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From the Vineyard: Vintage 2012
Viticulturist David Wilson keeps us up-to-date with what's happening in the vineyards...
"After an extremely busy month of June with all major operations happening simultaneously in the vineyards, July has remained busy as the critical practices are being wrapped up and the fine-tuning in preparation for ripening begins. We are in the phenological stage of veraison, which is considered the onset of ripening. Earlier canopy work and crop adjustments are done to encourage uniformity cane to cane and vine to vine, now we work to maintain that uniformity and balance with harvest on the horizon.
"With veraison, in white grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, we first see a slight change in color in the berries from an opaque green to a more translucent golden shade. The pulp inside the berries begins to soften and at the same time the seeds harden. In red varieties, the process is similar but is much more easily quantified visibly as the berries change from green to various shades of purple, blue, or even close to black depending on the variety. We are currently at about 5-10% veraison in Pinot Noir at our Stanly Ranch Estate and only about 1% veraison in a few blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon at the Schlatter Family Estate.
"As we progress through veraison, further crop adjustment is done by removing any clusters or portions of clusters that are lagging in color development. At this stage of the season we also begin our bird control measures, as many species of birds know that the berries will soon gain sweetness and they begin " taste testing" berries, ruining the cluster in the process. We mainly rely on alarms and netting to protect the crop, especially in Carneros where the pressure is greatest.
"The season has progressed nicely, with mild weather and a few welcome heat spikes that have helped mitigate disease pressure. We anticipate harvesting in the earlier Sauvignon Blanc sites around the third week of August, which means we have a month to prepare!"
From June 26th: "This month has been the busiest and most demanding of the season so far. The late spring rains and warm weather that followed resulted in rapid growth in all varieties and regions of the Napa Valley. The demand on vineyard labor has been significant, and a shortage of available vineyard crews created some strain on completing the canopy work, which is one of the most critical practices of the entire year.
"At this time of year we are tucking, hedging, and removing interior lateral growth on the vines to create the proper environment surrounding the newly formed clusters. For the most part, our goal is filtered sunlight (not direct) in the fruit zone and ample airflow. Both of these factors help limit disease pressure and set the stage for uniform ripening.
"Once the canopy work is complete, we will move straight in to adjusting the crop load. We evaluate each shoot on each vine to ensure the number of clusters carried are in balance with the vigor of the shoot. Weaker shoots will be reduced to one or zero clusters, while more vigorous shoots will carry two. The crop load is addressed again at veraison, when any clusters that are lagging behind in color change are removed, again to ensure uniformity throughout the ripening process.
"We hope to be caught up on all of the work within the next two weeks, then our focus will be estimating the crop in each vineyard block, and continuing to monitor the moisture status of the blocks and irrigating when necessary."
From May 24th: "Bloom is under way! With warm and dry weather through May, we've experienced a rapid onset of bloom in the vineyards. Early in the month we focused on completing the shoot thinning in our Estate vineyards, and followed with pre-bloom foliar nutrient applications. These foliar nutrients include Boron, Zinc, Molybdenum, Phosphorus, and Kelp extract. The combination of nutrients helps to ensure uniform flower development and better fruit set.
"Grape flowers are self-pollinating, or "perfect" flowers therefore don't require pollination by insects. Each flower on the inflorescence will form an individual berry if fertilization is completed without any issues. Mild and calm weather is desired during this critical time of development, and so far this week has brought good bloom weather. By next week we will see "set" berries, but the true success rate of bloom won't be determined for several weeks after, when the berries begin to expand.
"We also have begun shoot-positioning the vines by tucking the shoots into the trellis, moving the wires to support the shoot growth, and also clipping and tying shoots to properly orient them. The vines are beginning to fill the trellis, and it's important to guide the shoots through for optimal light and air exposure through the canopy.
"We will remain busy into June with canopy management, and potentially some irrigation in the driest areas. Although light to moderate stress to the vines is desirable later in the season, during bloom and the early development of the crop stress needs to be avoided. It looks like this season has the potential to be warmer than the past three vintages, which could return us to a more "normal" timeline. We're currently about three weeks ahead of the 2011 bloom dates."
