Anatomy of a Pinot Vine
Every winter, winegrowers wait patiently to start one of the biggest undertakings that sculpt these beautiful vines under our care. Pruning is a task that is as physically demanding as it is technically challenging,
as it requires every vine to be cared for by hand. I say all this to highlight what we see in these photos of one of our 57 year old Pinot Noir vines that was planted in our HMR Vineyard. This particular vine was taken down in its prime - a sad victim of the infamous Tractor Blight… But every dark cloud has a silver lining. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to conduct an “autopsy.” And in doing so to share what our oldest vines have experienced, and how our caretaking has helped them continue to produce some of the highest quality grapes in Paso Robles since 1964.
Vines in Nature vs Pruned Vineyards
First, I’ll note that in nature grapevines grow from a seed to produce a climbing vine that will move up their ecosystem’s canopy. Generally speaking, we use pruning as a way of restraining the vines' attempts to grow up and out, so the vine maintains a form that produces the highest quality of grapes and gives us a consistent crop distribution along our organically farmed vineyards. This brings risk to our vines since each cut heals at different rates, and as they heal rain comes down over the vineyard spreading spores to open cuts that start the infection of various wood diseases.
The Unluckiest Pinot Vine
Looking at this cross-section, you can identify varying levels of necrosis (dead tissue) which is indicated by the darker colored portions of wood. If you look closely, you can even spot the point of infection and watch it spread through the plant. Look at large pruning cuts and you can follow the necrosis through the cordon, and even though it moves very slowly (1-2 inches a season) it destroys the vascular system and reduces the channels for water and nutrient uptake. It is fairly typical and without proper care can be very damaging to the plant and its longevity. This is what makes proper pruning and wound protection key to the health of our vineyards.
How We Prune
In order to best preserve the health of our Pinot Noir, we take a traditional approach to pruning. Our pinot vines are all maintained using Spur Pruning, a method that causes a “Cordon” to grow from the apex of the vines’ trunk – like how our arms extend from our bodies. From the Cordon small “arms” grow off of it, from which small “spurs” appear. It’s these spurs that produce buds from which the grape clusters will eventually be produced.
(NOTE: I recommend reading this article from Wine Folly to get a better understanding of Spur Pruning and other pruning methods.)
But not everything we do to care for our vines is traditional. Our slight adaptation to this pruning approach is waiting until the last possible moment to prune our vines. This allows the vines to heal as much as 3 times faster than in the early winter months and helps us avoid the majority of rain events that spread infection. It is a risky move but if timed well can maintain a healthy vine for the long haul. We also make smaller cuts along the cordon that will heal more quickly and paint each and every pruning cut with a wound protectant. This is very labor-intensive but results in an old and healthy vineyard that will produce consistently year in and year out.
Let's Wrap Up the Vine Talk
Now more than 50 years after their original planting, the Pinot Noir vines in our HMR Vineyard require the best maintenance we can offer. Through our hands-on care and the combined use of traditional & non-traditional pruning practices, these plantings continue producing nearly one ton per acre every year. While that’s not breaking any records it’s still a suitable crop that allows us to continue providing customers with one of our most sought-after wines. As the Ranch Manager of our vineyards, I feel very lucky to have this awesome responsibility. A responsibility to protect and promote these storied vines passed on to me, which I hope to someday pass on again.