Most people will never have the opportunity to spend a bitter winter day pruning their way down a row of grapes, so I feel it my duty to inform the masses about this crucial vineyard task.
Every winter, around the beginning of January, my father and I start to get serious about pruning vines in preparation of our next growing season. There is usually a little tire-kicking before we summon enough motivation to begin in earnest, but eventually there is no more time to dawdle. I liken it to that feeling of being comfortable on your couch on a cold day, but knowing you have get up and go to the gym at some point.
The last couple of years have been particularly challenging due to the severe low temperatures and deep snow. The simple act of walking out to the vineyard becomes a production. It goes without saying that proper attire is a must – warm boots and gloves, multiple layers and keeping the wind at your back are keys to stamina. The ‘pruners’ themselves must be well-oiled and sharp (this applies to both physical tool and person).
Sometimes when I’m donning my gear, I summon my inner Han Solo and pretend I’m setting out over the snowy landscape of Hoth, charged with the duty of finding Luke Skywalker and returning him to the Rebel base. This scene from The Empire Strikes Back is as vivid as perhaps any from my childhood, and serves as the catalyst to get me out of the barn and on my way.
As with all vineyard jobs, every vine must be evaluated individually before the cuts can be made. The goal is to whittle it down to four “perfect” canes with roughly ten buds apiece. They must be oriented in such a way that two of them can be tied down in opposite directions along the fruiting wire in the spring (the other two are left untied for insurance). On passing glace it may seem that adjacent vines are very uniform, but this is not the case. There are many subtle differences that must be accounted for: cane diameter, bud spacing, wood density, bud viability, trunk health and residual disease. Leaving the wrong canes can negatively impact the future success of that vine. An experienced pruner can evaluate these variables and make decision cuts in a matter of seconds, spending little more than a minute cleaning up each vine. The anticipation of finding those four perfectly situated canes appeals to my love of solving puzzles.
You eventually settle into a pleasing rhythm of cutting and removing unwanted wood and before you know it you are halfway down the row. Decisions become innate and you are left alone with your thoughts. Welcome distractions like music or talk radio can make time fly, but I caution that waning concentration can be very dangerous. The daydreaming pruner can easily whip themselves in the face with an errant cane (painful and embarrassing), deeply cut a finger (most farmers have done this) or become prey to an overly aggressive coyote (perhaps not as common).
Often I use this time to mentally prepare for the winery jobs at hand. Should I blend a little 2013 with those 2012’s? Do I have enough tank space to rack and blend all my Pinot Noir barrels at once? Is it a good idea to cold stabilize my whites while they are on bentonite? Conveniently, it provides a leisurely way to tackle and think through logistical hurdles.
As the day wears on, it becomes increasingly critical not to let your weak mind slip into thinking about how cold you are becoming, or about the potential implications if all these buds are indeed fried, or if the vine you are pruning might already be dead due to the -23C temperatures sustained last night…
At times like this I usually hop on my trusty Tauntaun and ride back to the Rebel base.