A Sucker Born Every Minute

DSC_0509It is a truth universally acknowledged, that shoot growth in response to warm temperatures increases accordingly- and thus, a sucker is born every minute.

I know, you’re dying to find out what could possibly be the subject of that random mash-up of Jane Austen and P.T. Barnum (possibly inspired by a touch of heatstroke from the warm weather).

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I said, it has been rather warm with temperatures in the 80’s, and the warm temperatures make the new shoots grow like crazy.

simple equation: warm temperatures=crazy kids (I mean shoot growth)

Some varietals, such as Viognier and Sangiovese, like to throw shoots from the trunk- the area between the graft union and the crown of the vine. We call these shoots coming off of the trunk- wait for it- “suckers”. The buds on the trunk that have been dormant up until now decide to grow, thus necessitating another pruning of the vine.

So what’s wrong with the little suckers? Well, they aren’t called suckers for nothing- they literally suck away some of the water, energy and nutrients from the main part of the vine. We want the shoots that come off the cordon or canes to receive the energy and nutrients, not the trunk; this ensures even top growth and proper fruit development. If we let the suckers grow, we would have to put more fertilizer into the ground and the whole shebang becomes a nightmare to manage. We do the trunk suckering at this time as the shoots are still green and are easily removed by hand- just running a gloved hand over the areas with the suckers and brushing them off.

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If we wait another month or so to do this, we would need to break out those red-handled clippers to remove them- more labor intensive- and by that time, the suckers will have already drawn off some of the nutrients. Are there machines that can do this? Of course, there are machines that can do anything, but like many things that keep machines from making people obsolete, they cannot do as good a job as good old human elbow grease. The machines have a greater chance of damaging the outside bark of the vine and are not as thorough as hand suckering. When you have a large production vineyard, the ability to get through the pruning in a timely matter makes the machines desirable, but the size of our sweet little piece of paradise doesn’t warrant it.

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So, at Naggiar, a sucker may not be born every minute, but they do die about every 20 seconds (in an 8 hr day).

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A job well done. Death to the suckers!

 * On a side note,  I will no longer be using this wordpress address- we have a slick new website at naggiarvineyards.com that is through wordpress.  Supposedly, every one following me has been imported to the new site, but my last post was a little quiet, so I’m putting this out there to cover my bases 🙂

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Oh, Hail No!

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What a difference a couple of months makes.  Back in January, we were sunny and 70’s, looking at the probability of extreme water rationing.  I devoted a post to the rain deficit and it’s consequences and subsequent posts made a plea for rain.  It seems to have worked (sure, I’ll take some of the credit) as due to about 6 good storms since February, we are at our 19 year normal starting January 1, 2014 to today and already have more rain than we had all of last year.  While we are not completely out of the woods, the rain has certainly helped us breath a sigh of relief.

Ah-not so fast.

As I have mentioned, due to that lovely spell of mild weather (oh, the irony), we are 2-3 weeks ahead  of schedule on the growing season and already have one to four inches of new growth on the vines, which means there are definite, visible leaves.   The problem is, precipitation at this time of year has a good likelihood of coming down as hail, or even snow- neither of which is good for the young, tender leaves.

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This is what it looked like in Napa today.  I passed 3 car accidents in-between 2 exits on the highway.  Yes, those from outside of California are allowed to scoff.

As I write this, my dog is whining and cowering under the covers, due to the loud thunderstorm outside.  And, yes, with this thunderstorm came quite a bit of hail.  I’m sure you’ve seen the damage that the mid-west variety of hail can do to cars, so you can imagine what even pea-sized hail can do to tender leaves.  Not only will it punch holes through the leaves, but will also snap the terminal end of the vulnerable shoots.  This means secondary growth will start to compensate for the damage, leading to an uneven canopy later in the year.  In some cases, the damage can be so bad that the vineyard is completely denuded of green growth.

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The other white stuff we worry about is snow.  To have snow, you need freezing temperatures and I’ve gone over the dangers of frost in a previous post if you’re in the mood to revisit the subject.  A light dusting wouldn’t be the end of the world, but just two to three inches could cause entire shoots to snap off.  What it boils down to, no shoots, no grapes.  While snow is an unlikely event during April at Naggiar, with the crazy weather we have been having, anything is possible.  Just more things to keep a vineyard manager from a good night’s sleep during the spring.

