Hubble primordial clusters courtesy NASA

Primordial Clusters, From Galaxies to Grapevines

Growers lost in space during bud dissection

In January, 2012 NASA researchers made a very important discovery. The furthest protocluster of galaxies ever seen. Thirteen billion light years from Earth, scientists, with the help of a little guy named Hubble, saw a cluster of five galaxies just beginning to form. They referred to the galaxies as primordial clusters and predicted that they had started their formation 600 million years after the Big Bang (which, in space years, is apparently not a long time). Now flash forward 13 billion light years to California’s wine country. It’s January, 2013.

Admittedly, winter is not the most photogenic time in wine country. Gone are the grapes, the leaves, the gallivanting tourists (okay, Napa Valley manages to attract some gallivanters thanks to its brilliant mustard seed scheme). The vines look like like tangled sticks in the mud. It’s cold and it’s wet and it’s probably a good time to go to Baja.

But what’s incredible to think is that out there in all those dormant vines are tiny buds that contain leaves, shoots and all the clusters that vine will produce the following year. That’s right: the 2013 vintage was formed while the 2012 canes were growing. Inside each fuzzy dormant bud are all the leaves and clusters that vine will produce in the coming months (it’s really crowded in there). Think of the growing season as less “growing” and more really just stretching.

Many hyper-vigilant viticulturists like to spend this downtime not vacationing, no — not like the lazy winemakers, but rather dissecting grapevine buds. It sounds crazy, but farmers tend to get that way. As soon and as often as possible they want to know how much fruit is out there. And so, just before pruning, interns collect canes and, under a microscope, start digging around. Cut into a grapevine bud, lean into the microscope and prepare to travel through space. First you will find yourself rising above the earth observing an extreme weather pattern. Look longer and you will see the Milky Way. Look long enough and, there it is, a primordial cluster of galaxies. Or wait, is that the grapes?

primordial clusters in a grapevine

What is inside a grape bud?

The bud protects its precious contents with lots of fuzzy stuff called tomentum. It looks like steel wool after you sanded the rust from the Ford Escort you bought when you were 16. Once you get through that you will see folds of leaves surrounding the shoot.

bud dissection of a grape bud

click to enlarge

You will also see the primary bud (which contains the cluster primordia), the lateral bud and the secondary bud. The primordial clusters, inside the primary bud, look like caviar (or tobiko depending on your ethnic fish egg preferences). They are so small you can hardly see them with the naked eye.

Primordia are not grapes. They won’t become grapes until they self pollinate later in the spring. And since so many things can go wrong between now and then, the vine has a built-in back-up plan. Should something prevent the first two clusters from forming (frost, rain, necrosis, bud mites, tiny hungry vineyard gnomes) another bud, the secondary bud will push. While not as fruitful as the primary bud and will probably ripen so late it would interfer with the winemakers scuba diving trip, it is there.