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With two more days of rain on the way, and another week of unsettled weather in the forecast, we are on our way to catching up with our ‘normal’ rainfall.  The unseasonably warm weather of January and February has now cooled to more normal temperatures, and vines that were starting to push new buds have slowed a bit. As buds start to push, we are now hurrying to finish our final pruning cuts.

Many have asked me why some vineyards are pruned ‘all the way back’ while others are left with long canes.  The answer has to do with several factors; disease control, frost protection and labor utilization.

Disease Control.  There are a number of fungal disease complexes, collectively referred to as ‘Eutypha’, or ‘Esca’.  These fungal spores are released by the presence of free water….rainfall.  Hence, the longer we can delay making the final pruning cuts, the lower the chance of a rainfall induced spore release infecting the vines. The infection site for the vine is at any new, open pruning wound or cut, much as a  cut on one’s finger is a potential site for infection. 

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An unpruned Cabernet vine with all of last year's growth dormant for the Winter season.

Disease symptoms progress slowly from the point of infection toward the center of the vine.  A dead or dying section of wood within the vine, known as a canker, develops, affecting the productivity of that section of the vine, and in advanced stages, over several years, will kill the entire vine.  By doing a ‘partial’ pruning of the vine during the major rain producing months we expose an open wound to infection, but then prune off that infection site with the final cuts done as late in the Spring as possible.  This is why you see many vineyards with 12 – 14 inch cane wood left until just prior to bud break.  When the canes are cut back to the first two buds, the potentially infected original cut is removed.

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'Pre-pruned' vine with most of last years growth already removed from the trellis wires. This vine awaits final pruning cuts just prior to bud break.

Frost Control.  As Springtime temperatures start to warm and sap starts to flow in the vine, the first buds to push will normally be at the terminal ‘end’ of the cane.  The emergence of new growth can be delayed a few days by allowing the terminal buds to push, and then pruning back to the two base buds.  What makes this problematic is there is a high risk of breaking off new buds when removing the brush from the trellis system.  If, however, the canes are ‘pre-pruned’ to 12-14 inches and the brush removed during winter dormancy, the final cuts can be made just as the end buds are starting to push.  With the majority of the brush already removed, there is little danger breaking off base buds that might have already pushed.  A few days of free frost protection can be achieved this way if the operations are timed properly.  Some years, a few days can make the difference between frost damage, or healthy, fruitful shoots for the new year.

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Fully pruned spur with buds starting to push. You can see how easy it would be to break off these tender, new shoots if you were pulling brush when they are at this stage.

Labor Utilization.  By delaying the final pruning cuts until bud break, we can keep our field workers in the vineyard during a time when there is normally a slack period, waiting until the shoots start to grow and we need to make our first suckering pass.  

As 2012 begins to unfold, we are still waiting for buds to push in most vineyards.  Rain the next two days will keep minimum temperatures above freezing, but unsettled weather in the coming week will likely present some near freezing temperatures, and frost conditions when the skies clear.

 

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2011,  A Year To Think Outside The Box

As the 2011 growing season started to mature we knew it would be one of the coolest in recent memory. Then, early October brought more than two inches of rain, kicking off the harvest that will be remembered for the challenges brought on by perfect conditions for fungal growth.

I am reminded that my forty-second harvest still does not quite qualify me as an old timer when I hear long time growers relate that this was the worst rot year since the mid-1950’s. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that is pushing sixty years.  Along with the damp, foggy mornings that never seemed to dry out, came afternoon temperatures in the mid-seventies to mid-eighties;  a virtual incubator for anything fungal.

Chardonnay Beginning To Show Its Beautiful Golden Color

Challenges?  Yes.  Late Spring and early Fall rains, a cool growing season, October weather perfect for fungus growth, a delayed harvest, and labor in short supply.

