Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: On Canopy Management

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It seems long ago and far away now, early May. It’s hard to remember. The last two months have been so busy and full of farming activity. It probably doesn’t help that my crew and I (and some extra folks even) worked every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, for pretty much the month of May. But here we are, the end of June, with summer full upon us. The lion’s share of the busy season is done, and I’m already thinking about harvest.

But let’s back up – the beginning of the true busy season is really foretold by bloom. It begins a little bit before, when we start floor management not too long after bud break. But by the time bloom comes around, as the season waxes and the grape canes stretch up, opening their leaves and blossoms to the sun, the race is on.

Grapes are wild, clambering weeds – true vines that will climb up anything that will hold them. In the wild, trees, shrubs, even boulders, become the trellis. On the farm, there are almost as many ways to trellis grapevines as there are berries in a cluster. Each trellis style, back through 10,000 years of agricultural history, is based on the vigor, sunlight, and trellising materials available. At RSV, we almost exclusively use a system called “VSP,” or “Vertical Shoot Positioning.” This is a narrow trellis, canes straight up like green popsicles on tooth-pick trunks. VSP works well in areas of low vigor and lower sunlight, such as cool, cloudy Carneros.

It would be wonderful if the vines would just grow between the catch wires, positioning themselves, straight up to the sun. But, alas, this is not the case and there is much training to be done. Every season as the buds expand into shoots, we tuck them between the wires. As the shoots grow tall into canes, we move those same wires up the trellis to “catch” them before they fall limply back to earth. It’s a game of see-saw, from chaos to order and back again – the vines grow chaotic, the crew moves through and tucks them back into order. They grow wild again and we pass by with a cane cutter to trim the tops of the canes, convincing them to stay in the trellis.

canopy and moon

credit Debby Zygielbaum

The grapes themselves are shy, hiding behind leaves in the middle of the dark, cool canopy. A little bit of sunlight is good for many things – including killing fungi like mildew and botrytis. It also can create better flavor in the berries. So, after we tuck the reluctant canes, we open up the canopy to show the fruit to the sun by pulling leaves. The sooner we do so after fruit set, the sooner the fruit acclimates, becoming resistant to sunburn. Ideally, we want sunlight and air moving through to resist botrytis and mildew and then dappled sunlight for the fruit – not too hot, just enough so the berries can react to the sun and develop the flavors that will translate into good wine.

While “leafing” implements for the tractor do exist, I have yet to find one that can even come close to the human mind and opposable thumb. Which means, in little over one month, there’s been a person at every one of our over two hundred thousand vines pulling leaves off to expose the fruit. With the labor shortage in California, it’s been a scramble to find enough hands to get through the canopy in time to keep the mildew at bay. By working lots of extra hours, Sundays and overtime, we just made it. We found mildew starting in our penultimate block but we opened up the canopy in time to keep it from taking over and ruining the fruit.

Some seasons are better than others, but it’s like this every year – the time flies by so quickly, yet the days are packed so full, it seems like each week is a year. It’s hard to believe only two months have passed. But for now, the vineyards are tamed, the clusters jewels on the vine, still green, yet full of potential. Harvest is coming.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.