Pruning Vines for Future Wines

So you might be driving past a vineyard like Hawk Haven this time of year, look out at the dried brown vines and think that there’s not much going on. Sure you might see someone out there once in a while, if you’re lucky, and they’ve certainly done some trimming or something. I mean, some of those vines look like they’ve been cut back to nothing at all. You might think to yourself, “This must be a slow time of year for the vineyard. Just sitting back and waiting for spring and summer, when the real work starts.” Maybe you picture Todd and Kenna sitting back with a glass of wine, relaxing and resting up for the coming year.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it might not look like much out there, this is the most important time of year for the vines. What happens in the vineyard now sets the stage for the entire year, and you only have one chance to get it right.

Some Hawk Haven vines before pruning starts.
Some Hawk Haven vines before pruning starts.

 

Pruning the vines starts in late January or early February, once the coldest of the weather has passed. The goal is to cut away last year’s growth, and make sure that the vines are correctly prepared to grow the right amount, in the right direction.

Let’s start out with a little terminology. The grape vines grow from root stock, chosen specifically for the ground conditions of the vineyard, which has a specific varietal grafted on. The vines grow up several feet and are pruned to create a horizontal section of vine called the cordon. From this section even more vines grow vertically every year, called canes. The fruit grows close to the cordon, and the canes produce a bushy canopy of leaves.

A properly pruned spur.
A properly pruned spur.

If you left the plant to itself, each vine would produce more vines all along its length. Then those vines would produce more vines. It would quickly become a bushy and unmanageable mess. What the pruning process does is cut the canes down until only a small portion is left sticking up from the cordon, called a spur. Each spur is left with two or three buds, which grow into new vines. For each bud left on the spur, you get about two clusters of grapes.

 

If counting buds and cutting down canes wasn’t enough work, you also have to check the plant for a myriad of other issues. You have to make sure the cordon is healthy, producing enough buds, and growing in the right way. If it’s not, you cut it off, and lay down a healthy cane to replace it and grow into the new cordon. You also check each vine for disease and damage.

It takes a skilled eye and an intimate knowledge of each variety of grape to know where to cut, and only two people in Hawk Haven are up to the challenge, Lalo Serra and Todd himself. Between the two, they prune over 200 rows of grapes in over 9 acres of vineyard. Each row takes about two to three hours to prune correctly. Then the cut vines are taken out of the vineyard immediately, as old dead vines can spread disease to the healthy existing growth. The cut vines are taken away and recycled.

Over 600 hours of pruning has to be finished before bud break in April, once the vines start growing in earnest it’s too late. This critical step is what ensures that there are enough grapes to harvest, and that the plants stay healthy and productive.

Todd and Lalo pruning Cabernet vines.
Todd and Lalo pruning Cabernet vines.

So the next time you drive past Hawk Haven and think that it looks like nothing’s going on, just remember that there is a game being played behind the scenes. Todd is making his moves, and setting up the playing field for another great harvest. The choices made today will affect everything that happens to the vines throughout the year, and eventually filter down into the glass of wine you will enjoy years from now.

Still think he’s just sitting back and relaxing?

Just a few of the cuttings from this year.
Just a few of the cuttings from this year.

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