Growing Quality | April 2005

Most of us are first generation winegrowers. We have started with no vineyard history on our sites. As I enter the third decade of farming Hardscrabble, Linden’s estate vineyard, I am realizing how much of a disadvantage being a pioneer can be. I know that the quality potential of my vineyard is much higher than what I am currently able to achieve. Over the past few years I have been focusing on quality issues in Hardscrabble and the three other vineyards that Linden purchases grapes from. I would like to share some of my thoughts. The following is solely based on my experiences and observations. I am not a scientist, researcher, consultant or extension specialist. I am a winegrower who puts his boots on every day.

I see three interrelated issues. Long term quality goals is the most difficult issue to address. Here I am looking at site/soil/variety relationships and making the tough decisions to pull out productive vineyards in order to replant with a more promising (from a wine quality stand point) variety. Vineyard management has to do with all the short term decisions made during the growing season. Paying for quality reflects how the winery and the independent grower can have the same, and not opposing, goals.

Long-term quality goals

This is a big issue that I am currently struggling with. It refers to planting the right grape at the right place. I am finding that it takes me about 10 to 15 years to evaluate the wine quality of a vineyard block. I find that the first few years of a vineyard’s production are the “honeymoon years,” where the fruit (and wine) is ripe, hedonistic, jammy, and very appealing. The true test of a block comes in years 5 to 10 which are the vine equivalent to the teenage years. The vines can
be a bit awkward, going through growth spurts. Rampant growth is often difficult control. Canopy management, picking decisions and winemaking need to be very good and flexible according to observations of vine growth. After year 10, the vines seem to settle down and balance out their growth. At this point if I am not making exceptional wines from the block, I start to question whether there is a problem with the vineyard or with me, or both. Sometimes it is me, and changes to vine management or winemaking can turn things around. Other times it is the vineyard. This leads to the painful decision of pulling the vines.

I have many slopes and soil types here at Hardscrabble and at our other surrounding vineyards. What we are learning is that variety/soil relationships are extremely important, especially with red grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is very picky. It requires a good slope (at least 5%, more is better), well drained, light and thin soils and a southern exposure. Merlot seems quite happy in clay as long as it is well drained. Petit Verdot is a trooper, doing well in all the places that Cabernet doesn’t like. Cabernet Franc does best in the poorest, rockiest soils I can find.

I am slowly exploring new varieties. The two criteria that a new variety must meet are that they are rot resistant and they ripen when the nights are cool. Rot is our biggest problem with wine quality in white-fruited varieties. Somehow I managed to plant some of the worst culprits: Seyval, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. My new planting of Petit Manseng looks very promising with no rot in 2003 or 2004. But the vines are still young. In the long run I find that my best wines come from grapes that ripen under cool conditions. The whites are more aromatic and have great mineral acidity. The reds have deeper color, finer tannins and better aging potential. I am now trying to make new planting decisions based on what I perceive will make the best wines, rather than “market chasing” (planting the latest hot variety—Syrah, Pinot Grigio, and now Pinot Noir).

Managing the vineyard for quality

During the growing season I am striving to achieve uniform vine balance. Over time, as I get more experience, I treat each block differently. The number of shoots, leaves and clusters will vary by applying different canopy management regimes. The problem we have in this part of the world is rain and its influence on vine growth. I’m constantly trying to guess the weather in June and July, especially when it comes to leaf pulling and hedging.

At Linden we follow a regime of canopy management that is implemented by most premium winegrowers worldwide. It is not magic, it is not revolutionary, it is expensive, and it works. I have included the timing of each procedure according to vine development stage and the calendar (for a typical season in the mid Atlantic). We are not mechanized, so I have also included an approximation of the number of hours per acre required.

The goal is to have a canopy that is uniform, thin, and open to sun, air flow, and spray coverage. Worldwide these techniques have proven to produce the best wines possible from a given site. East of the Rockies we find that this not only produces outstanding wines, but also gives us the best tools to manage the fungus diseases and winter hardiness concerns that are not an issue to most of the rest of the grape growing world.

Pruning and dormant tying

The goal of pruning is to maintain the shape of the vine to conform to
a given training system, trellising, and canopy shape. It is also a rough, first attempt at crop control. Uniformity is the most important aspect. Distances between spurs or canes should spread the resulting shoots evenly along the trellis. Buds should all originate at the same height. “Climbing spurs” that can push their shoot growth into the upper extremes of the canopy should
be eliminated. Finally, balanced pruning, adjusting the number of buds left on each vine according to last year’s vigor can help remedy any inconsistencies within a given block. With all of this the goal is to begin the growing season with new shoots that are evenly distributed along the trellis wire and at the same level. Pruning and dormant tying times vary greatly according to training system, vine density and vine age. 30 to 60 hours per acre is our range at Linden.

Shoot thinning

Timing = when shoots are 4' to 8' in length (May).

The removal of undesirable shoots early in the season is absolutely necessary to maintain a uniform, light penetrating canopy. Our goals are to remove:

  • shoots at the base and trunk that will not be used for any trunk renewal (suckering)
  • unfruitful shoots (unless retained for future cane or spur renewal)—shoots growing in the wrong
  • direction for the training system (i.e. inward growing shoots in a GDC or Lyre system, or downward growing shoots in a VSP)
  • shoots from areas that are too dense in the canopy. We look for a density of 3 to 6 shoots per foot of trellis depending on the variety, vigor and yield goal. This, after pruning, is our second crop reduction technique. 5 to 10 hours per acre.