Opportunities?  Yes, if you had the presence of mind to stay off the panic button and to think a little outside the box.  Those that picked early ended up with under ripe fruit that makes for tart, uninteresting wines full of challenges in the winery.  Those that had the patience to realize this was simply going to be a late harvest reaped the benefit of fruit with European elegance supported by cool season acid levels;  a combination that will reward us with longer aging wines with a finesse and elegance seldom achieved in California conditions.  In 2010 Wicker Vineyards produced our 10th Cabernet and our first Burgundy style Chardonnay.  Because of conditions in 2011 we added a Late Harvest Chardonnay and a Cabernet Port style fortified dessert wine.  Thinking outside the box.

Picking our Chardonnay in the pre-dawn hours of October 20, we found it necessary to leave nearly half our crop on the vines because of bunch rot; a tough realization for a year in which we had hoped to double our Chardonnay case production.  Close inspection in the daylight hours revealed that the remaining fruit was infected with pure, clean Botrytis; free of black or green molds or sour rot.  This clean ‘noble rot’ was the setup for an exciting opportunity; the rare production of a late harvest wine with complex, nectar-like qualities brought about by dehydration and concentration of natural fruit flavors.

2011 also brought the opportunity for us to make another Port style fortified dessert wine from our Cabernet Estate vineyard on Howell Mountain.  A 30 Brix lot of Cabernet, fortified with high quality distilled spirits from Germain-Robin will produce a luscious, fruit driven port with beautiful cognac undertones.

Thinking outside the box.  Opportunities in 2011 are allowing us to make not only our Estate Vineyard Cabernet and Chardonnay, but two additions to our offerings from a very challenging vintage.

Beautiful Cabernet Clusters Start To Ripen In September

With the tease of Spring for a couple weeks in early February, it’s not difficult to think Winter is over and done.  But God has a way of letting us know he is still in charge.

April 1, 2010. Snow Cap on Mt. St. Helena.

Snow in San Francisco!! Perhaps on Friday or Saturday that could happen.  I am expecting to see snow ringing the Napa Valley by the weekend, but that is still only the end of February.  In 2010 we had a snow cap on Mt.  St. Helena on April 1st, and it wasn’t an April Fools joke.

The good news for now, is that the vines are still dormant, although it won’t take more than a couple of days at 75 degrees to see buds start to pop into this years new growth.

You may have seen a lot of  vines in the Valley this year with “long haircuts”.  Our Cabernet was “long” pruned a month ago, leaving canes 12 to 14 inches long.  Just as we see signs of bud swell this spring, we will go back into the vineyard and “finish” prune the vines, selecting the spurs to remain for this year’s crop.

Wicker Vineyards Cabernet Vines Waiting For Final Pruning Cuts

This buys us a couple of benefits.

First, it allows us to make the finish cuts just as the shoots start to grow.  Without all the long brush to pull from the canopy, there is no danger of breaking off the tender new buds.  This gains us as much as a week or ten days of frost protection by delaying the bud break.

Secondly, this practice helps us control Eutypa fungus infections.  The free fungus spores are released by rainfall, and infect the vine through the fresh pruning cuts.  When we make the final cuts, any early, wet season infection by Eutypa spores is trimmed off before it has a chance to work its way into the main structure of the vine.  This is a great example sustainable practice farming, preserving vine health without the use of chemicals.

Early April Snow Cap on Mt. St. Helena Was No April Fools Joke

2010:  A growing season to remember.

This was my 41st harvest in Napa Valley since making grape growing my career in 1970; and not one I will soon forget.  The unusually cool season tested the patience of grape growers, many of whom reacted by removing leaves and canopy in a misguided effort to “accelerate” the ripening process.  This season’s fruit had not been exposed to heat all season, and with the exposure created by removing leaves that provide natural shade, the fruit was subject to severe damage when the late season temperatures spiked to 110 degrees or more.

With experience telling us we would see hot weather before the season was over, we were very careful to leave leaf cover to provide protection to the “unseasoned” fruit, particularly on the afternoon side of the vines.  Not only are these leaves nature’s shade cover, but each leaf is also the plant’s tiny photosynthetic “factory”, providing carbohydrates and nutrient utilization.