Still, we prayed for rain- I guess we can’t complain about what form it takes!

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Shocking New Developments

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(courtesy psychologytoday)

I know, the title comes off sounding like some cheesy spam email you may get or random suggested Facebook post like “learn the shocking truth about so-and-so’s fast weight loss”- but admit it, you were curious to see what it was about.  We do have a new development here at Naggiar- our “shockingly” awesome new website.  It contains all you would ever want or need to know about Naggiar Vineyards and Winery contained in one beautiful, user-friendly package, and most importantly, it makes it much easier for you to find and read my blog.  But, this post isn’t about the new website- yes, shocking, isn’t it.  We are on the verge of releasing our first 2013 vintages- they have been bottled, ready to go, so they be released in May.  What!?  The wine is bottled- why can’t we sell it now?  The reason…bottle shock.

(not the movie, silly)

“Bottle shock” or “bottle sickness” is how we describe what happens to the wine when it goes through the bottling process.  The process of bottling is very hard on the wine- think of it as a Tough Mudder for wine- but without any training time.

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 It’s a literal “shock” to the system- the wine is very different from when it came from the barrel or tank before bottling.  If you were to try the wines within a week or two of bottling,  they may come across as flat, limp, lacking many aromatics except for the unwanted stink of sulfur- just how one might feel and smell after doing a Tough Mudder untrained.  All of these things are a direct result of the bottling process.

So, what is it about bottling that makes it such a shock to the wine?  A big part of it is our ubiquitous friend, oxygen.  A few posts back, I talked about oxygen and it’s role in aging and while in barrel, oxygen is our friend.  During bottling, not so much.  Even a small amount of oxygen contact is enough to throw the wine out of whack.  Aside from doing a bottling in an oxygen-free, hermetically sealed container wearing hazmat suits, which, let’s face it, would  be very expensive and quite uncomfortable, the only option is to let that wine settle for a few weeks until the oxygen binds with the sulfur (like how I snuck that chemistry in?)  to allow the remaining aromatic qualities to come back into harmony.  Of course, this process is completely normal because good things come to those who wait!

And boy howdy, do we have something worth the wait!  The winemaker has assured me that the 2013 vintage is a stellar-one to remember.  The fun kicks off Friday, May 16th with our Wine Club Members Only event- perfect excuse to join the club if you haven’t already yet- in the Tasting Room from 5-9 p.m.  Wine Club members will be able to taste and purchase new release wines before the general public while listening to some fab music from Midnight Sun.   The wines being released- drumroll please… 2013 Viognier, 2013 Mamma Mia, 2013 Bellissima, 2013 Rose’, and 2011 Syrah.  The party continues Saturday May 17th with the New Release Party from 1-4 p.m. in the Tasting Room.  There will be the new release wines for tasting and purchase, music by Ivan Najera, food, and carriage rides- all that’s missing is a visit from the Queen!

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So, don’t let a little bottle shock talk scare you away- mark your calendar for mid-May to be among the first to try the first vintage wines of 2013- the best vintage in several years. Bonus if you can make it up to Naggiar for the New Release celebration!  Mike and Diane would love to see you.

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And if you were counting, I used shock/shocking, a shocking 12 times- crazy!

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Starting Spring Break

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Alas, the vines have beaten me to spring break.  While mine starts at the end of this week- Saturday evening to be precise- the vines have been whooping it up for the last week or so.  If you are offended by pictures of vines letting it all hang out during their spring break (i.e. bud break) you might want to turn off your computer- it may get graphic.

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This is our Viognier in bud break.  We are 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule, which, on the upside, means an earlier-than-normal harvest, but on the downside, a longer time that the vines are vulnerable to frost.  If the weather keeps up, this has the potential to be a really good harvest.

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Speaking of frost, this is our Sangiovese planted near Mike’s house at the top of the hill.  As it is planted on higher ground, it is not in the frost danger zone- think, heat rises, and thus, the cool air falls to the lowest part of the property, where we have a sprinkler system in place to help combat the lower temperatures.  There can be an 8 degree temperature difference between the highest and lowest parts of the property.

