What a May frost does to Cabernet clusters. The healthy one set fruit nicely. The dead one will try again next season. We were lucky compared to some vineyards
Young, healthy grape flower buds.
What frost & freeze damage does to flower buds.
And what a surviving grape flower bloom looks like.
One of the most frequent vineyard questions people ask is how warm winters and springs affect the budding grapevines.
The Vitis vinifera that makes up most of the European grape varieties you have ever heard of are not as “spring sensitive” as the local flora of America. We graft those familiar European grapes onto a distinctly more Americanized rootstock, however. Vitis ripiria, V. rupestris, and V. berlandieri were hybridized with V. vinifera for the past century to give the grapes a resistance to insects and disease below the soil. Still, in Virginia USA, our grapevines do not wake up as early as the blackberry bushes and pear trees.
In two decades, I have never seen my grapevines bud out before the first day of spring. The first week of April is the norm, but for those of you who want an easier gauge to remember, look for the east coast Redbud trees blooming purple-red as the more accurate indicator the grapevines are also budding out.
Why do we care? Because the grape-clusters-to-be are already inside those little buds. Once the buds break, a cold snap or frost can kill them, and their potential grape crop. Very bad for your winery’s volume. It increases the cost of your bottle of wine.
Why do they bud out? Warm soil gets the roots pumping water – transpiration – up the trunk, out the arms, and to the canes. Water pressure. The warmer it gets in spring, the higher the pressure. That pressure first swells the buds bigger, then helps them erupt with a set of leaves. This pressure is greatest at the very ends of the canes, so the buds the farthest from the roots break out first. But not all the buds break out down the cane. The first breaking buds release a hormone called auxin that inhibits the next lower bud. After six or seven buds, all the lower buds don’t break out much at all. Left to themselves, the grape clusters would only form on the ends of the vines. In the wilds, before we domesticated them, these would be the vines that had grown the tallest up other trees and brush. The grapes would then ripen up in the sun where the birds could see them. Quite often in the ancient world, docked trees would keep the grapes off the ground and away from wildlife, livestock, and hungry children. The typical visual of an overgrown grapevine covered pergola has a basis in this fact. We pesky farmers needed grapes where they were easier to tend in a modern vineyard.
So, we prune the grapevine canes back to just a few buds every winter. Now the buds that break in spring are right by the trunk and arms in a range where it is easier to concentrate our sprays, energy, and labor to tend them.
Many trees and plants have a sap that can heal wounds like a scab. Grapevines do not.
With the root’s water pressure of a warming spring, our grapevines pump out water through the xylem tubes to the buds. But we’ve severed that cane, and the sleeping vine of winter did not seal it off. The cut vine begins to drip water in the coming spring. We call it weeping. If the vigneron stupidly makes big cuts on a vine, it can easily “weep” to death. When done right, this weeping is more tears of joy. The vines are awakening. The new season is beginning. The grapes are coming.
On this first day of spring, I thought you might like to see what a walk through the vineyard shows. Some of us have been working from home for decades. Our home office is just a little different than others.
May all the pressure you feel at this odd moment in an arriving warm spring, and all the tears for the loss we all share, remind us we’ll grow through this pain and past this hurt. We always have.
Folks who see my novels for sale in the tasting room often ask where I find the time to write. This time of year, I don’t. It’s the vines who are busy spinning yarns. This is the time of year to simply listen to them tell me their ancient tales, whisper their secrets, and share in their story one more season.
Soon enough, they will slumber again, and the hard struggles of summer will be carved and polished into the rich-grained stain of winter. A shamir of wine, to reveal the stories of old I was told as a patient, appreciative guest.
(me in Virginia Tech vineyard seminar) “I adore pruning.”
(young fellow student in class ) “Yeah, sure. Numb fingers in the freezing cold, the canes thwapping you in the face. You’ll come to hate it soon enough.”
(me) “I’ve been pruning for twenty years. When do you think this hate will kick in?”
Pruning is one of the most wonderful times in the vineyard. It is quiet. The world leaves you alone in peace. Each vine gets its own moment of love, its few minutes of focused study, bare naked of leaf and bug and sweat distractions. It is part forensic (why did you die?), part medicine (trim out the weak, favor the strong) and part zen philosophy (How do we wish to grow in life, vine?)
