Spring in the Vineyard

Glance up the hillside as you saunter towards the Saffron Fields tasting room and you may see Daniel Fey’s crew up among the vines.  What they are doing up there depends on the month and the whims of Mother Nature.  Come spring, several tasks require attention, some more mechanical, such as placing and moving trellis wire, and some horticultural.

There are many types of trellising systems used throughout the world.  At Saffron Fields, we use the VSP (vertical shoot positioning) system that includes a bottom fruiting wire and three top pairs of movable catch wires.  Ironically, the fruit hangs from the top wires and not the fruiting wire.  These top wires essentially provide something for the new shoots to grab onto.  If you’ve ever grown grapes, you know that they are voracious creepers.  While they are courteous enough to die back in the fall, and do not aggressively establish new roots by themselves, they can cover a lot of territory.  Grapes vines can grow over an inch daily during their prime growing phase.  You don’t want them going wild, at least not if yield and quality of the fruit is your goal.  Thus, one of the ongoing tasks for vineyard workers is training the vines for optimal yields.  This starts in the winter by pruning the vines and continues into the spring by providing the catch wires for the new shoots to grab onto.  Essentially, we want the vines to grow up the trellis rather than flopping on the ground and trailing between rows.  The lower pairs of wires will be moved up in May or June after the new shoots have grown sufficiently and been trained onto the wires.  The timing depends on bud break.

Soil cultivation is also critical at this time of year.  You may see the crew disking in the cover crop (breaking up and integrating the organic mass with the soil) and then leveling through shallow tilling.  While the cover crop adds nutrients to the soil, in spring and summer, it also competes with the vines for nutrition and water.  As with much of the valley, Saffron is a dry-farmed vineyard.   While grape roots typically run deep and are somewhat drought-resistant, a dry summer can stress the vines and cause them to drop their canopy (the shading cover of grape leaves) early.  The less cover crop competing for that precious summer water, the better.

Bud break, a crucial event in the vineyard calendar, typically occurs in the first half of April. However, as we’ve seen in recent years, Mother Nature can throw us a curveball.  In 2023, bud break was unusually late due to the cool spring.  In 2022, an early bud break followed by mid-April snow and frost led to widespread damage to the primary shoots.  Depending on when bud break occurs, the crew may be busy thinning the shoots to an optimal number of around 14 per plant.  This process, which starts with winter pruning, aims to encourage an ideal canopy, showcasing the vineyard’s adaptability to changing weather conditions.

Pruning and thinning, both tasks requiring a delicate touch, are where the expertise of Daniel’s crew truly shines. The definition of an “ideal” canopy can vary depending on the grape, the topography, the watering environment, and the owner’s yield goals. The art of selecting the right canes for winter pruning and the right shoots for spring thinning is a skill honed over years. It’s this skill that can make the difference between a vineyard with average yields and quality, and one that produces stand-out fruit.  Of course, factors like soil, sun, slope, elevation, and rain all play their part too.

So, smile and wave to the crew as you enter the tasting room.  They may be too focused on their work or too far away to notice.  But it’s a fine acknowledgment that the excellence you are about to experience in your glass starts with the excellent and hard work they do among the vines.

By Published On: April 16, 2024Categories: Seasons0 Comments