Spring Cleaning & Poison Ivy

Conversations About Pruning for a Novice. 

Jessica Miller, Oregon vineyard manager & winemaker: Explaining The 
One of the simplest and earliest descriptions of pruning still holds true for me today when explaining its importance, but also its simplicity: the story of the donkey that was let loose in the field. The donkey ravaged the vines, but the winegrower discovered their yields were doubled and stronger afterwards: the birth of pruning.

Easy Analogy:
I like to think of pruning as flower arranging. You are really trying to figure out canopy coverage and how to adjust for sun exposure based on previous vintages. Especially with climate change, a lot of pruning is based on protecting against sunburn.

Pruning is more than aesthetics and beliefs. It requires infrastructure, which can cost a lot of money. Some head-trained vines are really the result of cost-saving methods (a smart choice now for the West Coast). Though it's easy to look at the history of pruning and vine growth in the view of big Napa vs. small growers, it's actually a discussion that goes way back to regions like Burgundy and Sancerre and always has been debated. When I prune, I am always looking way beyond fifteen years; I want the vines I work to last beyond my lifetime, and that means thinking about sap flow carefully when pruning. But I am not the norm.

Choices: Once you decide on a method, it's almost impossible to change. Picking the wrong placement of a vineyard and pruning method can really make it impossible to grow grapes, especially with climate change (aka all this sun). 

Craig Haarmeyer, Haarmeyer Cellars: Context for Pruning as it Relates to Sourced Fruit 

Who helps you with the pruning? First off, since we seek out uncommon grape varieties in small quantities (relatively speaking), the farmers we approach are usually already fairly responsible in their practices. So when we find things we would like to adjust it's usually pretty easy. Pruning is normally performed by skilled labor hired by the vineyard owner and carried out per our agreed-upon specifications.

What does pruning mean for someone who purchases fruit vs. someone who owns a vineyard? If one sources, they will do something like what I mentioned above: Influence and direct farming as much as needed or is possible. It also means that sometimes we perform some of the work ourselves. In our smaller sites, my son and I will knock down weeds, prune, shoot position, sucker, and harvest. But that's the exception for us. We get our hands dirty but most labor is hired. If you own a vineyard, you usually either hire outside labor, or if you're big enough, you have your own full-time staff of vineyard folks. Smaller producers who own vineyards still usually rely on hired labor through a local vineyard management company. Very few tiny producers like us who own vineyards do all of the work themselves. It happens. Many of my friends in the biz do all or most of the work themselves. And, actually most of those folks don't own the land but lease the vineyards.

For the Wirz vineyard, do you know why the Riesling was head-trained? I can't say exactly why, but back in the day, they were still own-rooting, using furrow irrigation, and head training. Usually pretty wide spacing, too. Head training is just an old tradition in CA that has its origins in cost-saving and practicality. It's much cheaper to pound in a wooden stake, stick a plant at the base and be done with it. Trellising was too expensive for many.

James Jelks, Florez Wines: Pruning Isn't Too Tricky 

Who helps you with pruning? I typically prune alone and with the occasional friends helping out. That being said I have hired teams to help me finish if I run out of time against Spring. As I continue to take on vineyards I will probably have to work with hired teams more often, fortunately I have a good relationship with a couple of growers and can work closely with them to do a good job.

What is your approach? Think about sap flow, minimize pruning wounds, and forward thinking. It takes a second to wrap your head around grape vine anatomy and growth (it isn't too tricky, just takes a little learning) but one of the keys is thinking about how the pruning decisions this year will affect the next, and if you are remedying or trying to make a change it may be a multiple year process that you have to project in your mind.

What have you learned? I've learned a lot about disease and vine maladies. The vineyards I work with are leased and often you inherit years of different approaches. This year I have learned that pierce's disease has more of a presence than I once thought. Which is a bummer because it is aggressive and can kill a vine in 1-3 years. That isn't exactly pruning related, but you see it when you are pruning and touching every vine. It's a pleasure to work on a healthy vine and continue to send it in a good direction, and a bit of a bummer to work on a vine that may be salvageable or may be on its way out.

Do you dread or look forward to it? - I look forward to it, until buds start getting swollen and it's a mad dash to finish.

How do you prune your vines and what led you to that decision? The vineyards I work with are cane pruned, although they have been converted from cordon/spur pruning in years past. TBH it's a bit what I've inherited. If I were to establish my own vineyard I would opt for cane pruned, or head trained.

Are you finished? Just finished! Buds are swelling, and there is some bud break beginning!

Andrew Scott, Eminence Road Winery: Small Vineyards and Upstate Pruning- via email

Disclaimer: I am not the best person to answer these questions as I only have a small vineyard of about half an acre. The growers we work with in the Finger Lakes, who have many, many acres to get through, prune with the help of professional crews. Scott-Henry is probably the most common pruning style for vinifera in the FLX.