From April 25th: "April has been very busy in the vineyards, with tractors running almost non-stop. Once the rain cleared and the soil dried out earlier this month, we were able to begin mowing the cover crops and applying our first fungicide passes. The first mowing pass utilizes a flail-type mower, which not only chops the cover crop but also grinds up the cuttings from the Winter pruning, creating a mulch of organic matter in the vineyard rows. We will also begin our under-vine cultivation this week. Shallow cultivation under the vines allows for a reduction in herbicide use and helps incorporate organic matter into the soil.
"Our next major operation in the vineyard will be shoot-thinning, which is also called suckering. Suckering is done by hand by the vineyard crews and is a critical practice to balance vigor, limit disease pressure, and ensure proper light and air exposure to the crop later in the season. Each Spring grapevines push buds along the spurs, canes, cordons, and trunks which need to be thinned in order to focus each vines energy into the primary shoots according to the pruning. The thinning of the extra shoots ensures that the primary shoots will grow sufficiently to fill the trellis and ripen the crop later in the season. We will begin suckering at the end of this week in our estate properties.
"At this time of year we begin closely monitoring and scouting our estate and grower properties for any early season insect and disease pressures. We've had significant fluctuations in the weather this month, from frosty mornings at the beginning of the month, good amounts of rainfall from several storms, and also very warm and sunny days just last week. All of these changes can affect the growth of the vines and the early season pressures from insects and pathogens. Fortunately, it appears that growth has been uniform so far and with starting our sulfur, copper, or stylet oil applications everything appears intact and healthy. This next month will be very busy, and the challenge of staying caught up begins!"
From March 24th: "With pruning completed in both our estate properties, and the soils recharged from a string of storms at the beginning of March, we're primed to begin the season. We are in the early stages of budbreak at both our Stanly Ranch Estate and the Schlatter Family Estate. Clone 4 Chardonnay in Carneros and the Petit Verdot in Conn Valley are edging out ahead of other varieties.
"With budbreak occurring, we begin to protect the emerging shoots from frost, disease pressure, and insect damage. Frost protection is most commonly achieved by running wind machines which mix the warmer air aloft with the colder air closer to the ground. This prevents the freezing air from settling at ground level and exposing the fresh buds and shoots on the vines to temperatures of 32 degrees or lower. Other practices to mitigate frost pressure include late pruning which delays budbreak and early mowing of the cover crops which improves air movement through the vineyard blocks.
"To limit disease pressure, we will begin our sulfur and copper fungicide applications within the next couple of weeks. These organic materials work to "burn" and clean off any overwintering spores of powdery mildew or botrytis, the two most damaging fungal pathogens we deal with in the Napa Valley. Once the shoots grow up into the trellis, we will shift to other materials used in rotation to limit either disease from getting established.
"To prevent early season insect damage from mites, thrips, and caterpillars we first encourage a diversity of insect populations by using cover crop mixes which include flowering plants such as California poppies and alyssum. These flowering plants provide habitat for different wasps, flies, and predatory mites that keep pest populations from escalating. We also utilize mineral oils in our Spring spray program which keep pest populations low to begin the season.
"With the onset of budbreak, the 2012 vintage is officially underway. Along with the relief brought by the recent rainstorms there is plenty of optimism and excitement for this new vintage!"
From February 24th: "With pre-pruning completed in all blocks this month at both of our estate properties, the stage is set for pruning which is the first major vineyard operation of the 2012 growing season. Pruning is a critical practice as it's an opportunity to set the foundation for uniformity and balance in the vines. Whether it's the guyot method cane pruned vines at the Schlatter Family Estate or the spur-pruned cordon system at the Stanly Ranch Estate, the details of pruning are critical.
"Vineyard crews will be hitting the ground next week, and will cut back each pre-pruned cane to its proper position. Making clean cuts in the right location on the cane ensures that the new shoot growth and clusters will be properly spaced which allows for optimal light and air flow as they develop. Areas of a specific block that are either low in vigor or high can be addressed by the number of cuts made and where. Leaving a minimal amount of buds or growing points will boost vigor while retaining more growing points will limit it. Even though the weather has been dry, sanitation measures are taken during pruning; these include tossing the prunings clear of the vines and into the center of the vine row to be chopped later and mulched into the soil, painting any large cuts with a low concentration of Boron to protect against wood-rot fungal pathogens, and sanitizing pruning tools and shears in between blocks to avoid transferring any existing pathogens. We're still well below average in rainfall for this Winter but we're hoping for a few more storms prior to budbreak.
"Will have some photos to share of the pruning being done in March's update. The peaceful time in the vineyards is about to end, which is exciting."