Shoot positioning

Timing = pre-bloom through the shoot elongation period (late May through July).

Even the most basic training systems need some sort of shoot positioning to maintain the desired shape. The 4 systems commonly used are:

  • tucking—two parallel “sandwich wires” are typically located about 18′ above the fruiting wire (in upward trained vines). At the right time the shoots are positioned or tucked between these two wires. As with all shoot positioning techniques, timing is critical.
  • tying—twine or tape is used to secure each shoot to the wires. This is very expensive in terms of labor, but also the most precise in achieving the most uniform canopy
  • movable catch wires. There are several systems that position shoots upwards during the growing system as wires are physically moved from the ground, and attached to the posts, lifting up wayward shoots.
  • combing—used on downward growing systems typically around bloom time, once the shoots become less fragile, but before the tendrils become too tenacious. Many shoots want to grow sideways, causing dense, unwieldy canopies. All shoots need to be straightened, or combed downwards to get uniformity of light and spray penetration.

Shoot positioning requires 20 to 60 hours per acre depending on the system and fastidiousness of the grower.

Leaf Pulling

Beginning 10 days after bloom (at shatter or mid-June in Virginia) and throughout
the season as needed.

The goal is to open up the area around the clusters for good air flow (drying), some sun penetration and spray coverage. The timing, intensity, and frequency depend on variety, rainfall, vigor, training system, and wine style goals. We first started leaf pulling in 1989 and our wine quality improved dramatically. I am still learning about timing and amount of pulling for each vineyard block and growing season. Leaf pulling seems to be especially important to good wine quality when vines are in their awkward, vigorous “teenage years” (5 to 10 years). We typically make one to three passes per season in an attempt to fine tune as the character of the season unfolds. 5 to 15 hours per acre per pass.


This begins once the shoots attain their maximum desired length (typically 4 to 5 feet or 12 to 15 leaves per shoot).

Mid-June to mid-July as needed (one to three passes needed, usually
rainfall dependent)—1 to 5 hours per acre per pass.

Cluster thinning/green harvest

Typically done just before or during veraison (mid-July to mid-August). The goal is to prevent excessive cropping of the vine (over cropping) and to eliminate
less ripe clusters. Over-cropped vines produce poorer quality wine and are more subject to winter damage and decline. There are no formulas as to the best yield per vine or per acre. Young vines, drought-stressed vines, and low vigor vines often have to be crop-thinned early in the season so that cluster formation does not compete with vine vigor. I prefer to wait as long as possible with “normal,” mature vines. I have found that if the clusters are removed just before or during
veraison, berry size is smaller, leading to less compact clusters and less rot. I can also better estimate the crop size, and I have a better feeling for the season and the vine’s ability to ripen its crop. Of course with red fruited varieties there is the extra advantage of cluster thinning at veraison, visually greener clusters can be removed to achieve more uniform ripening. 5 to 20 hours per acre.

In a typical year, If any one of these steps are ignored it will have a detrimental effect on quality. Labor costs alone can be well over $3,000 per acre. The winegrower has to be absolutely convinced that these methods will improve wine quality commensurate with the costs and effort. Then it can truly be said that the wine is made in the vineyard.

Paying for quality

Grapes are not the final product. The wine is. This is why I refer to myself and my growers as winegrowers, not grape growers. I have tried to evolve a contract in which both parties, winery and grower, have the same goals. I use the word “evolve” because our contracts change and are fine-tuned over time. Issues that are of most importance:

Quantity vs. quality. I am a firm believer that there is a correlation between crop yields and wine quality. The hard part is defining where the line is drawn. Tons per acre is a poor measurement of quantity, especially with so many different vineyard arrangements from training systems (Lyre vs. VSP) to row spacings (6 feet to 12 feet between rows) to varieties (Sauvignon Blanc vs. Cabernet Sauvignon). Lately I have been thinking in terms of pounds per foot of canopy. I
like to see about one pound of grapes per foot for my high quality reds and about 1.5 pounds for lighter white wines such as Seyval, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc.

Per Acre contracts. Because I feel so strongly about the quantity/quality issue, I now pay my growers per acre rather than by the ton. Linden pays between $8,000 and $9,000 per acre and it is up to me to determine canopy management techniques and crop levels. Typically red grapes come in at about 3 tons per acre and whites at 4 t/a. Being that we are growing grapes in the East, there are many exceptions to these yields. In 2003 we dropped a lot of fruit and ended up with much smaller yields. I still paid for the full acre of grapes. Viticulture is tough here, and if the winery is truly focused on good local grapes, they need to take some of the risk. If I want my growers to spend thousands of dollars a year in labor doing meticulous canopy management and stayin business, then I have to pay them appropriately.

Any vineyard is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with thousands of interconnecting pieces. I think the reason that I find winegrowing so attractive is that it is a humbling experience. One generation on one site is only the beginning.

Wine East, April 2005

Jim Law