Permission to Bitch Slap a Winemaker

Growers weigh in on the question of tonnage

The grapes are looking very vulnerable, very exposed this week. Long, cool, foggy mornings throughout Napa Valley and Sonoma means that leafing has been especially aggressive on the morning side of the vines. As we head into veraision (just a couple weeks away, according to John Wilkinson, a member of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and a grower of merlot in Oak Knoll), both farmers and winemakers want to get as much sun as possible on those hard, green little grapes in order to develop tannins, sugar and, most importantly, phenolics. (And then there is one vineyard we visited this week where the owner mistakenly instructed her crews to leaf the afternoon side. Raisins, anyone?)

“We are taking advantage of the good working conditions these cool mornings provide, passing through our pinot noir blocks to finish pulling the last leaves throughout the fruit zone on the side of the vine exposed to the morning sun,” says Chuck Mansfield, the Winemaker at Hop Kiln Winery and a member of the Westside Road Wineries Association in the Russian River Valley. “This exposes our crop to fresh air and the morning’s fog-filtered sunshine. It also helps prevent problems with mildew: As the fog burns off and the sun is overhead, the remaining leaves shield the clusters.” But seeing all that fruit suddenly naked and awkward on the vine does something else important: “This newly exposed fruit also gives us a good visual reminder that harvest is just a couple months away.”

Which means that herds of eager little interns are in the vineyards doing the tedious work of counting clusters — literally counting the number of clusters on randomly selected vines throughout the vineyard in order to begin to estimate yield. Which has everyone — from farmers estimating whether Christmas vacation will be spent at a resort in Oahu or at the kids’ house in Ohio (again) to production managers counting pick-bins and empty barrels— talking tonnage.

But just how much fruit should a healthy vineyard produce? Marketing departments would often have you believe that less fruit equals better fruit, but this is obviously not the case.

“A grapevine can be two things,” explains Greg La Follette of La Follette Wines. “It can be vegetative strategy or it can be reproductive strategy.” Either a vine will create more wood and leaves or it will produce and ripen fruit.

“Now the vegetative strategy is very important,” says La Follette. These guys can outclimb their neighbors; that is how they get more sunlight and more energy — by taking over more territory.” (In fact, grapevines don’t even need to make fruit in order to reproduce. If we didn’t keep the shoots upright, they would actually go into the ground and create roots, propagating asexually.)

“So why would a grapevine want to spend twice as much energy creating nice colorful berries when it can do everything it needs to do through vegetative strategy?” asks La Follette.

“Well the answer is, if you create enough stress on the vine, the vine starts saying ‘Guys, things are getting pretty tough around here and we’re not going to be able to do much more of this lumber production, so with what little resources we have left let’s start making our fruit a lot more attractive for the birds, so that they will come and grab our seeds and do this biblical be fruitful and multiply thing.’” (Hence the bird netting.)

Removing leaves and limiting the vine’s access to water and nutrients are two ways to create stress for the vine. “Once a vine comes under stress, what it really wants to do is start reproducing,” says La Follette. Take, for example, tomato vines. “The way you make really great tomatoes is not to give it a lot of water and nitrogen, but to hold a little back. A tomato plant is similar to a grapevine in that when it is stressed it will start to create more flavorful and colorful tomatoes,” says La Follette.

But while stressing the vegetative growth of the vine, La Follette simultaneously encourages fruit growth. “I really do think like a grapevine, and part of it is getting it to be more fruitful” (Greg and his wife Marla have six kids).  “What that requires is that you carry more crop frequently and not less and that you balance your crop. It’s not ‘lower yield makes better wine,’ it’s ‘balanced vines make better wine.’”

“And the next time you hear some winemaker talk about how they have this very low-yielding vineyard you have my permission to just bitch slap him.”

Which, if you spend any amount of time tasting wine in Napa Valley, will be very, very soon.