For a boy who wanted to run away and live on an island, then discovered you really can’t, the vineyard in winter is pretty dang close.
Sheets of clouds are the winter norm. The big fluffy cumulus are not as common. The sheets of ice and snow seem to match the sky.
Once you have sized up the vine, the routine is pruner clipping, which are like small by-pass lobbers. It is hard to believe how they used to use saws for this task.
Your mind wanders. Thumb on cordant, 2 buds, snip. Put the canes in the trailer. Rewrite those two sentences again. This imagery would work there. What are that character’s motivations? Why would they do it that way, it wasn’t one of the emotional markers I had assigned to them. Better to have the other character suggest that.
Getting dark. Park the tractor & trailer. Time for chicken soup, grilled cheese, and a St. Emilion beside the woodstove at the writing desk for the evening. To get those thoughts down, while they still sing in your mind, before sleep and the chores of the next morning erase the clarity.
Buckminster Fuller suggested that if a geodesic sphere were huge enough, the vast amount of air inside would allow for it to float up in the sky. Odd, yet mile-wide bubbles holding a thousand tons of water do just that.
The moon is also a giant orb that hangs up in the sky.
The vines on the wires, suspended by the tensegrity of wires and poles and sky and earth, cannot wave or move. They can only grow so far before they grow old and die, so they are effectively trapped wherever they are, subject to the forces of nature that rain down upon them.
Rain falls. Water tables are under-ground. Water flows thru and around every part of a living vine, and when you can’t move an inch, the gravitational tides of the moon hanging up there in the sky suddenly become very influential.
So the vines look to the clouds for rain, and the sun for food, and the moon for the dance. The vines hear the metronome of the seasons as well. The vines then form sphere’s themselves, taking the tensions around them to weave layers and pulp around seeds. But these vine’s spheres are not geodesic or floating in the clouds, nor anemochory like a dandelion on the wind, nor drifting like a coconut on the sea. No, gravity rules the seeds of the vine; the grape, save for the tensions of sunlight, water, and soil that work allochory magic greater than most any plant could dream of.
Grapes are sweet to eat and tasty to a great many creatures. Eat a ripe grape, and the seed is passed on thru to find a fertilized pile for a new home far away from the parent plant. Grapes also have yeast on their skins that converts sugar into alcohol. Pick a ripe grape, and the wine it forms may travel far, even over the sea to other continents.
And oddly, with a rare accord, those who encounter that far-traveling wine may come from however far away to gather the vine’s seeds, and even, indeed, gather cuttings of the vine to take back with them.
Thus a vine that can sprawl no father than a few meters can come to travel around the world, to look at new skies, new clouds, new light.
Not bad for a plant, but pretty standard for good art.
At its most fundamental, a vineyard is an orchard, but it is also bringing art to life. The vines chosen to grow. How the vines are grown. When they are thinned and suckered and tucked and pulled and pampered, watered, babied all affect the ultimate child of the vine: the grape. If you are the culmination of everything that has brought you to this very point in your life, then so is the vigneron to the wine you sip.
A person can make music, and music is art. A person can paint or craft a violin or a solder a chandelier, and it will be considered art. Crafting the slowly growing canes of a vine up into the wires, suspended by the poles, the track of the sun carefully considered, the irrigation rigorously monitored, the treatments for diseases and pests consummately balanced with the pure product desired, all of this makes wine grapes the faktura of wine; the expression of art in its making.
A musician will practice several pieces of music repeatedly throughout their musical career. Some will be practiced standards that have become old friends, some will be the half-forgotten old piece that requires liquid-wrench to break the rust off and recall, along with a few apologies. Such is the practice of the vigneron in the vines.
At first, a new vigneron is consumed by the choices presented and obsesses over the right technique for this or that task upon the vine. A full vineyard to such a neophyte is an endless ocean surrounding them, overwhelming them. Drowning them in work.
Continual practice and a good instructor, like a music teacher, can start to push the students thinking decisions into the subconscious execution. The metronome of the vines is the seasons, however, and whether the student gets it right or fumbles at the notes, it tocks on unstoppable.
