Seasons – Winter Pruning
Well before you read this and long before you taste the fruits of their labors, Daniel Fey’s crew are working their way down the rows of vines above the Saffron Fields tasting room, pruning the sleeping vines in the cold winter light. Clay cakes the soles of their shoes. The weather is dry. The January sun struggles to peek through an occasional rift in the cloud layer.
Daniel runs Results Partners, a vineyard management firm that works across a broad swath of the Oregon and Washington wine-growing region. Daniel’s knowledge runs deep: growing up on a farm in Switzerland and learning vineyard practices from his father, a master vintner. Before joining Results Partners, Daniel worked for over a decade as a vineyard manager across the road at Willakenzie Estate. While Results Partners works as far away as the Columbia Valley, he knows the soils and climate of the Laughlin Road area well.
Daniel explains the pruning process in his gentle Swiss accent. Pruning takes place early in the year. The vines are fully dormant and the horizontal trellises that define the rows are populated with the grey-brown husks of seemingly dead canes. They’re not. Left untended, many will spring into life come spring. Their uncontrolled growth saps the vigor from the vine, leading to lower fruit yields. The additional shading also affects the fruit quality this year, as well as the next year’s yields. Most canes need to go. Quite simply, proper pruning leads to better wine.
Selecting the canes for pruning is an important and skilled job. It’s not rocket science, but rapidly making decisions about where to prune as one moves down the row requires long experience. Wielding a set of well-sharpened sheers, the vineyard worker selects cutting points above the graft union, seeking the ideal V formation that will become the main growth platform for the coming season.
After the pruners, a second crew will move through, pulling the severed canes from the trellis wires and piling them between the rows. This is less-skilled, but surprisingly hazardous work. As the crew moves fast to yank the detached material, canes can whip out at high speed. Eye protection is a must. A third pass is made to tie the remaining two canes for each vine to the lowest trellis wire.
Overall, Saffron Fields has about 35 vineyard acres. Each acre takes about 15 hours to prune, meaning the entire pruning operation will consume almost 500 hours.
Later in the Spring, perhaps about the time you are reading this, crews will once again descend on the field to thin the new shoots. There may be 30 or more shoots growing from the vines. Once thinned, they will be reduced to a more optimal 14 – 16 per plant.
Daniel considers safe and respectable crew treatment to be essential to the success of his vineyard management business. Crews must be reliable, skilled and hard working to produce ideal results. The entire operation, from pruning, to thinning, to harvest is subject to the whims of nature. The working conditions can vary from Eden-like dry, sunny and mild days to cold bitter mornings or blazing hot summer afternoons. Daniel is proud of the team he has built, their commitment and longevity.
For most vineyards, employing full-time vineyard management staff is impractical: periods of intensive labor demand would punctuate long idle spells. Not only does it make economic sense to use a vineyard management service, but it allows for a higher level of skill and specialization.
So next time you lift that Pinot Noir glass to your lips, take a moment to consider an expanded definition of terroir, one that not only embraces soil and rain and heat, but also the hard work of the people who are working in the vineyard. As you sip in the summer sun, recall that months, even years, earlier, someone awoke at the crack of dawn on a cold January morning to prepare a luscious treat for you.