Tag Archives: vineyard management

Are the Grapes Harvested Mechanically?

Since I wrote about the beginning of harvest, some of you have asked if the grapes are picked by hand or machine. The short answer is yes:

Harvest started early and with a bang, on August 1st, and then slowed down dramatically with unseasonably cool weather in the early part of the month. It’s probably a good thing – it will give the grapes more “hangtime,” which translates into richer, riper flavors.

How do you feel about mechanical harvesting?

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Today’s Wine Word: Green Harvest


“Drop crop”… “Green Thinning”… “Green Harvest”… Whatever you like to call it the term is literal and refers to removing green, immature clusters and dropping them on the ground. It may seem a bit obtuse to be removing perfectly viable fruit that isn’t even mature yet, but it’s often done in the name of flavor intensity and it can happen at several times during the growing season.

The first round may be just after flowering and fruitset, which typically happens in mid to late May. Winter pruning and springtime shoot thinning are done with certain yields in mind. If the vines are overly generous on any given year it’s smart to thin out the excess so the rest can ripen properly and be flavorful, not diluted in taste. Continue reading

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Cluster Thinning in the Vineyard








Napa Valley came through flowering quite nicely this year, thank you very much, and the crop is looking good.

Vineyard managers should have finished up with springtime shoot thinning by now – a way of keeping the vine in balance. And, now that we have cute little baby grape clusters hanging, it’s time to take a close look.

Believe it or not, part of managing a crop destined for fine wine production (as opposed to most wine) is counting the clusters. Yes, literally.

After the lovely weather we had during flowering (rain, hail, high winds and extreme heat can cause problems) there’s a very good chance that there are bonus, unexpected clusters out there. Unfortunately, for fine wine, more isn’t better.

If there are far more than expected there’s a chance those grapes will never get ripe, but in our climate, that’s rarely the concern. It’s just that if you add a few extra clusters per vine, the flavors can become diluted. This stuff isn’t regulated but It’s really hard to get $40.00+ for a bottle of Cab that’s kind of thin and lackluster.

Or, it could be that you see a kind of short, wimpy looking shoot in there with 3 clusters on it. There’s no way there are enough leaves on that shoot to bring three clusters to maturity. Better to go with one or two clusters, depending upon just how wimpy…

So it’s quite common to see tiny little clusters scattered on the ground around the vine rows this time of year in Napa Valley.

Shoot, leaf and cluster thinning are ongoing activities that begin in April and can continue almost up to harvest time, depending upon how things shape up. Vineyard management has become almost like gardening!

Next big event: veraison – when the grapes turn color, probably late next month.

Anybody out there making plans to visit wine country and see any of this stuff up close and personal?

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The Second Crop is for the Birds


Walking through the vineyard with a friend, she noticed lots of very small clusters left on the vine, mixed in with the leafy growth. She wondered why they left those clusters behind during the harvest.

Those little clusters are a special treat for the birds this time of year. The regular, main crop, is found very close to what looks like the old part of the vine in most vineyards. The crop forms on new growth, but near the old growth, if that makes sense. the way many vineyards are trained these days, as bi-lateral cordons with vertical shoot positioning, you see the main crop hanging kind of like a chorus line, along the lowest trellis wire. The second crop is further up those vertical shoots, hanging off of the lateral shoots rather than on the main shoot. 

In any case, what I told her is that the very small “second crop” ripens significantly later that the main crop, so if the pickers were to go after it, it would throw the wine out of balance. There would be unexpected tart flavors and, for reds, harsh tannins.

The second crop is so small that it’s not usually worth the bother. It could be that a home winemaker will ask for permission to harvest the second crop for his wine – if it ever actually ripens, that is. The grapes tasted nice and sweet, but not sweet enough. And the weather is cool, now, with daylight hours getting shorter by the day. So, we enjoyed a few grapes. Other than that, the second crop is for the birds!

And, speaking of birds, happy Turkey Day! Cheers!

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How Long do the Vines Last?


Question from Josh: We were in Napa Valley last weekend and noticed more than one vineyard that had been cleared. The stumps were piled up. How long do the vines last?

Reply: ‘Tis the season. The grower takes the last crop and rips out the vineyard. I remember sitting by a vineyard with some friends about this time last year when all of a sudden this huge bulldozer showed up and ruthlessly mowed down what looked like perfectly healthy vines. I’ve seen it before but my friends were mortified.

