Photo by Aaron Pott
At the end of winter as mustard flowers in the vine-rows, it is time to get out and prune. Pruning is my favorite task in the vineyard. It is one of the few labors that I have found to be creative and meditative at the same time.
Pruning also signals the beginning of the vineyard season: Last year's growth is cut back to a minimum and the vine is given the signal that it is time to start the process all over again. It is the time when you are closest to the vine, where you really get to know the unique quirks and shapes of almost each individual plant.
Pruning is very artistic. Like a sculpture, you are defining the appearance of the vine not only for the next vintage but marking it for its entire life. Pruning is the initial work that will define the quality of the vintage as well as the vigor of the vine and yields.
Those that prune well take great pride in their work. I remember a great oaf of a man named Michel who worked at La Tour Figeac, and every year he would enter a pruning competition locally, whose finalists would advance to a regional competition. If they were really good, they would advance to the finals for a chance to earn the "golden secateurs," crowning them the best pruner in France.
Humongous Michel, his fingers the size of Idaho potatoes, won it one year. He would bring the golden pruning shears, secured to a plaque, down from their place of honor above the kitchen stove so those around could nod and genuflect with reverence.
When I would prune with Michel he would remind me every five minutes that he had won the golden secateurs, reminiscent of friends of mine who went to Harvard who are able to put that in the first sentence of every time they meet a stranger. When one day I criticized Michel's technique, pointing out that his cuts were too close to the vine and caused the wood to dry out in the vine, thus restricting sap flow, he didn't talk to me for two weeks.
Weeks later I noticed that Michel had adopted my technique. One year later, when we started to prune again he reminded me,"Don't forget about the drying cones, Aaron!" and went directly into the story of his victory in the finals of the pruning competition. It eventually took on the feel of the final scene in the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with Michel as an oversized Clint Eastwood.
Michel could prune well and thought he was very fast and efficient, but he would be fired in a day if he tried to work on a migrant pruning crew in the Napa Valley, where speed is paramount. They are magic to watch as they fly down the rows, stripping the vines of their canes like Achilles on a chariot leveling Trojans on the battle fields of Prium.
For me, pruning is a family operation and everyone participates in the work. While I prune, my wife Claire aids my 76-year-old mother Enid in pulling off the cut wood that has entangled itself in the wires while our friend Nico bends and ties the canes to the wire. My two-year-old daughter bundles the wood, which we will use to barbecue in the summer. There is nothing better than an excellent steak, lamb, salmon or grilled vegetables cooked with vine canes.
Photo by Aaron Pott
Pruning is also a bit of a Tom Sawyer-fence-painting exercise at my house. We entice people to come to the house by advertising a "boozy" lunch and, when they arrive, we put pruning shears into their hands and send them out the door for a few hours to earn their keep. One of our victims, Alison Frictl, actually wanted to learn the fine art of pruning and had contacted me two months prior in order to reserve a spot on a list that I tried to make sound extensive and exclusive.
The pruning technique that we use is called a "modified double Guyot". It was invented by a Dr. Jules Guyot, who was sent out by Napoleon III over a five-year period to do an agricultural study of France. He is known not only for his cane pruning systems but also for a variety of pear: the Dr. Guyot.
The modified double Guyot consists of two long canes of one-year-old wood with six to eight buds on them growing off of two year old wood. The vine also has a two short, two-bud canes or spurs below the two canes and closer into the vine that helps to establish the long canes for next year and maintain a tight and compact shaped vine. One or both of these spurs can be omitted if the canes are close to the vine and well below the fruiting wire.
Just as the sun touched the top of Mt. Veeder, Alison closed in on the last vine and we were done. It is incredible what you can achieve by giving a little bit of wine to your friends. Finished at last.