This time of year in the vineyard is a combination of catch-up and get-ahead. Catch-up because we're still getting the last of the cover crops tilled into the soil, and there are stray blocks, where the work hasn't been completed, whose wildflowers and tall grasses look like remnants of April. Get-ahead because the work that we do now in limiting the number of shoots a vine has to grow can make a significant difference in both the quality of the fruit that comes off that vine, and in the amount of work we have to do later.
I caught up with Vineyard Manager David Maduena this week to talk about this shoot-thinning work, in a block of Mourvedre whose limited growth (the shoots are only out about eight inches) is a reflection of the cold part of the vineyard in which it lies. You can see the thinned shoots on the ground.
All our blocks get their shoots thinned. We remove lateral shoots (those that are growing out horizontally rather than up vertically) so that air and sunlight can penetrate to where the fruit will hang. Some blocks, like the Mourvedre block above, also get their numbers of shoots limited if they are showing signs of either weakness or lateness. Having fewer shoots (and therefore less fruit) means that the vine can ripen the remaining clusters more easily, and with less stress on the vine. Together, these improve the grapes' concentration and make it more likely that the vine will carry vigor over into the next year. [If you'd like a more thorough and technical explanation of shoot thinning, check out the blog from 2011 where Levi explains the shoot-thinning process.]
Doing this work now, rather than later in the summer, allows the vines to focus their energy on the canes and clusters that will be carried into harvest, rather than wasting resources on growth that will be sacrificed later. It's also less work, in the same way that weeding a garden when the weeds are small is less work than waiting a few weeks later, at which point they've established themselves. For contrast, check out the photo below, from July 2011, not long after we hired Levi Glenn as our Viticulturist. That year was particularly challenging due to the spring frosts, which delay and confuse the vines, and push work that we'd like to be doing now later in the year:
Improvements like these in our vineyard practices that Levi, David and Neil have made over recent years are a large part of the reason why I think the fruit that we're getting -- and not coincidentally, the wines that we're making -- has never been better. 2015 looks like it's off to a great start.