The grapevines have been dormant since shortly after harvest, and are enjoying their winter slumber, but they are still soaking up the nourishing (and desperately needed) rains we received throughout the months of January and February.
From mid-December until just before budbreak in the spring, the vineyards crews are getting up before the sun and preparing to prune the vines. Pruning is both craftsmanship and art. An experienced pruner evaluates each vine and determines what it requires to produce the highest quality fruit. They are looking ahead to the upcoming harvest in the fall, and they are planning for the next vintage as well. Much like a pool player making the shot in front them, they are also planning to leave their balls in good position for their next shot.
They are grooming the vines to produce the right amount of crop by leaving just enough canes to hold a balanced crop load for this vintage. All the while they are leaving the right number of spurs on the cordon to create next year’s crop. It is a complex operation that takes experience, keen observation, and consummate skills. Talented pruners are highly prized and very respected. Adjustments can be made later in the season to fine tune the amount of fruit the vine has to ripen, but this is the first important step.
This is the vineyard crew’s first close inspection for the new vintage and they can assess any problems in the vineyard at this time. They also may have to adjust their activities based on the conditions. Even though the vines will start to awaken from their slumber and want to begin the cycle of growth that leads to a healthy harvest, sometimes the weather can determine the timing of the crew’s activities. If the rains have created a muddy mess in the vineyards, the crew may need to wait just a bit to prune. As this year just proved, sometimes you need to wait because the rare Napa snowfall has covered the vines in a white cloak at higher elevations.
You don’t want to encourage delicate buds to start forming when the weather is so severe. There were reports of a foot of snow on top of Howell Mountain this year and the vineyards resembled a winter wonderland. This created a brief delay while winemakers took their children sledding through the vineyard instead of overseeing the pruning crews. The kids were thrilled.