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Bud break on the Tempranillo

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Gratuitous cute canine picture.  Jessie making like the cows and buffalos on the property and grazing.  And no, it’s not pretty picture on the way back home to Napa.

And that’s it, our version of Vines Gone Wild- Spring Break Edition!

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Magnificent Malbec

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Weekends, for me, aside from driving four kids to four different sports activities, are the time I try to come up with a new and fascinating topic for the following Wednesday’s post.  This week’s post on Malbec came courtesy of “Steak Sunday” at the Irwin household.  I guess in opposition to “Meatless Monday” my youngest (a rabid carnivore) came up with the antidote of  “Steak Sunday” a few months ago, and woe to any of us who try to suggest an alternative beast. While he is too young to fully enjoy the blissful combination of a good Malbec with a nice juicy rib-eye, the adult contingent certainly does, and so our spotlight varietal (thank-you Flynn) Malbec.

Originally from France and still grown there in Cahors, Malbec is probably more well-known outside of its original geography- I’ll give you three guesses as to which country it’s associated with- and the first two don’t count.  While we here in California tend to think the New World wine industry revolves around us- and some great Malbecs do come out of here- I’m sure the country that popped into your head when you read Malbec, was Argentina.

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Argentina has definitely made Malbec its own and produces a wide and wonderful array of Malbec wines and blends.  The same growing conditions in the high altitudes around Mendoza (the primary wine-producing region of Argentina) that help produce such renowned Malbecs are also found here in the Sierra Foothills around Naggiar.  Well-drained soils, relatively low humidity, and a lot of sunlight allow for this varietal to fully mature its tannins and the green, angular, sour, rough edges you might get in cooler conditions.  Hmm, that doesn’t sound too good- in fact, it may give you a “bad mouth” feel, or….. mal bec (like how I snuck that in?)  Like the venerable hot dog, that is just one of the stories of how Malbec came by its name.  Did I just mention hot dogs and Malbec in the same sentence?

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We have two blocks of Malbec at Naggiar- and pulling from last week- they have been trained  in two separate fashions, one on a bilateral cordon and the other on the rotator.  Since I see a question looming on why the same varietal is trained two different ways, the older Malbec was trained in the bilateral cordon fashion that is typical for a Bordeaux varietal.  However, we found that the fruit was not ripening evenly and getting burned with this type of trellising, so the more recently planted Malbec is on a more shade-friendly rotator system.  When it’s time for harvest, our Malbec usually comes in the middle of harvest.  We ferment it in French Oak with its indigenous yeast, press it while it’s still fermenting and finish both primary and secondary fermentations in barrel. From here, the wine remains on the lees anywhere from 4 to 9 months, depending on the vintage.

You can find Malbec at Naggiar in our Bordeaux blends and also as a stand-alone varietal (the 2010 vintage winning best Malbec award at the 2013 San Diego Intl. Wine Competition, I might add).  As I mentioned, it pairs well with grilled beef and looking toward Easter, with lamb as well.  So, you have two great options to break out the Malbec- Easter Sunday or Steak Sunday.  A note on that from the winemaker- grill that meat to rare or medium rare, over REAL fire, not gas, for a magnificent, Malbecian (I’m sure that’s a word) meal.

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This Is How We Do It

In writing last week’s post, I missed an adverb- kind of, sort of.  I had the Who (Naggiar), What (pruning), When (starting last week), Where (the vineyards starting around the pond and winery),  Why (to set up for a healthy growing season), but I stopped short of the How.  The how’s of pruning could easily fill a year’s worth of my once-a-week posts, let alone add on to a post that was already at 700 words (about 150 words past where my eyes start to glaze over).  To shorten it from a dissertation to a more manageable post, I will go over pruning styles we use at Naggiar.  So cue music… this is how we do it.

At Naggiar, we use four different pruning methods that give us four different trellis types.  We use predominantly single and double curtain types (pictures and description to follow) but also use rotator type and cane pruning.  These trellis types work best at Naggiar for multiple reasons- vigor of the vines, desired crop load, exposure to sun, varietals grown.  Single curtain, also known as VSP (vertical shoot position) has a single cordon (arm) going off both sides of the trunk (bilateral).  On the cordon, there are multiple spurs (fingers) that over time get longer and longer.  It is off these spurs that the buds develop becoming the shoots of the vine.

