Planting the Vineyard

It’s early May and time to plant the vineyard.

A bundle of grapevines is lifted out of the shipping box, moist moss shaken off the roots, and all 25 vines plunged into a five gallon bucket of water. Other bundles are similarly lifted and shaken and deposited temporarily in a large galvanized wash tub filled with water. The water will protect the delicate tissues of the plants, and the moisture will make soil particles stick to the rootlets when the vines are planted, connecting the vine and the earth again.

The field has been prepared for planting. Yesterday the rows to be planted were carefully marked out in the freshly tilled soil. During the previous year the field was tilled and a cover crop of buckwheat was planted in late May. By July the buckwheat flowered and was disked down. Ryegrass was planted and grew through the fall. These two cover crops nurtured the soil: their living roots holding it in place against wind and rain erosion; in their dieing adding valuable organic matter and plant nutrients, the source of the soil’s life.

Now the field which will be the vineyard is cleanly cultivated, the ryegrass tilled under. The vine spaces are marked by the intersection of narrow furrows cut into the soil by a single-toothed cultivator or sub-soiler. One set of furrows, nine feet apart, marks the rows of vines. The other set of furrows, perpendicular to the first, and six feet apart, marks the spaces between the vines in the rows. At each intersection of furrows, the vineyard crew will plant a vine.
Working in pairs, the planters take a bucket, water, vines and a spade. The planter with the spade knifes open the narrow trench at the intersection of the cultivator furrows, widening it to accept the vine.

The grapevine: a pencil thick knobby stick a foot or more in length, sprouting a cluster of gangly roots from one end and a clutch of swollen buds at the other end, just above the waxed lump that is the graft union. Each grapevine is a union of two parts. The rooted end, the rootstock, below the graft union, is one kind of grapevine and the swollen buds above the graft union, the scion, are another. The rootstock was chosen to match the soil conditions of this vineyard, and the scion was chosen to produce the type of grapes the winegrower wishes to grow for wine. These two vines, the rootstock and the scion, have been joined by the nurseryman who grew the vine. A year ago, in March, the nurseryman grafted the rootstock and scion together, then grew them in his grapevine nursery, outdoors, for the summer. The vine was dug out of the ground last fall, stored over the winter indoors, and is now ready to reunite with the earth in it’s permanent home in this vineyard.
The second planter removes the vine from the water bucket, cradles the roots in one hand, and lowers the vine into the waiting space in the soil, deep enough in the earth that the waxed graft union is just at ground level. Carefully, firmly, the earth is pressed against the vinestock. In time, as the loose soil settles, the graft union will be just above the ground level and will always be visible as a bulbous area on the vine trunk. It is important that the graft union be above ground, lest the scion develop it’s own roots. If that were to happen, insects, called phylloxera, living in the soil would feast on the vine roots, weakening the vine. The rootstock’s roots, however, are not subject to attack by the phylloxera, having been developed by plant breeders over decades of cross-breeding to be resistant to the phylloxera, and they thrive in the particular types of soils in this vineyard.

This vineyard is being planted with the rootstock called 3309 Couderc, very widely used around the world as a rootstock. [Why the odd name? In 1881 Georges Couderc, a breeder in France, planted 18 seeds of a cross he’d made in row 33 of his vineyard. Seedling number 9 of the 18 in that row 33 thrived. Thus 3309 Couderc.] Onto 3309C has been grafted the variety Pinot Gris, ‘The Grey Pinot’: the fruit from the Pinot Gris, copper/bronze colored when ripe, will make a white wine of distinction; at least, that is the winegrower’s intention.
As the planting crew moves through the new vineyard with shovel, bucket, water and vines, vine by vine, row by row, the planting proceeds. As each bundle of vines is planted, another is retreived from the washtub, placed in the bucket and the planting goes on. Eight hundred vines are planted on each acre.

After the entire field is planted – this is a small vineyard, only three acres – the ground is cultivated again, to smooth the soil surface, eliminating the furrows used to mark the vine positions. Then a permanent seeding of grasses is made down each row. This strip of vegetation will grow to be a solid sod cover, providing firm footing for the tractors that must travel down the rows, holding the soil against wind and water erosion, and offering a home for beneficial insects and fungi. The area around each vine will be kept clean of vegetation, to allow the young grapevine to grow unimpeded by competition for water, nutrients, or sunlight.

This is not the first vineyard to be planted on this site. Two years ago, the winegrower removed another old vineyard, digging out the vine roots, pulling out old posts and rolling up rusted wires. That vineyard had been planted decades ago – the vines had produced good crops of grapes for years, until recently they began to decline in health and productivity. Finally, the winegrower decided that it would be necessary to remove the vines and replant. This gave him an opportunity to plant more of the Pinot Gris vines that he favors. He looks forward to a 25 to 50 year life for this new vineyard, so recently planted, just beginning another cycle of birth and death, of growth and fruiting.

As the spring becomes summer, shoots growing from each bud on the grapevine extend up into the air and then, when they are too long to support themselves, arch down and along the ground. This first growing season, the winegrower lets the shoots grow where they please. By the second spring, however, he will have built the trellis system that will support the vines. But that is next year’s story.
For this year, the vines will settle themselves into their new home, reaching out to the sun above, and sending roots deep and wide through the earth below. For it’s early May and time for the vines to begin their growth.

-Copyright © 1995 L. Mawby