There’s no simple answer to your question. Virtually every vineyard that’s knocked down is still alive and producing a crop. The vines can live a remarkably long time. You’ll see some very gnarly, tortured looking old vines that predate prohibition in the Sierra foothills and in Sonoma. Here in Napa Valley they’re out there, too, but it’s more of a hunt.

Common practice in old vineyards is to replace individual vines with new ones as they die off. In that case there’s no absolute age for the vineyard. You think of it in terms of average age.

What I can say is that the economic life of a vineyard is often somewhere in the thirties. When the vines are in their twenties they become less vigorous and the crop yield often has to be scaled back. It could be because they have some kind of virus. Or it could be because they’re simply getting old. At some point a decision has to be made. Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Green Harvest


I remember a story about Gil Nickel, the owner of Far Niente winery (sadly, now deceased) walking the vineyard with his vineyard manager, commenting “Pardon me while I step over my profits.”

There are all kinds of reasons to thin out clusters: For the sake of flavor intensity, to assure the grapes will get sweet enough or to prevent crowding… That’s why you see dried clusters on the ground along with the fresh ones that were just thinned. 
But the green harvest is thinning that’s focused on uniformity of ripening. The clusters don’t all ripen at precisely the same rate, so as veraison, the color change, progresses it’s important to get into the vineyard a few times to see if there are clusters lagging behind – not coloring up the way they should – and thin them out. Sometimes the clusters have small “wings” jutting out at the top and they may not ripen as quickly as the main part of the cluster. So, off they come. Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Bud Break!


It’s happening. Mostly in the southern part of Napa Valley at this point, but it’s happening. The vines are emerging from their long winter slumber.

Every year I kind of worry because the vines look so very dead, especially once they’ve been pruned. I’m afraid that March will go by and they’ll still look like they’re dead – that they’ll never push out that very lovely little bit of pinky-green new growth. 

But, this marks the beginning of the 2012 growing season – may it be a MUCH, MUCH better and easier one than 2011! After what the vineyard managers have been through in 2010 and 2011 I think they deserve a frost-free spring and perfect weather from there on. 

What’s perfect? Around here, from April through October, we’re looking for warm, sunny days (maybe even a few hot ones) and cool, foggy nights – and no rain. Oh, it’s okay if Mother Nature wants to sprinkle a bit to dust off the grapes now and then, but no heavy rain, especially not during harvest!! Continue reading

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Today’s Wine Word: Early Bud Break


If you grow wine grapes in the northern hemisphere you should finish up pruning in the next month or so, depending upon your growing conditions. If you have a vineyard in the Napa Valley (or Northern California) you better finish up NOW!

The annual growth cycle of a vineyard resembles that of a rose garden. After a spring, summer and fall of producing their little hearts out these plants deserve, and take, a rest. Depending upon the weather, the vines drop their leaves and go dormant sometime in November or December – just like roses. Frankly, they look like dead stumps right now.

But, we’re thinking the vines may well wake up early, in this neck of the woods, this year. After a summer of no summer in 2011 we’re experiencing a very pleasant (but somewhat scary) winter of no winter here. It’s been warm and dry for the most part. Today is supposed to top 75 degrees frevvinsake!

On a normal year, we figure the vines will come out of dormancy beginning in about mid-March. But, the soil warms up fast when it’s dry and it could well be that the vines are thinking about stirring and, maybe, waking a few weeks early. 

A few weeks can’t possibly matter, you say! Well… it depends. 

The thing is that we can have frost at night here into May and the earlier the vines wake up the greater the risk of frost damage. Last year, the spring was so wet and weepy that we didn’t have any frost problems at all. But 2008 was the worst year for frost since 1972! Can you say crop loss? Not to mention sleep deprivation! 

If we come through the spring without any frost damage, all in all, early “bud break” (the emergence of new shoots) can work to our advantage. Early bud break  often means early flowering, early fruitset and early harvest. Which means we may escape rain damage on the other end of the season.

Of course, this is all speculation. Stay tuned… 

Next: pruning!

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Today’s Wine Word: Canopy Management

The growing season has begun in earnest and now’s the time for vineyard managers in the northern hemisphere to focus on canopy management. 

Actually, there’s always canopy management to do, since winter pruning is also a form of it. 

Canopy = the green shoots that emerge from the dormant vines every spring. 

Winter pruning is done with the theory that for each bud, or growing point, that remains after pruning there will be one shoot. And for each shoot, an average of two grape clusters. But, as a good friend and wine consultant once said to me: “The vines don’t read the textbook!” So, it’s up to the vineyard manager to check out what’s actually happened and decide what, if anything, to do about it – canopy management. Continue reading

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