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This is bi-lateral spur pruning

We are working away from the single curtain VSP- currently, we use it on our Bordeaux varietals.

The double curtain is essentially two of the single curtains.

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When we are looking for higher production or we are dealing with more vigorous rootstock, we use the double curtain.

The rotator is used where we try to mimic a head-trained vine (no cordons, just spurs coming off the trunk of the vine- think old-school vines), but with a more efficient use of space.  Spurs come off the cordon first in one direction, then the other and then back again.

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When we are dealing with well-balanced vines that require a lot of airflow and dappled light, we use rotator.

The cane pruned vine is where fresh one year old wood is turned over every year, never developing the longer spurs.

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The little bit of cane pruning we have on the property is planted with our Muscat Canelli.

There you have it- the How in just over 400 words.  Although if a picture is worth a thousand words, then I’m at 7407.

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Pruning Part Deux

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After a lull of about a month and a half, we’re gettin’ busy in the vineyards again.  This week we are starting our second and final pass at pruning.  There is a science to both where we prune and how we prune, but as you know my stance on science-the simpler, the better- we’ll leave out any bifurcation, C4H6O6, vitis vinifera, Assmanhaussen (yes, that’s a real word), and giraffa camelopardalis (ok, that last one’s a giraffe- I was a zoology major).

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photo courtesy National Geographic

There might be a few vocabulary words involved, but I promise to tell you what they mean.

There is definitely a method to determining where to start pruning first.  Naggiar vineyards is a beautiful property with so many positives, however, susceptibility to frost is not one of them.  Our schedule for pruning relies on avoiding as much frost potential as possible.  So, for pruning, we want to start with the areas that will be least affected by frost.  The area around the pond and winery, where our Muscat, Roussane, Marsanne, and Cabernet Franc is grown,  is protected with a sprinkler system (our anti-frost technology), so that is where we begin.  From there, we move up the hill, starting with later-to-bud break varietals and finish with the earlier-to-bud break varietals.  This seemed counterintuitive to me, but taking the frost in consideration- the earlier you prune, the earlier bud break will occur- so early bud break varietals would be extra early.  We want to delay bud break as much as possible to avoid as much frost as possible.  In fact, other vineyards- especially those in Napa- are able to complete pruning much earlier, as most of them have anti-frost measures ( wide-spread sprinkler systems, wind machines) in place.  But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

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How we do the pruning is an even more crucial component- how we perform our final pruning will dictate how strong of a start we get and how much fruit we will produce, not only this year, but also next year’s fruit load as well.  We adjust our pruning on a vine-by- vine basis- looking at how we performed overall last year and how wet (or dry in this case) the winter was.  It’s at this time we will re-position the cordons (the arms of the vine),  adjust spur positions (the spikes coming off the cordons) and do a little Eutypa (a type of fungus) control so you end up with something looking like this:

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And yes, unfortunately, vines used in this process are harmed- we actually make them weep!  Before you go calling VPS (vine protective services), it’s actually good to do pruning when the “sap is running” (hence the weeping).  The sap flowing is a sign the vine is waking up.  Let’s use a little simple human physiology (my zoology degree speaking here) to explain this.  Say you cut your finger with a dirty cheese knife- it happens.  Bacteria are on every surface and now they are in your finger.  Your blood, along with providing clotting to close the wound, initially helps flush the area, so the bacteria have less of a chance for going deep into the wound to create bacterial havoc.  The same is true with vines- if you prune when the sap is not running, any bacteria, fungus (such as Eutypa) etc. present on your shears or in the vicinity of the vine will get into the cut and with no sap to help flush it, has a greater chance of leading to an “infection”.  Just like blood, the sap will drip a bit, but then will start to build up to form a sort of scab- so none of the nasty stuff can get back in.

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 Pretty cool human/vine analogy if I do say so myself.

We will be going through this process for the next 3-4 weeks with a group of 10-14 workers with a high tolerance for monotony, but with an acute attention to detail.  Every year is unique and what we do this year will be a little different from other years.  And everything we do this year will affect next year’s performance also, so this is a very crucial time in many ways.  Before you know it, we will be into bud break (and hoping for no frost), on our way to the 2014 vintage.

FYI- if you are curious, an Assmanshaussen is not a dirty word, but a type of yeast strain.  Gotta love the German language!

