I’m now used to the puzzled looks in reaction to my declaration that pruning is my favorite vineyard activity. So I’ve been working on an explanation that makes sense of it all.
The three months of November, December, and January are my least active time in the vines. This is just as well as both parties need a rest. In February, as the days lengthen and temperatures moderate, there is a magnetic pull to the vineyard. It is a sort of reunion. After months of cellar work, firewood, desk-work and relaxation, my focus returns to the vines. Just walking a few rows I am reminded of the previous growing season. Last year was very dry and it shows in the vines, as the canes are smaller and shorter than normal.
But it is not until the pruning starts in earnest that we really get reacquainted in an intimate way with the vines. Each vine is an individual and needs to be evaluated for both form and function. Form refers to the shape of the vine. There should be some consistency of a system so that any experience pruner can “read’ the vine and know how to approach the pruning. Over the years vines can grow out of a given desired shape and they may need to be severely cut back in order to reestablish form. Most people have trouble doing this because it is drastic and reduces yields in the short run. I however love it and find it intellectually challenging. This is why I try to focus more on older “problem” blocks.
Next is pruning for function, also referred to as balanced pruning. Each vine has a vigor and yield potential that can be quickly determined by looking at last year’ growth. Cane numbers, their size, internode length, lateral production are evaluated. Then the vine is pruned accordingly. For weak vines only a handful of buds are retained with the goal of rejuvenating their strength. Moderate vines are pruned classically with great satisfaction. Excessively strong vines are problematic and may require leaving extra “parts” to channel all the vigor, which never ends well, is tough to manage during the growing season, and usually produces poor quality grapes.
There is a certain degree of excitement and challenge as one moves slowly down a vineyard row from one vine to the next. Both the pruning shears and the mind need to be sharp. Once we are “in the groove” we prune one vine every one or two minutes. No time to linger over decision-making. Gut feel and intuition prevail.