Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting in gear at Cerro Prieto Vineyard & Cellars/ Going towards Green...again.

Well, no question we are underway for a new year because we are now officially pruned. To many, that is readily understandable; but to others just getting into wine (and vineyard) appreciation, here's something to chew on: on 20 acres of vines, we have 10 spur positions(one every 6 inches) on each 5 foot cordon (the horizontal portion of the vine). Figure 870 vines/acre (on a 5' X 10' vine spacing) and we have roughly 18,000 vines, which means with 10 spurs/vine there are 180,000 spur positions to prune each and every year. Wow! Prior to growing grapes I had never ever contemplated something as large as 180,000 anythings. Yet, on our small boutique vineyard, that's what we prune every cotton picking year...180,000 individual cuts with the pruning shears. Obviously, I don't do that myself, and in the last several years, have done virtually none due to back surgeries. But still, just thinking about opening and closing a pair of pruning shears 180,000 times... well, it is still an amazing number to try and get your head around.

Just imagine what vineyards of 200 acres are like...or like the Scheid Vineyard, some 50 miles north of us where there are miles and miles of vineyard, neatly butting up to both sides of the highway and extending west to the mountains and east to the foothills. They have dozens of square miles of vineyard, and literally hundreds of thousands of vines. Pruning for those folks must surely be akin to a really bad colonoscopy.

In any event, one must always start somewhere, and with pruned canes on the ground, there is a certain satisfaction once all is done. As of now we are using a flail mower to cut the winter growth of our anti-erosion clovers, broemes, vetch, fescue, rye, filaree, and 26 varieties of wildflowers. Additionally, adhering to a biodynamic philosophy of "going towards green" we are also chopping up 180,000 pruned canes that lay in amongst our grasses, clover, vetch, and flowers. A brief 10 years ago we used a hay rake behind our tractor to remove all cut canes, which we then moved, stacked, and burned. Extremely non-organic. Extremely wasteful and time consuming. By merely buying a good mulching flail mower, we eliminated fouling the air with smoke from 180,000 burning canes, and simultaneously eliminated several costly steps(hay raking and moving the massive amount of pruned vines to burn piles). The additional benefit comes with mulching the canes into biodegradeable size, which ultimately returns nitrogen to the soil, and also helps rebuild any topsoil lost during torrential rains. Going organic doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. Many times, "going towards green" can actually save both time and money, but the biggest winner, hands down, is the environment. Seeing that mass of grasses, flowers, vetch and unruly canes reduced to a fine mulch(we double cut to get the smallest particle size we can)...well, it is a very satisfying feeling to know we are not only saving our environment, but improving it as well.

Next on the agenda is to catch up on gophering, the prize winner for crummy, boring vineyard tasks. On the other hand, I have trapped muskrats, raccoons, rats, mention but a few...since I was a kid. So while gophering may not be intellectually challenging, there is a warm glow in my gut every time we pull up a trap with gopher in it. Additionally we have been simultaneously dropping our movable catch wires(4 per vine), which we will raise gradually as the shoots start to emerge from each spur position. "Basal plus two" is our pruning motto on established vines, but "basal plus one" is used for young one and two year old vines. Essentially that means that we will have 2 shoots coming from every spur position, with an extra basal bud hidden between the cordon and the base of the spur. This basal bud comes into play if we get hit with a late spring frost and we lose one, or occasionally two shoots to frost. The basal bud is, in effect, our insurance bud. The final job for early spring is to spray, weed eat, hoe, and machete our hillside anti-erosion ground cover, which includes mustard galore, vetch, wild radish in white, pink, yellow and red hues, California poppies, lupine, and not to be forgotten, bull thistle. We do not use pre-emergent sprays which would keep all the above from germinating, but simultaneously, that poison stays in the ground(and hence ground water) for several years. Ecologically, pre-emergents are terrible. Economically, they are a huge benefit. We come down on the side of the environment, and forego the pre-emergents, instead using systemic spray (Roundup, Glyfos), which is taken up by the plant and not the soil. We could have used the systemic spray early on when plants were just germinating, but chose instead to wait til all had gotten a good root base which holds the steeply inclined soil in place. This requires a lot of extra work as wild radish, bull thistle, and vetch are huge and tough to get rid of. But merely by delaying the spray we again are being environmentally conscientious, choosing to prevent erosion rather than to spray tiny plants which later hold soil in place. Needless to say, this spray is on hillsides that surround different blocs thruout our vineyard, and the systemic sprays on hillsides don't affect the vineyard within.

Every vine...really...each and every vine is then inspected by me to be certain there are no apparent diseases, there has been no vine loss due to gophers, and finally to insure all newly trained vines are not carrying too many spur positions, nor crowding adjacent spurs. Any spur that impinges on another is perfunctorily removed, which then decreases the crop produced by that vine by 10%. That in and of itself is one of the hardest things to do...prune a well positioned spur that is too close to another. But in the long run, if left alone, that spur would produce two shoots, each with a grape cluster, and each would be crowding the cluster from an adjacent shoot. This is one of those situations where it is way better to fix a bad spur position earlier rather than later.

Lastly, once all mowing is done, all hillside vegetation is cut or chopped, we move on to the next "must do" job, and that is to cut and mulch all grassland that is surrounding our vineyard, but not technically "adjacent to" the vineyard. We have a number of valleys and draws, steep slopes and rocky outcroppings that are on the remaining part of our 73 acres. We have over 5000 Live Oak trees (plus some Box Elderberry & Valley oaks), but there is also some 15 acres of steep hillside and low valley weeds. Our most prominent is Fireweed, appropriately named because of its oily content...which burns like a match if a fire were to befall us. Without cutting all these weeds we would be a perfect setup for a late summer or early fall fire. Access to our mountainsides, deep valleys, and hillsides is basically not possible for any type of firefighting equipment that rolls on wheels. Any fire here would roar up our steep draws and would be a nightmare to put out. Hence, each and every year we dutifully mow everything we can and weedeat the rest. Any idea of cost to weedeat anything not mowed on Cerro Prieto? Well, last year was two guys for 22 days, at a cost of $5200. Not truly a vineyard expense, but nonetheless an expense we have to swallow, or lead the life of a guy praying for the lottery winner...except in this case we would be praying we didn't have a fire. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure...except in this case it is a $5200 cure.

That's it for this rather lengthy blog, but it pretty well gives one an idea of what is going on in the vineyard at season's onset.

Just a note on the upcoming Zinfandel fest, March 19-21. We had hoped to be in our new tasting room at the Meritage Lounge on the south side of Paso's downtown park. We are still in process at the moment, so any wine club members who wish to pick up their orders... as well as other wine fans who wish to visit and try our 92 point Paso Bordo(Cab/Syrah), come see us at the vineyard this coming weekend, and wine/cheese/food pair with us, while enjoying African art(watercolors), hides, mounts, carvings, mention but a few. We hope to see you here.

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