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Is This Age-Appropriate?

As I mentioned last week, we just finished our first rack and returns of the 2013 vintage- a process the wine will undergo 2 to 8 more times during its time in barrel.  This time in barrel is where the true magic begins through what we call the aging process.

WINE AGING- GOOD!  PEOPLE AGING-MEH…

Ok, so the magic I refer to is mainly chemistry- which I don’t find particularly magical, more migraine-producing-so I will try to keep some of the magic and minimize the chemistry.  It all starts with that giver of life, the all-important element of oxygen.

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 Being that a barrel is not a hermetically sealed container, oxygen seeps into the barrels at a rate of 2-5 ml/L per year- depending on the thickness and type of wood used for the barrel.    Oxygen is also available to the wine in the small amount of air-space that occurs between the opening of the barrel and the surface of the wine or the “ullage” (they have a name for everything). This ingress of oxygen causes changes in color, bouquet, structure and stability in the wine.  Chemistry alert!  There are many different, specific, complex reactions that occur when oxygen is exposed to the wine (uh oh, I feel a headache coming on…).  Magic alert!  The oxygen combines with oxidizable and reducing substances already in the wine resulting in the color of the wine to stabilize,  the bouquet to bloom, and the phenolic components to intensify and mature.  Phew, I can put away the Advil away now.

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This is just the basic reaction- your cooperage ultimately affects how these reactions play out.  Each forest from where the oak to make the barrels comes from (if you want more info on this, I did a post about a year ago on barrels) will give its own flavor and supporting tannin components.  Grain density will dictate how much interaction there will be with oxygen.  All of these variables along with size of the barrels, toasting will all have different impacts on the wine.

For Naggiar specifically, we age all of our reds in barrels, both large format (130-150 gallons to 540 gallons) and the standard 60 gallon barrel.  We use different sized barrels, different coopers, different forests, different grain types, and different toast levels for different varietals and programs (that must be a record for the use of the word different in one sentence).  All of our barrels are 2-3 year air-seasoned barrels and we never toast our heads- but hey, to each his own.  We use predominately French Oak at a ratio of 30% new to 70% used.  We do use a small amount of American Oak.  And before you go presuming that French Oak is superior to American Oak- it isn’t- it just happens to work with our varietals and barrel regimen (how we first go to barrel, longevity in barrels, size of barrels, flavor and tannins we are looking for).  Go team USA!

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So, take away lesson, oxygen is a magical, miraculous element that helps wine become the  magical, miraculous beverage that it is.  And if you want anti-aging, it’s great for facials!  And yeah, we kind of need it to live so we can drink wine (maybe, while we are getting a facial.)

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Racking My Brain For A Subject

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I try to have my posts follow what it going on at the winery, in the vineyards, even California as a whole, which usually works out pretty well- except now that I have passed my one year anniversary, I run the risk of redundancy.  This week, we are doing our first bottling of the year, and being that I have already covered bottling, way, way back, I had to rack my brain for another topic.  Hmm, rack my brain… I just had to see what we were doing the week before when I was talking viruses and voila- we were doing “rack and returns”.  Pretty convenient, huh?

So what do I mean by rack and returns?  A rack and return is basically a decanting of wine on a very large scale.  We transfer the wine from barrel to tank and then back to barrel, taking every precaution possible to ensure that we leave all of the sediment on the bottom of the barrels.  Once we have removed the wine from the barrels, we discard the lees

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(that yummy-looking gook on the bottom of the barrels made up primarily of dead yeast cells) rinse the barrels of any remaining lees and tartrate crystals, and steam the barrels seven minutes to take care of any malingering bacteria or yeast, and bonus- no harsh chemicals involved.  The barrels are then allowed to dry overnight.  We flip them over the following morning and smell each barrel- if they smell like a toasted oak barrel, we are good to go, if it smells as if the barrels have run a couple of laps around the vineyard during the night, then it’s time for another bath.

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There are a few reasons why we do rack and returns:  decanting (already mentioned this), cleaning the barrels (that one too), aeration (getting to it) and homogenization or blending (I’m on it).  As for the blending, while the barrels are drying, the winemaker tastes through the blended lot in tank, performs necessary analysis (free SO2, pH, and volatile acidity) and at that point determines whether we return the wine to the same barrels or change up the cooperage to enhance the wine.  As for aeration, the wine is automatically aerated through the process of racking.  This is helpful for blowing off some of the fermentative aromas, particularly in the current vintage as well as helping to stabilize the wine.

