Saturday, July 30, 2011

Helping out at Chaine d'Or

Last weekend Paul and Stef of Stefania Wine asked for volunteers to help out at the Chaine d'Or vineyard in Woodside, so on a glorious Sunday morning I drove up to lend a hand. Chaine D'or is located close to the junction of 84 and 35 (Skyline). It's a pretty 2 acre vineyard on a south facing slope, planted in 1987. The upper and lower blocks are Chardonnay, with a block of Cabernet in between. It is laid out in rows running north-south at the top, gradually curving to almost east-west in the lower part. The vineyard uses the Vertical Shoot Position trellising system which originated in France and is now common practice, particularly up in Napa and Sonoma, but at the time its use in California was considered novel. In Chaine d'Or there is a single lower wire around 3' off the ground to which the vine's cordons are trained. Above it are two pairs of catch wires which are fixed (in some vineyards they can be raised and lowered, but not here) and at the top, around 7' up there's a single wire that the vine's tendrils can latch on to.
The rootstock is unknown; it was whatever the nursery had in at the time. Paul's guess was St. George since that was popular then, though the leaves don't seem to match.

View of Chaine d'Or vineyard looking south. Morning fog burning off the mountains.
I arrived a little after 9AM. The crew had already started; some had been there since early morning. We were tucking the vine shoots under the catch wires as well as removing suckers and shoots without any clusters. (The grapes are fed by the leaves further down the shoot; any shoots without fruit simply use up nutrients and water.)
As you can see by the first picture, left untouched the vines will grow in all directions and their tendrils will wrap around those of vines in the next row, making passage difficult. This also provides an environment where powdery mildew can proliferate. Once tucking is complete the vines can be treated by spraying with organic sulphur.
Finished rows of vines. Workers and tractors can move easily between the rows.
Suckers are shoots emanating from the base of the plant.
In this case the sucker is coming from below the graft,
so the leaves are those of the original rootstock (left).
Compare size and shape that of the grafted Chardonnay.
Vineyard work is, like most forms of farming, pretty laborious. The essential tools are sunscreen and water; a hat is advisable and pruning shears come in handy.

The job was straightforward; feed the flexible shoots under the two sets of catch wires and point them at the upper wire. The shoots are flexible and rarely break by accident, unlike the brittle stems of many garden plants like tomatoes. It all seems very simple and relaxing; just you, the vines, a nice warm day and the constant scream of motorcycles tearing up and down Skyline; it sounded more like Laguna Seca than sleepy Woodside. The work doesn't seem particularly strenuous, but I certainly noticed the effects in my back and shoulders later that evening!

The vines were on the whole looking healthy; most of them are over 20 years old and a few are showing signs of common diseases, such as shoots with red, shriveled leaves.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a later maturing grape,
so it was largely unaffected by the weather;
the clusters looked to be in much better shape.
Sadly the Chardonnay crop appeared to be exceptionally small; it's doubtful that there will be enough fruit for a commercial release.

It may surprise some of  you to know that this year's crop is not determined by the weather at the time of flowering (though obviously that can have an effect) but by the weather the previous spring. That's when the buds which would produce this year's crop developed. Spring 2010 was particularly cold, with lots of late frost, and it's likely that Chardonnay yields across the state will be significantly lower in 2011.

We called a halt at around 2PM after a good 4 hours of work. We still hadn't quite finished; there were a few rows left, but Paul's day crew would take care of them the following morning.

Overall it was an enjoyable way to spend a summer morning, but for a deskbound computer geek like me it's hard to imagine doing this on a daily basis. The next time you look at a neatly manicured vineyard remember that it doesn't get that way by itself; spare a thought for the humble labourers, and raise a glass to them.