2010 Cabernet in beautiful condition just prior to harvest

We were also careful to anticipate the hot weather, making sure the vines were properly hydrated and nourished, much as we humans need plenty of water when it gets hot.  The plant reacts to the sudden heat much like we do, feeling the effects of sudden temperature changes.  When we go from 75 degree weather to sudden 100 degree spells, we find ourselves seeking shade, water and someway to cool off.

Our Howell Mt. fruit made it to harvest in prime condition.  The 2010 Wicker Vineyards Cabernet is in barrels and tasting lush and rich already.  I believe this is one of those years that will lend itself perfectly to our complex, elegant style.  Another Wicker vintage to anticipate.

First Signs of Spring

Spring is just around the corner.

The daffys always give us a look at some of the first spring color.  Next weekend we will “spring” ahead as we enter daylight savings time so that we can start waking up in the dark again!

We have held off pruning our Cabernet until the last minute, but finished it this weekend.  Many of you have seen the process, but for those who haven’t, here is a short video clip of one vine being prepped for the season.  This is one of the most important steps in each growing season, as it not only sets the potential for the crop level, but determines the shape of the vine for years to come.  Notice the skillful thought and care that goes into each cut.  There is something therapeutic about the “clip, clip, clip” of the pruning pace.   It kind of puts us  “at one with the vine”.

You will notice that the canes being removed are being piled in the row behind the pruner. When we are finished, we will pick up all the small brush piles, carry them out of the vineyard, and mulch them for compost.  Two years from now, this compost will be returned to the vineyard rows to help with moisture retention and weed suppression.

March is starting off with a BANG for us. Today we made our first deliveries of Wicker Vineyards Cabernet to bothWicker Cabernet Go Fish Restaurant in St. Helena, and to Mustards Grill in Yountville. We are very excited about having our wines available at both of these great restaurants.

Even though both restaurants are owned by Cindy Pawlcyn, their interests in our wine came about through totally separate circumstances. Go Fish‘s Jennifer Ingellis and Carrie Thomas Mullen had taken a liking to our silky textured Howell Mt. Cabernet some months ago, but had debated how it would fit into their fish dominated menu.  That decision was made last week, and they are now very excited to have our 2005 half bottles to offer their guests.

A short time ago, I was meeting a colleague at Mustards for  lunch, and had decided to take a half bottle of our 2005 Cabernet to share.  While waiting for him to arrive, I struck up a conversation with bartender “Mo”, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and the discussion turned to the bottle sitting in front of me on the bar.  Within minutes I had been introduced to General Manager Patrick Kellaher, and before I departed the restaurant we had discussed his interest in putting our wine on their list.  A few days later, Lisa and I stopped in for lunch, and shared samples of our 2002 and 2003 Cabernet with he and his staff.  As of today, our 2002 full bottles, and our 2005 half bottles are available at Mustards.

We are very excited to now have our wines available in some of the finest restaurants in Napa Valley.  Currently we are represented on the wine lists at Market Restaurant, Martini House, AKA Bistro, Mustards, Go Fish, The Restaurant at Meadowood and Farm at Carneros Inn.  These restaurants have been instrumental in helping develop our new brand.  I want to personally thank each and every one of them for the role they have played in creating exposure and building excitement about our Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mt.

THANK YOU, ALL!!

SEND IT ON!!  We love this rain, even as we get impatient with the pending arrival of our Napa Valley Spring weather.

So, why do we need all this rain?

The first rains of the year wet down the ground surface, germinate our cover crop seeds and turn the hills green. As the rains continue, the soil profile fills with water and eventually starts to run off on the surface.  Additional rains continue to soak into the ground and fill reservoirs, with excess water running off to our rivers and eventually on to the ocean.

After several years of below normal rainfall, it is nice to see our Spring growing season starting with reservoirs full, soils saturated, and moisture hanging in the air.  Continued rainfall in the coming weeks will bring us close to normal rainfall totals for the year.  Normal moisture levels in Spring will also lessen the chance of the damaging frost conditions we have seen in the past three years.  Dry springs have historically been cold springs.  We don’t need another 2008 frost season.

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