- □ Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
- □ Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
- □ Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus
- □ Wood Duck Aix sponsa
- □ Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
- □ Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
- □ Merganser Mergus merganser
- □ Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
- □ Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura