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Farming in the Age of Corona

It’s early April and we are amid the COVID-19 ramp up. A trip to the grocery store, assuming you get in, looks like an emergency ward, everyone wearing masks. But the vineyard work continues as usual. The good news there is the vines don’t seem to mind the recommended social distancing rules. I have not noticed a single one closer than 12 feet apart. Earlier this year the issue we most feared was the lack of rain fall. After a good start to the rains in December, January was well below average and February was completely dry. As you all know our vineyard is not irrigated and depends upon the rain we receive in the winter which is stored in the soil and slowly taken up by the growing vines all summer long. I was beginning to think we may have to hand water the young vines planted last year. Thank goodness for March! Similarly to last year, we had another Miracle March, adding another five inches of rain to the vineyard. And it’s raining again in May. Perhaps this is a new weather pattern where a high-pressure system sits off the west coast all winter, redirecting the wet storms to the north of us. This high breaks down around springtime, allowing significant rainfall March and even into April and May. It would be nice if the climate modelers could identify the origin of this pattern.

We have been busy in the vineyard with the usual chores of pruning and retying the vines. It’s best to wait as long as possible to prune as this tends to delay bud-break. A later bud-break reduces the possibility for frost damage to the newly emerged buds. Loma Seca is fortunate to not have significant frost issues as the vineyard sits high on a ridge and much of the cold air tends to sink downhill as cold air is denser. It’s the vineyards near the bottom of the valleys which have more problems with frost damage.

Garnacha Tinta just waking up

This week we were busy in the vineyard with grafting. Grafting is the process whereby the scion, or grape variety which will make the fruit, is added to roots of a different variety. We have two distinct reasons for doing this grafting. The first is the case where we have planted rootstock which is adapted to our location, drought and calcium tolerant, and resistant to attack by the phylloxera pest. We plant the rootstock the first year, allowing it to take hold in the soil, and the next graft on the scion of choice. The video below shows this process where Luis is grating Riesling scion to an 1103P rootstock. This process is best done by experts with years of experience. Luis has been grafting grape vines for more than 35 years.

Luis grafting Riesling scion onto one-year old 1103P rootstock

Riesling scion being grafted onto one-year old 1103P rootstock

The other reason for grafting is to change the vine from one variety to another. Perhaps the type of vine originally planted is not well suited for a particular location, is not selling well, or both. Such is the case for our Primitivo. Primitivo is an Italian clone of Zinfandel. From our vineyard It makes fantastic wine, fruit forward, full bodied, well balanced acidity, and very flavorful. The problem is hinted at by its name, Primitivo, the first. It is the first grape in the vineyard to flower, typically early May. May at Loma Seca is often cool, but even more often windy. Both conditions are not conducive to what’s called fruit set. That is the pollination of the flower to form the grape berry. As a result, in its ten years of existence our Primitivo has never produced a good fruit set resulting in uneven ripening and poor yield. To compound this problem, the market for Primitive, and Zinfandel has been weakening. Its unfortunate because of the quality of wine this grape can produce. That said, we decided to graft over the majority of our Primitivo to Garnacha Tinta in one block, and Syrah in another. It’s a scary process as one first amputates the Primitivo vine, in some cases three or four inches in diameter at the base of the trunk, below the original graft, leaving the rootstock. Then after making two surface “incisions” in the remaining trunk, two buds of the new scion are inserted into the cuts, and then taped up to hold them in place. This year they will form a new vine. Next year they will be in production.

Primitivo vine being grafted to Syrah

Primitivo vine being grafted to Syrah

Newly grafted Syrah vines

The wine we made this past year is patiently biding its time, mellowing out in the barrel. For the most part it has made it through malolactic fermentation and will need to age in the barrel another twelve months at least. So our first 2019 bottling is quite a ways away. We have four barrels of 2018 Petite Sirah whose future we are still contemplating. Please stay tuned and give us a shout on the “reply”. Love to hear from you.

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