In the Vineyard – May

In the vineyard, late morning, May, the winegrower walks down the vinerows. Warm, temperature in the low 60’s, bright sunshine casts nubby skeletal vine shadows on the ground, the vines just beginning to leaf out, still quite bare. Birdsong and the buzz of insects mingle with soft swoosh of footsteps in new grown grass.

The grower moves steadily down the row, intent on the life in the vineyard around him. He looks at the vines- pruned last winter, and now tied to the trellis wires- sees the swelling buds, those at the ends of the pruned canes growing faster than their companions nearer the trunk. He looks at the soil under the rows, he looks at the grasses and other plants growing as groundcover in the row middles, where the tractors must drive. He looks at the trellis posts and wires, re-checking the repairs done days earlier, making certain that all are ready to bear the weight of new growth- leaves, shoots and grapes. He looks for fungi and insects and birds; he looks in the sky for clouds and sunlight; he listens for the wind; he sniffs for rain.

As he walks down the row, he stops and touches the vines, feels the texture of the year old canes and the rougher, flaking bark on the older cordons and trunks. He checks for signs of over-wintering diseases, and insect pupae. Here the vines look healthy, only a hint of last year’s powdery mildew on the canes. He decides there’s not enough over-wintering mildew to cause serious concern this year, nothing abnormal.

He checks the emerging buds, now a little larger than pencil erasers, for signs of feeding damage from the two scourges of early spring, climbing cutworms and grape flea beetles. This section of the vineyard, the one he’s walking through now, these two rows on either side of him and three or four adjacent, are the part of the vineyard where the cutworms will likely be, if there is any feeding by cutworms at all. So far, only one bud on one vine, and two on another have been eaten. Acceptable losses. He’ll check this section again in a couple of days to make sure; and if the weather stays warm, the buds will grow enough in the next week or so to be beyond the stage where either flea beetles or cutworms will feed.

Each winter he leaves extra, sacrifical, buds when pruning this section of the vineyard, allowing for some loss to insect feeding, and avoiding the use of pesticides to defend every single bud against attack. Over the years, he’s seen that these few rows, here on this particularly sandy hillside at the edge of the vineyard nearest the neighbor’s hayfield, are the most likely targets of those pests, and plans a strategy of winter pruning and May watchfulness that, most years, allows the vines to bear a full crop, leaves a bit for the insects to eat, and maintains the essential balance of life and death in the vineyard.Today, all looks well here. On the floor of the vineyard, the groundcover that grows in the space between the rows pushes out new, and longer, blades of grass; the annual broadleaved plants are emerging from the soil as well. The vine parts cut away during the winter pruning, the canes that grew so well last year and needed to be cut short, and those that were weak and needed to be completely removed, were left lying in the row until the last of the snow melted in April. Then they were chopped up by the tractor and mower, and the small pieces left on the vineyard floor.

Now, the groundcover grows up through the bits of shredded vine; insects and fungi and bacteria that feed on the plant parts are going to work, transforming the shredded pruning brush. By the end of summer the pruning brush will have decayed its’ way onward through the carbon cycle, enriching the life in the soil. This groundcover, these plants growing between the rows of vines, hold the soil in place against wind and rain erosion, especially important in this vineyard, with its sandy soil and hilly terrain. Without the groundcover, in a few years the topsoil would be blown away by the wind, or washed down into the valley by water. Two or three times during the summer and early fall the grass will be mowed to keep it short, the last mowing just before harvest to make it easier for the harvest crew to walk down the rows. Short grass allows better airflow through the vineyard, important for drying the vine’s foliage after rains, reducing fungal growth on the leaves and grapes.

At the edge of the vineyard nearest the woods, atop a 16 foot long 2×4 sticking up from the vine post, sits a raptor nesting box. The grower has seen kestrels in the area, and avoids that section of vineyard today, not wanting to disturb the birds. He’s been pleased these past several years that the kestrels have returned each year to raise a brood, to feed on the mice and other rodents that live in and around the vineyard. With a family of kestrels here, the rodent population is kept in check, never rising to the point they run out of easy to find food and begin gnawing on the vine trunks.

Under the vines, the herbicide sprayed on several days before is beginning to work. Absorbed by the foliage, transported deep into the roots of the weeds, it now kills. Only those plants sprayed are affected, and the herbicide has no activity in the soil, so later in the season new life will emerge, and by the harvest in the fall the strips of soil under the vines will be green again with grasses. For now, though, the vines grow better without the competition for soil moisture and nutrients. Later, at the end of the growing season, competition by the re-growing grass will change the way nutrients are carried and held by the vine, improving the quality of the wine grapes, and helping the vine establish itself for the winter.

In another two weeks or so, when the buds have grown out to 2 or 3 inches in length, beyond the point where the cutworms and flea beetles like to feed on them, the grower will begin to spray the vines with sulfur, and copper and lime, to prevent outbreaks of foliage diseases like powdery mildew or downey mildew. These protective sprays will be repeated a few times during the summer, as weather dictates. And when the vine flowers in late June, a spray will be made to guard against diseases of the fruit, like botrytis and black rot. With each spray, nutrients are included, to feed the foliage, to supplement what the vine gets from the soil. These additions to the vine are timed to optimize the growth of the vine – to add nitrogen when the vine needs it to prepare for the next year’s crop, to add potassium when the vine can best utilize it to increase its ability to withstand winter’s cold, to add odd growth hormones from seaweed to loosen the grape clusters, making them less likely to be infected by fruit rots.

Each week the grower walks the vineyard, looking for signs of disease, or insect attack. A little he tolerates, knowing that it is futile to attempt to eradicate either disease or insect. He weighs the amount of damage the vines can tolerate, the population of the disease or insect, the patterns of growth, the distribution of disease and insect within the vineyard, the forecast weather for the coming days; he uses his knowledge of past years in this vineyard, with these vines, with these pests; with all this in mind he makes a decision to spray not at all, or soon, or to wait. He prefers, in general, to wait, trusting that the vineyard will remain balanced, that weather will cooperate, that pesky insects will be found by predatory insects.

Each day in the vineyard life ends in death, and each day’s death brings new life; as the earth revolves around the sun, the eternal wheel turns. This day in May, the grower finishes his tour of inspection, satisfied that all is well, that the season is unfolding as it should. This is a time of promise, the warm sun heating the soil and the vines, lighting the path of growth the vines will take in the coming months, drawing out the growing point, the tip of each vine shoot that pushes upward, always upward toward the sun. And the grower walks home, satisfied.

-Copyright 1994 L. Mawby