Visiting our Pinot Noir Vineyard

Tuesday we drove up to the Los Altos Hills after work to drop off some grow tubes and check on our Pinot Noir Vineyard.  This small vineyard has just about 800 plants and should produce about a ton of fruit from us once at full production.  This was our first vineyard to have bud break this year and the plants were pretty far along in growth.

Stefania, Millie and I did all the pruning this year.  There were some spacing issues I wanted corrected and I though many of the plants needed new cordons as they’d been pushed too far too fast before we took over the site last year.  We went through each vine very carefully to get it pruned with the focus on strong plant this year.  So far the growth looks really good.

The vines need some suckering and thinning.  Stef and I will do that ourselves also so that we know the plants are trained exactly how we want them.  We both felt there was too much green growth and too many shoots left last year so thinning will be a key.  The vineyard layout is good but it is ‘busy’ compared to what we normally do.  Stef likes a clean simple aesthetic in the vineyard and this one had a lot of extra clips, stakes, holders and tape.  We try and avoid using those items.

It might be hard to spot below but if you look closely you’ll see lots of green tie tape on the plants.  Each plant is also staked and tied down to the stake.  I put up a picture of our front yard vineyard as a comparison.  Notice that there is no tie anywhere and no extra metal or plastic in sight.  It’s something small and subtle but it gives the vineyard more of a natural feeling versus looking like a ‘metal and wire garden’ as Stef calls them.

Rain, Drought, and Water Worries

This has been one of the driest years I can remember.  Right now in San Jose rainfall is at about 40% of a normal year.  We’ve only had a couple of good storms go through.  Mostly when we have had rain though it has been a light drizzle more than real rain.  The winter months of December, January and February had almost no rain at all.

The natural question to ask is how will this effect the vines and potentially the grape harvest in 2012.  The answer is – not very much.  The vines are dormant in the winter so not using any water.  Rain during that time is important to build up reserves for the dry summer months in the soil, but not important for the plants at that time.

I took the picture below on Wednesday of the Mourvedre vines in the front yard.  They are just starting to wake up and grow.  Now is when they need rain and water and right now we are getting regular little storms.  It’s been more than enough for the vines right now.  It has also been cool with highs in the low 60’s.  That means the plants will be growing slowly and don’t  need a bunch of water just yet.  It also means there is no risk of mildew since mildew needs temps to be over 70 degrees.

Another good side effect we will see this year is that the lack of rain has kept growth down between the rows.  You can see that in the picture below.  At this time last year the cover crop was a foot tall.  Those cover crops, and weeds compete with the vines for water, and this year those plants are small and won’t offer much competition.  Last year we had to mow three times in most vineyards and some weeds grew to 5 feet high.  This year we’ll likely mow just once or twice and it doesn’t look like anything will be over 18 inches tall.

We can’t count on the perfect timing of the rain though through the rest of the year and the amount of water in the soil is going to be an issue if we don’t get a lot of rain in April and May.  That’s why we have drip systems though and we can turn them on if we need them.  We usually don’t have them on so there will be some additional work we’ll have to do to get them ready before we can use them.  This means turning them on and walking every row to see where they have gotten leaks since we lasted used them and fixing the leaks.

So we’re not really worried about the rain shortage or drought at all.  Drought years like 2007 and 2009 have turned out to be some of the easiest farming years we’ve had, and produced great wines.  If we have to turn on the drip systems we’ll have additional costs in water and maintenance.  Those should be more than offset though in the savings from mowing and weed control.  Look for an update on the rain situation in May.  That’s when we will decide about turning on the drip systems or not.

Rain – Panic – Calm

It’s raining in Northern California.  You may have read newspaper articles about the rain or even seen the occasional TV report.  Those reports usually give an air of panic and desperation as wineries try and rush in grapes before they are ‘ruined’ by the rain.  Hooey!

We have a rain event every year.  Well almost every year.  In 2006 there was no October rain, otherwise it’s an annual thing.  We do try and bring in the thinned skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay before the rains come.  The thick skinned grapes like Mourvedre (in the picture) and Cabernet Sauvignon though will go just fine through the rain.

The key is to let the grapes dry out after the rain and before you pick them.  In the picture you can see Mourvedre in our front yard and there are little drops of water on the grapes.  Those little drops add up and can dilute the wine, lowering alcohol by as much as 2-3%.  That’s why it’s important to let the grapes get some sun and dry out.

We had been scheduled to pick the Haut Tubee vineyards tomorrow, including Red Hen, the Church, and Home vineyards but I just sent a message to Millie and we are postponing until Tuesday.  We’ll still go on with Crimson Clover on Sunday as we have 2 days of sun coming and that will be enough to dry out the grapes.

Then what’s next?  Do we panic and bring in all the Cabernet out there before it rains again?  No, we go to New Orleans for a week to avoid all the panic going on.  The Cabs will be ready after October 20th from our testing.  Some vineyards will actually be ready around the 31st.  That’s normal for us, the warm September helped get us back to normal, so it’s best to stay calm and wait it out.