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This current round of rack and returns will take 3-4 weeks to complete. The whole process occurs anywhere from two to eight times over a wine’s life in barrel, this being determined by the harvest, varietal, and program the wine is designated for.  So with this much-needed super-soaking we’ve received over the last few days, all I can say is       “Rack On Man!”

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Is There A Doctor In The House?

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It’s that time of year- going into your kid’s classroom and seeing three-quarters of them with gook coming out of their noses,  daily news reports on the flu epidemic, loading up on ibuprofen and Nyquil- virus season.  All of the talk about the extra-severe flu season this year had me thinking-hmm, potential blog post- what happens when our plant friends are infected with a virus?  I went to the winemaker with this question and he got a strange gleam in his eye, but knowing better now, gave me the highlights on an expansive, yet fascinating  subject.  And by all means, if there is something you want covered more in-depth, just comment and I’d be happy to get you the answer.

One of the biggest challenges a winegrower must deal with (aside from lack of rain) is the health of the vineyard.  Vines, like humans, are susceptible to different viruses that can range in severity.  Some are minor (think common cold) causing subtle variations in leaf color and growth and others (think Smallpox virus) that can cause vine death.  The intensity of the symptoms depends on multiple factors- availability of water, cultural practices,  and the clone and rootstock you have chosen.  However, symptoms themselves can make diagnosis difficult- while some symptoms are diagnostic in nature,  many can look like each other so the virus causing them is not clear. In many cases, the symptoms may not exhibit themselves for years- like an extremely long incubation period- and so, just because there is an absence of symptoms,  this does not mean the grapevines are free of virus.

As of now, there are over 60 different viruses that vines are susceptible to.  The most famous, nee’ infamous virus outbreak in recent memory was the Phylloxera infestation of the 90’s that hammered the grape growing industry and resulted in massive re-plantings (a blessing in disguise- future blog post alert!)

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Leaf with symptomatic Phylloxera

Phylloxera occurred because of the susceptibility of a particular rootstock designated with the code AXR#1- so don’t pick that a password or anything because it’s unlucky!  While viruses like Phylloxera and Nepovirus tell you nothing about about the damage they inflict on the vine, others have more descriptive names telling you exactly what they are up to:  Fan Leaf Degeneration, Leaf Roll, Corky Bark, Ruepestris Stem Pitting, and most recently, Red Blotch.

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Rupestris Stem Pitting

The bad news is once the vineyard has a virus, there is nothing you can do to get rid of it, short of ripping out all of the infected vines- no taking 2 aspirin, eating some chicken soup and waiting it out.  The best way to deal with viruses is to avoid them all together- hey, the best offense is a good defense- just ask the Seahawks.  The best way to start is to try to ensure you have clean material when planting a vineyard- something that takes time, patience and a reputable nursery to work with.  As with human viruses, you want to keep the virus from spreading.  With vines, it’s not about coughing into your elbow, washing your hands and refraining from sneezing in someone’s face, it’s all about the vectors.  A vector is the catch-all term for any pest that aids in transmitting viruses from vine to vine.  Any wine-growing region will be glad to put you on the alert for the glassy-wing sharp-shooter, a pest responsible for spreading the virus that causes Pierce’s Disease.  There are also mealy bugs and root lice- the pest responsible for the spread of Phylloxera.

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Glassy wing Sharpshooter                     Mealy bug                                          Root louse

When pest vector infestation is particularly heavy, fumigation with various nematicides and insecticides may be needed.  Knowing where you are planting and using the correct rootstocks is tremendously helpful overall, as well.  The good news is although almost all vineyards end up with some sort of virus that will cause vine death in the end, the vines can still be productive for a long time despite the viral infection.  We all gotta go sometime, and can’t ask too much more than being able to do what you’re meant to do for as long as possible.

On a happier note, I’m sure you’ve all heard the good news that we finally got some precipitation and have more in the forecast!  Now, I’m not saying it was all me, but I did wash my car and the rain started two days later…

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