Now, after decades of vineyard work, I find my life has reversed. Things have slowed down. I am no longer the student, but there is no one to teach. So I will practice my labor of the day, whatever song the season has chosen or the vine as begged for me to perform for it. The vine rows are long and flowing, much like the surf of the shoreline of a beach. Your hands flow, like a paintbrush here, like a sculptor’s blade there. Like a weaver’s loom, the various strings are plucked. You do not simply work the plants, you play them like an instrument. Only together are you going to make music, make art.
As I said, vines are an orchard, but they are not as tall as trees. Like a shoreline, above the vines the sky is revealed in height and breadth all around you. A giant canvas displayed for your amusement. And the clouds and sun provide the pallet.
It is also like a shoreline, for you are the crab. You see, vigneron’s walk sideways to work, step after sidestep. Snip snip.
So we play musical vines along the grape shoreline, and the practiced motions have now become the subconscious mundane, and you can watch the sky. You are often working in what others call a relaxed vacation, alone with the vines stretching into the distance around you, and the sky stretching away into the distance above you, and you and the grapes play little pavans to slivers of a moon.
Like so many people, I have always found the ocean to be absorbing to all my senses and renewing to my body, spirit & soul.
As a child and youth, I was taken two or three times a year to the Atlantic beaches of South Carolina and Florida, and in adulthood, I sought out Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure Beaches to renew my spirit, often dragging my telescope and entire desktop computer along to take advantage of the catharsis.
On one particular moonless night in the early 1980s, on an ephemeral walk along star-lit Holden Beach, a bioluminescent tide came in, and my footsteps glowed. I raced back into the beach house to rouse my friends. We turned off the TV and all the lights, to properly prepare the dubious crowd, then I lead them back out to the beach. We spent the next disbelieving hour laughing and dancing along the surf, for the faster we ran or the harder we stomped, the brighter the bioluminescence briefly glowed beneath our feet.
Those who live by the ocean may experience such moments of euphoria with more regularity, but perhaps, unless they are dog-walking, bipolar artists, they may fall prey to the never-ending human capacity to make the extraordinary mundane. We stop staring. Long looks are reduced to mere glances, the mind’s screen displays our more important internal thoughts as we only, barely-consciously, avoid stepping on objects along the surf line of the beach. The silent but glorious shooting star, the spinning in air dolphin leap, the rare green flash of a sunset, all are missed by those not looking.
A winning lottery ticket of emotion, forever lost by eyes that did not see, carried away on life’s winds and circumstantial tides to some mystic beach where the universe gathers the experiential flotsam of silent tears, unlaughed-at jokes, and unrequited longing.
All fine and well, and just as well, you may ask what any of this has to do with growing grapes in a vineyard.
A cloud is 1%. Flip 1%, the number from 99 to 100 on a humidity scale, and you change an airy vapor into a visible cloud. The sky is an immense ocean of water vapor; an ever-changing vista of glorious colors, grand designs and a never-ending god-like play of light and shadow. Clouds don’t float by like static, wind-propelled icebergs. They are sea-foam on waves that ripple, shifting to and fro on invisible riptides and shredded by fickle breezes. The sky breathes, if you watch closely, as if the earth itself is sighing in slow motion. But only if you turn off your mind’s screen. Only if you stop, and look up, like a tired soul, driving for hours to finally arrive on vacation at the seashore and needing…no, desperately craving to soak up every ray, drop and grain of the vista as if it were the last you would ever see. Unable to move, rooted in a spot and anchored in the moment, your arms and spirit spread out autonomically, letting all the cares wash away in a long silent embrace.
This is the life of a grapevine, looking up at the sky. Sun. Food. Water. Breath. Magic.
Donald Furrow-Scott bottles the history of grape growing and wine making into historical fiction novels spanning the centuries; stories with compelling notes of ancient legends and lingering hints of the supernatural. In the Wine’s Anvil series, the history of several wine varietals comes to life through a series of memorable characters and their inspiring adventures.
Furrow-Scott has decades of experience as a grape grower, cellar master, winemaker, and tasting room storyteller at Hickory Hill Vineyards near Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia.