Felco shears

Zen and the Art of Pruning

It’s late morning in the last week of February. I can feel the morning sun just beginning to penetrate the fog — and my sweater. I’m standing in front of a grape vine in a small vineyard just east of the town of Napa. The vine is in what we like to call dormancy, even though nothing, especially vines, are ever dormant. This particular vine is young — 6 years old. The canes, which bore last year’s fruit, are thin and bare, moving awkwardly, adolescently in the cool breeze. A few shriveled “mummies” — second crop, or grape clusters that never ripened and were left behind when we harvested the vineyard four months before — still cling to the canes. The brothers and sisters of those mummies that soaked up the same sun and endured early fall rains are well on their way to becoming fine wine. I’ve tasted it. It’s good.

In my right hand I’m holding a pair of pruning shears. Felco (“I don’t know why,” said our winemaker. “They’re just the ones we like”). The decisions that I make today are going to affect the yield, spacing, even the quality of this year’s vintage. I’m also affecting the long-term health and output of this vine. I’m determining its shape, the ability of this vine to sustain itself and ripen grapes for years to come.

The vine is full of sap; even after this dry winter you can almost feel the energy inside the trunk. The buds and there are many of them — are tender and eager, on the verge of bursting. Today, we will set them back a little — releasing some of that energy by inflicting major wounds on the plant. With each cut, the plant weeps — you’ve removed an arm, a leg, what would be dozens of clusters; bottles of wine, even. Inside each bud are all the primordial clusters that cane could possibly grow. (Those clusters, even at this stage, can be seen with even a not-so-powerful microscope). In addition to severing its limbs, we are also going to cut out or “rub out” as we are instructed, individual buds. We have to help the vine help itself. Without our intervention, the vine would literally become a tree, producing more fruit than it would ever be able to ripen.

The most important thing that will ever happen to this vine is happening right now. And I feel it. It’s me and the vine and the pruning shears. I don’t know what it needs. Our winemaker isn’t worried. “The vine will recover,” he says.  And in fact, we do have four acres to prune before sundown. Decisions must be made. Just over the fence, a couple of rams are going about their business — making their animal noises, grazing, sleeping, as if it is just another quiet winter day.

Pruning Is Everything

“Pruning is everything,” Steve Matthiasson, a renowned vineyard manager, told the group during a recent tasting. (His own Matthiasson wine label features a pair of pruning shears and he displays an impressive antique set on the table at every tasting).

Moreso than leafing, crop-thinning, trellising and shoot positioning, moreso than when to harvest, and what are the brix, Matthiasson, as do many other wine growers, believes that pruning is like parenthood: the vines must be reared, raised, not left to their own ambitions.

In this vineyard, just as in Matthiasson’s chardonnay vineyard in Sonoma, we are practicing cane pruning — the art of selecting and laying down a new cane (to become a cordon) each year. It requires thought and vision — to picture what the vine will look like in less than eight months when it is heavy laden with fruit and the canopy hangs overhead — but also where the following year’s spurs will come from.

I’m overly judicious at first. Leaving too many buds that are later obliterated by more experienced hands. But I learn to trust my instincts. I learn to approach each vine thoughtfully and make peace with my sharp-edged shears. We’re all in this together. I’ll see you again soon, young vines. Shoot thinning is just around the corner.

All photos Table To Grave/ John Capone