Talk a little about your approach. I prune the tiny vineyard myself. My approach is to try and find balance, be aware of sap flow and to not ask too much from the vine. I am still pretty bad at pruning but I am learning how to choose the best canes and to prune for the coming season as well as the next one. I'm growing self-rooted, French-American hybrid vines which are pruned either mid-wire cordon or top-wire cordon depending on the variety and what the nursery and vine breeders advise.

Do you dread or look forward to it? I look forward to pruning. I don't wear ear-buds or anything like that and just get lost in my thoughts and the spring birdsongs. One odd thing is that after a day of pruning, when you shut your eyes, all you see are a wild tangle of vines.

Are you finished? I have just started pruning this week as up until last week there was still about a foot and a half of snow on the ground. In a more normal year I would probably be done by now.
Bryn Molloy & Jeffrey Sherwood, Ellsworth Wines: Upstarts and Old Vines

Talk a little bit about your approach: We are always looking to cut away old diseased wood and fruit off of 1 year old canes. In some cases there are not sufficient options for this conversion and we have to wait for the new shoots to come and selectively keep/remove the ones in a great position allowing us to convert the vine

Managing Vineyards: Basically every vineyard we farmed was pruned/trained incorrectly and we spend a lot of time retraining them so the future years are easier and more respectful to the health.

Guidebook: We were really inspired by Jess Miller's translation. Its become what we look to for advice and reaffirms our belief in the idea that investing in vineyards is worth it. Even if the majority of the industry does not know these things (or care), we want to continue to work with these vines and make even better wine we have to respect the sap flow and techniques that assist in avoiding vine disease.
Ben Jordan, Midland: Budbreak and Virginia Pruning
Context: Pruning is such a rabbit hole, even for those who do it every year. Mostly because there are so many approaches, none of them fully right or wrong, so it's really hard to talk about in a concise way. Tangents abound. 
We are small enough that we have more flexibility than most and we can change things up easier, so we don't have to streamline/commit to a certain approach as much as bigger operations.
What is your approach: We are caned pruned, and as mentioned, the approach is always evolving. Like many folks, we are playing around with ideas of pruning for sap flow and vine longevity. We like to keep tabs on current approaches, but we also want to think for ourselves and avoid getting caught up in what's in fashion, because our vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley is not the same as vineyards in California or Europe. That said, pruning with the whole vine/whole life in mind, instead of just the one or two year old wood (where you have the most effect on yield) makes a lot of sense! We also try to prune as late as possible to delay budbreak in an effort to combat damage from late spring frosts. That ends up making our starting point later than the average European vineyard, but also later than larger vineyards in Virginia that have more acreage to get through.

What have you learned over the years that works in VA? I'd say we're conscious of the fact that we are a young producer in a young region, so we have learned that open minds and a progress oriented approach pay off. For instance, what works for vinifera may not be the right choice for multi-vitis varieties. Also what everyone who farms learns: plans are good, but you will be frustrated if you hope and wish that everything will fall into place every year. It's good to be prepared, but be prepared to adjust your plan, and enjoy the fact that you've got something different every year.

Do you dread or look forward to it? I wish I could do more of it! We dread Spring frosts, but the pruning work is actually quite nice, unless it is really cold. It can be meditative, and generally you are not as rushed to keep up with the plants as you are in the growing season. Plus, it's easier to be more social with people in the vineyard than later in the season when canopy growth restricts vision and blocks sound.

How do you prune your vines and what led you to that decision? We planted the vineyard so that we could cane prune, with the idea that tighter spacing would make for some competition and that we could carry lower yields per vine without making yields/acre so low as to be uneconomical. As Lucie Morton says, this approach is useful as the vineyard matures, the vines are less vigorous, and you aren't straining the plants to fill the canopy and carry too much fruit. The sap flow/vine longevity approach is something we adopted recently because it makes sense, and we want our vines to love long lives
Are you finished? Just getting started!
Alexandre Giquel, Winemaker: Loire Valley and Wise Mothers

Who helps you with pruning: I prune alone but this year my mother helped me, she was cutting cane before me. It's was a great help to prune faster

What is your approach? My approach is by "taille douce" so I prune with respect for sap path and not to have big grappe's volumes but to preserve my old vines.

Do you dread or look forward to it? Yes I'm looking forward, I love that, we are always reflecting on how to improve or correct vines and its the best time of year to watch each vine branch and see what happens.

How do you prune your vines and what led you to that decision? With my old vines my main goal is to bring down woods so I share my spurs between recreate wood structure and have grapes for harvest.
Are you finished?! Not yet, I still have my Gamay to prune, the plot is frost so I prune late, at the beginning of April.