Nurturing the Vineyard – Year Two

It’s late May, the spring of the second year of this vineyard’s life, and time for the pruning. At this point in May, the buds have swollen, and tiny leaves are just beginning to show. The winegrower has delayed pruning the vines until all the other vineyards are pruned. The grower has delayed not only to avoid the danger of late spring frosts, but to thwart voracious cutworms, who attack the swelling grape buds, munching on them. By leaving the vines unpruned, the grower has left many more buds than will be needed, allowing the cutworms to eat some, or spring frosts to kill some, yet assuring that there will be enough left unharmed to support the growth of the vine. Those buds are precious, they are the ability of the vine to thrive, to grow this year.

Why cut away parts of the vine, why take 80% of what has grown in the first year, and cut it away? It is a question of balance. The vine has an above ground part and a below ground part. The above ground part, the shoots the grower can prune; the below ground part, the roots hidden in the earth. In winter, and into late spring, the food reserves of the dormant vine are mainly in the roots. If the grower removes a portion of the above ground part of the vine, those food reserves stored in the roots can be used to nourish fewer buds, fewer growing points, and those growing points, those shoots, will be better fed in the beginning of the growing season. They will be stronger, and grow better, making a healthier vine, and ultimately, a larger, more productive vine. So the pruning the grower does is to balance the amount of buds, the potential growing points of the vine, with the capacity of the root system. He favors in the youngest vines a substantial over-capacity of root system; as the vines get older and older, in the third through fifth years, he will leave each year more and more buds, bringing the capacity of the above ground part of the vine into closer balance with the capacity of the underground portion of the vine. When both parts of the vine are in perfect balance, full crops of beautifully tasty grapes are produced, and great wine is possible. But that is for later in the life of this vineyard. This year, the grower’s concern is with establishing a strong structure of vine and trellis, each doing it’s part to support the future productivity of the vineyard.

Now the winegrower cuts back the young vine, eliminating most of the growth that the vine made last year above ground. He selects two of the best shoots and cuts away everything else. If the grower sees any cutworm damage to the vines, he may leave those two shoots uncut, leaving six or eight buds on each shoot. In a couple of weeks, after the buds have grown out to an inch or longer, they won’t be attractive to the cutworms, and the grower can come back, removing excess buds, leaving only the two strongest growing buds on each shoot.

From these four buds, as the second year proceeds, the grower will select the two strongest new shoots, one from each of the old shoots, and will train them straight upward to the bottom wire of the trellis. These two shoots will be the two trunks of the grapevine. The leftover two shoots are allowed to grow out along the ground, not brought up to the trellis. These shoots are yet another insurance against possible future calamity. They will be allowed to grow this year, and, next winter, will remain along the ground, well under the snow, insulated against the harshest cold. If the portion of the vine up on the trellis is injured by the winter’s cold, these two shoots can be brought up to the trellis the next spring, and will serve as the starting point for regrowing the vine. If they are not needed, then will be cut back and will grow out along the ground the next growing season, again insuring against winter damage.

But before the grower can train any shoots up to the trellis, the trellis must be built. The vineyard tractor, equipped with a post hole digger, moves down each vine row. Maneuvering, the vineyard worker lowers the auger, chewing its way into the earth, digging a hole 2 1/2 feet deep. The auger is brought up, the tractor moves on past four vines, and maneuvers again to dig another post hole in the vine row. On and on the tractor, auger, and worker go, digging one hole for each post. Four vines between each post, row after row the post holes are dug.

Following along, another worker takes 4 inch diameter, 8 foot long pressure treated yellow pine posts from a trailer, and places one in each post hole, tamping the earth around the post firmly. Each hole dug, each post planted, each tamped in place. At the ends of the rows, an additional post in placed only one vine away from the last post in the row. Then a special angle post is cut and fitted to run from near the top of the end post back and down to the next post near the ground. This angle brace helps keep the end post in place, levering against the force of the wires that are stretched along the line of trellis posts.

Once all the posts are in place, and the end posts braced, the wires are stung out along the vine rows. The bottom wire is stapled to each post about 2 feet above ground. In this vineyard, the rows run north and south, to allow the sun, as it crosses the sky each day, to shine on both sides of the vine, and onto the ground between the rows. And because the winds in this hemisphere come mainly from the west, the wires will be placed on the west side of the posts. This allows the wind to blow the vines and wires into the posts, rather than away from the posts.

Above that bottom wire, about 18 inches up, another wire is stapled, and then above that, another 18 inches up, yet another wire. This is a simple three wire trellis. But the grower has elected to add two additional wires, on the east side of the post, opposite the two upper wires. In the mature vineyard, as each year’s growth emerges from the buds the pruners have left along the bottom wire, the growing shoots are positioned upwards, between the pairs of wires. In this second year of the vineyard’s life, the grower hopes that each shoot he has selected will grow tall enough to reach the top wire, or about 5 feet of growth. As the shoots grow during the summer, they are first tied up to the bottom wire; as they grow longer, they are tied up to higher wires.

This season the young vines grow shoots upwards toward the sun and roots ever deeper into the earth: bridging earth and heaven, nourished by both, nourishing both.

-Copyright 1996 L. Mawby