A look at Sonoma’s vineyards during pruning season

In Sonoma, winter is a time of restoration.

Nourishing rains turn the golden hills and meadows of autumn into emerald velvet. The redwood forests remain shrouded in morning mist, occasionally giving way to bright afternoon sunshine. On the coast, the gray-blue ocean vibrates with the rhythmic crash of the waves on otherwise calm beaches. And across the county, our 60,000 acres of vineyards lie dormant after harvest. Leaves have fallen from the vines, exposing bare canes and trunks – thin and smooth on young plantings, thick and gnarled on old vines.

On these balmy days, it’s easy to imagine the cellar workers enjoying a well-deserved rest. Except that winter signals the start of a very important annual task: pruning. More than a job, proper pruning is an art, learned over many years of hands-on experience, and it’s a key step in creating the extraordinary wines our region is known for.

“Pruning is the first major decision we make in the vineyard for the new crop,” says Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. “This is a critical moment that is often overlooked by the public, as it slowly unfolds in the background, as we prune last year’s spent shoots to focus the vine’s energy on budding potential. new grapes.”

For the teams of winegrowers who face these long weeks of grueling work, pruning can also mean a time of rejuvenation. Walking down a row of vines, at a slower pace than at harvest time, becomes a kind of meditation, enhanced by the rich, moist smell of healthy soil, the echoes of falcons and other wild animals, and the methodical shear blow. .

“Size is actually more important than harvest, as it determines the quality of the fruit for the next harvest season,” says Enrique Reyes, vineyard manager at Dutcher Crossing Winery in Geyserville. “But the crew can take their time, unlike the harvest, where you have to remove the fruit from the vine very quickly.”

A winter pruning crew walks through one of the terraced vineyard blocks at the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. (Rebecca Gosselin)

Shaping a future harvest

Some vineyard managers begin pruning in December, while others spread the work out over January, February, or even early March, depending on vineyard location, weather, and vine variety. Choosing when to make the first cuts of the season requires careful thought. “When you see all the vines with leaves still a little bit green, they’re still working,” says Marco Garcia, vineyard manager at Capo Creek Ranch in Healdsburg. “When all the leaves have fallen, they are closed. If you cut before they go to sleep, you’ve broken them.

This can be a tricky decision, as any surprise frost or rain can also damage freshly pruned vines. “Mother Nature has the last word,” says Chris Benziger.

Pruning dictates how much harvest a vine will bear over the coming season, and more grapes are not always the best choice. “There are so many things to think about as you go along,” says Garcia. “Each vine is individual, like a person. So you look at each – this vine looks a little weak, so it needs a little less fruit. This vine looks strong, so it can handle more spurs.

Vineyard manager Marco Garcia of Capo Creek Ranch in Healdsburg carefully prunes the Old Vine Zinfandel. (Rebecca Gosselin)
Vineyard manager Marco Garcia of Capo Creek Ranch in Healdsburg carefully prunes the Old Vine Zinfandel. (Rebecca Gosselin)

Pruning sets the course for a vine’s success, even decades into the future. “Visitors don’t understand how important pruning is,” says Bob Covert, owner of Capo Creek Ranch, who often leads winery guests to the vineyards, which span 20 acres of plains and hillsides. of Dry Creek Valley. “I stop at our old vine Zinfandels, then some of our new plants and explain how they are pruned differently to establish certain habitats. We’re creating the form that will last a lifetime, so we have to ask ourselves, “Do we want a little more cropping or a little less cropping?” Everyone is fascinated by all the things you try to accomplish with pruning.

Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen. (Rebecca Gosselin)
Grazing sheep, raised at Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, ensure ecological management of the vineyard. (Rebecca Gosselin)

Fifty vines an hour

“Our crews are 15 to 20 people, and they’ve been with us for decades,” says Chris Benziger, who operates wineries on the Sonoma Mountain, in the Russian River Valley and along the Sonoma Coast. “It’s important to have that institutional knowledge,” he says, “because with pruning, we look back to predict the future.”

At Dutcher Crossing Winery, Reyes typically sends a team of ten in January, wrapping things up in about two weeks on the winery’s 35 acres. Meanwhile, only three workers run the Capo Creek vineyards, taking about six weeks to complete the meticulous work. They start with more vigorous and later vines to protect the most delicate from unexpected frosts.

A pruning crew at Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. (Rebecca Gosselin)

A talented pruner can tackle 40 to 50 vines per hour, even if he takes the time necessary to study each vine. Most wineries encourage crews to take frequent breaks from what is extraordinarily taxing work on the muscles of the hands, arms and back. And many crews organize communal lunches with barbecues or a la plancha tacos prepared right in the vineyard, alongside the ever-growing piles of freshly cut canes.

“Of course, we always have to keep a time sequence in a vineyard block,” Covert explains. “Once you start, you want to finish, because you set the tone for bud break and fruit. You want regular ripening.

Garcia has been carving for 18 years and says he’s still learning, especially as the weather and climate change. “You need experience, especially to prune old vines,” he says. “You need to know how many spurs you can leave and still ripen – old vines are more secretive about their plans for the coming year. Being perfect in size takes a lot, a lot of time.

A team of pruners from the Dutcher Crossing Winery in Geyserville take a break to prepare lunch together. (Rebecca Gosselin)
Master winemaker René Muñoz has worked with the Kunde family since the early 1990s. (Rebecca Gosselin)

Immerse yourself in nature

For those who understand the season, it is currently one of the most beautiful and exciting times of the year in the vineyard. “Compared to the harvest, the size is totally different,” says Garcia. “It’s kind of relaxed, and you really enjoy it. Everywhere you look is green. We have such great views of Capo – Dry Creek Valley, and Mount St. Helena is right there.

“We can get foggy in the morning, sunny in the afternoon, sometimes maybe a bit of rain – that’s one of the best times to work. You start your morning with a coffee, play some music you love, and soak up the beauty of nature… Oh my God, this is the best job in the world.

Splendid winter mustard blossoms at the Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. (Rebecca Gosselin)
Kunde Family Winery in Kenwood. (Rebecca Gosselin)

Among the Vines: Pruning Tours and Tastings

Beltane Ranch: Each year, usually in late February or early March, the historic Glen Ellen Estate hosts a day-long pruning festival, featuring live demonstrations, a pruning contest, and mariachi music. 11775 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen. 707-833-4233. Check date and details at beltaneranch.com

Benziger family estate: The Benzigers have been practicing bio-dynamic agriculture for 21 years. The estate’s winery offers wine tours and tastings, where you can see big teams in action, usually until around the end of February. 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. 707-935-3000, benziger.com

Capo Creek Ranch: On a tour and tasting, admire old Zinfandel vines planted over 40 years ago and compare them to hillside vines planted in 2016. Pruning is done by a small team for approximately six weeks, often starting at the end of January. 7171 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. 707-608-8448, capocreekranch.com

Dutcher Crossing Vineyard: Guests are welcomed into a 1900-style farmhouse and 35-acre winery where pruning crews will be in action typically until mid-February (call for information). Bring your picnic and play a game of petanque on the grounds of the vineyard. 8533 Dry Creek Road, Geyserville. 707-431 2700, dutchercrossingwinery.com

Kunde family winery: The Kunde family has farmed the hills of Kenwood for five generations. Special vineyard tours allow guests to see the vines up close during pruning season. They also offer canine hikes in the vineyards. 9285 Highway 12, Kenwood. 707-833-5501, kunde.com

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