It's amazing to see how dramatically warm weather can change the vineyard in such a short time. In a few weeks we've gone from bud break and an inch or so of growth, to vines several feet long and stretching towards the 2nd and 3rd wires on the VSP system! And once those vines get going there's lots of work to do. Take it from my dad, Barry, the vineyard manager.
"Bud break generally occurs the first or second week in March, but this year it came later than usual so I thought we were going to be behind schedule," Barry explains. "But because of a late rain in March followed by consecutive weeks of 80 degree days, shoot growth was dramatic. Considerably more growth in April than we've ever had before."
In March we were 2 weeks behind our normal growing schedule. Then we saw shoot development of a few feet in what seemed like a matter of days. Now we're already in bloom (fruit set) which doesn't usually happen until Memorial Day, putting us 3 weeks ahead of schedule! All that growth leads to our first big task of the season, which is really a few things in one. If you want to be a farmer you have to multitask!
The first part is suckering, a practice many gardeners are familiar with. Plants will produce lots of buds and shoots all along their trunks. But in order to maximize the growth potential for the rest of the plant, you must remove any unwanted growth from its base. In the case of a grapevine, we want all the energy going to the buds and shoots along the 2 cordons (or arms), so we remove (or sucker) all the other emerging green growth along the trunk.
The second task requires taking a closer look at the cordons. Winter pruning gives us 6 to 8 spurs per cordon, with each spur designed to eventually produce 2 buds in spring. However, once the vines wake up and start to grow, a 3rd bud often appears on each spur and starts to produce a 3rd, unwanted shoot. So just as we remove unnecessary growth from the trunk, we also eliminate growth from the cordons. This is really the earliest stage of crop thinning, because with each shoot we eliminate we also are removing 2 eventual clusters from the vine.
The final job for each vine is shoot positioning. We tuck the shoots in behind the first set of wires, and as they continue to grow upwards the canopy of leaves creates a curtain effect. This exposes the leaves to the maximum amount of sunlight on both east and west facing sides of the vine. We want to give the plant lots of energy to ripen those clusters. The curtain is also what allows us to leaf pull and customize the canopy to control the temperature and sun exposure in the fruiting zone.
To recap our list of chores for spring cleaning at Collier Falls:
- Suckering of unwanted growth along the trunk of each vine
- Suckering of 3rd buds or shoots pushing from each spur along the cordons
- Shoot positioning of 24-32 shoots per vine
All done by hand for each and every one of our 16,000 grapevines. Primarily done by my dad, Barry Collier. Take a bow dad!
What's really remarkable to me is this is just the first pass through the vineyard. The growth we remove today may start to come back again later in the season, so we'll go through and take a 2nd look at each vine again in another 6 weeks.
Winemaking may have a certain romance and magic to it, but it starts with hours upon hours of vineyard management. Hard work in the rain and sun when no one is watching but the birds. Winter pruning, and now, time in the vineyard with each vine in April and May, day after day, setting the foundation for what we hope is a wonderful growing season