Pruning | Frost | Positioning | Harvest


Pruning at Las Madres Vineyards went well this year, with Armando's crew marching, slowly resolutely up and down the rows. This year we will leave the spurs incrementally taller, hoping this will help a slight problem that has befallen us. The more aggressive cuts in prior years, sometimes fail to heal well and leave us with a weak position. A position is where this year’s shoots will grow, on which our fruit will set. I had hoped to keep T_Vinesthe fruit zone lower, thinking this would extend the life of the vines . "Not necessarily so," my wise mentor advises. Our "T" vines are encouraged to provide ten positions, five each side of the trunk (this on the horizontal portion of the "T"). These positions emanate from spurs, the knotted twisted growth created from previous years' positions. Every time we prune, we add height to the spur resulting eventually in a untenable position. I had been too aggressive in addressing the spur height issue.

As we work, I am noticing how dry the soil is. Nice to keep one's boots mud free, but I'm a farmer and this could be our third year of drought. The pond is half full and the well is hardly producing enough water for the house let alone the vineyard. We do, however, practice deficit irrigation, purposely denying the grapes as much water as they might like. Our vines do not lead a leisurely life: they work. Is your goal intense bright fruit flavors, tapenade-spiced mid-palate and a lingering citrus finish? This can only happen when the vines work, and the fruit of their labor will reflect it.

As a young man of twenty five I was introduced,out of necessity, to an elderly engineer-mechanic, Mal Ord. My VW had blown it's engine, I had limited resources, and was told that if Mal liked you he would work on your car. Thus, after my interview, so to speak, I entered the world of one of the nicest, wisest men I have ever known. Each day before working on the VW, Mal and I would have coffee and doughnuts and talk about life. Too soon my engine was fixed to perfection and I was on my way, never too far mind you, as I enjoyed my time with Mal. "How’s the car running?" he asked during one of our coffee klatches. I was embarrassed to say, but I had to admit to Mal that the engine seemed the slightest bit rough when idling. BIG smile and brilliant blue eyes meeting mine, he counseled, "John, that engine is just like you, put a little load on her and she smoothes right out. I had to admit Mal was right. As I started to drive, the engine returned to smooth dependable power. I have never liked to be idle. A little work, a bit of stress, is not a bad thing. My wife, Jean, and Robbie my great friend have teased me. "Put John on a beach and after three days he'll start to build Palapas!" It is absolutely essential to make the vines work if we want quality fruit.

Our one big rain in November was a godsend. Five inches of rain penetrating the soils past eight inches, bringing life to our cover crop. We grow a mixture of legumes, peas, and oats between rows to set nitrogen in the soil. Happily we don't need chemical fertilizers. As I watch the cover crop reach the cordon wire, three feet above the vineyard floor, I wonder what lies ahead this year in the shadow of last, the worst frost season in 30 years.


A shrill D sharp 7 pierces my deep slumber. I vault inches upward, proof that adrenaline still courses the veins of this 57 year old. What is that noise? Where am I ? Replaced quickly by the hope, "Please let it be after 3am". The frost alarm has just gone off. The sensor, located at the lowest point of our lower hillside vineyard, Hulda, has dropped to 32 degrees. If that threshold is crossed too early, 12am for Tuning_up_the_wind_machineexample, you know you are in for a long night with possible damage to this year's fruit. If we make it to 3am before hearing the alarm, the chances of temperatures dropping dangerously to 30 degrees and below, forming ice crystals, frost, that actually pierce and kill the nascent shoots, is less likely.

At Las Madres Vineyards, the Syrah buds usually become vulnerable to frost in March, when they are coaxed into opening with warming spring temperatures. These exposed buds, which actually contain the grape clusters, are thrust into the harsh reality of life. Nature thinks nothing of sacrificing some of her own, be it baby tortoises, young songbirds or nascent grapes. From March till Mothers Day (our window of vulnerability), we provide protection for the vines as best we can.

Today we are lucky. Our Tropic Breeze wind machine handles the frigid air mass easily. This 30 foot tall structure, with a 16' diameter propellor, is powered by a Ford 350 V-8 that runs on propane. The 3:15am silence is pierced by a push button actuated starter that wakes the straight pipe engine. The sound is of a 60's drag racer yet is eclipsed soon by the noise of the prop. Think Good Morning Vietnam, Hughey helecopters thump thump thump drumming overhead with troops off to battle. All occuring 14' over my head (or my wife Jean's, when I am out of town). The wind machine draws down warmer air from as high as 300' over the vineyard, which moves and replaces the cold air on the vineyard floor.

Once the machine is running and all looks well, we set the alarm for an hour and a half, and go back to bed. We monitor the temperatures as the wind machine does its work. I often think of the movie A Walk In The Clouds, when Keanu Reeves, in a lovers trance, follows the butterfly-winged angel, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, as she fans the air surrounding the family vineyard. I doubt Jean thinks of this as we go about frost protection, but there is a certain allure to it. Badge of honor if you will.

I get a 4am call from Armando, a comrade in arms,"Are you up?" We'll talk about it over coffee later, once everything is shut down.

We have had house guests many times during frost season. After the third glass of wine, almost all swear they are ready for the adventure. "When the alarm goes off," they swear, "Wake us up. We really want to help!" In truth, the alarm is loud enough to raise the dead. Yet, after a long night of frost, our guests greet us in the morning with, "Wow, you're up early!" Jean and I just smile.

We are approaching Mothers Day. I welcome the date, yet I remember last year, May 2nd. The shoots were up to 8" tall, yet still quite vulnerable, lacking lignin, the toughening agent that creates wood. That night the alarm started blaring at 11:45pm and the temperatures dropped clear down to 28 degrees at one point. We fought our best battle, yet lost about 10% of the fruit. Ten days later,we saw 100 degrees in the vineyard. Such is life on the farm!


Auguste Rodin accepted a large marble block at his Paris studio around 1889. Rodin's life companion, seamstress Rose Beuret, queried, "What do you see"? In it, somehow, he saw a 13th century Italian noblewoman and her lover Paulo, characters from Dante's Inferno. Apparently the two were moved to passion by the story of Guenevere and Lancelot. Just as they were to kiss, lips a breath away, they were discovered, interrupted, and later murdered by her jealous husband. Rodin went to work. Rock chips and dust flew. Slowly the lovers emerged, their forms ever becoming lifelike, stunning, and true to his vision: desirous lips forever captured...apart.

We went through the vineyard in June and leaf-pulled, opening the fruit zone to filtered sun and air. Now, in early July, our vine rows are filled with juvenile grape clusters. It is time to cull a portion of these green clusters. I estimate that if we foolishly elect to ripen this amount of fruit, the vineyard would yield in excess of 6 tons per acre. Disaster surrounds the idea. The vines would not be able to bring 6 tons per acre to maturity in the manner we, and our customers, desire. The canopy (leaves), available water, and expected ripening days do not support such an endeavor. We must balance fruit load with the season. How does the canopy look this year? Did the soil receive its maximum water holding capacity last winter? How is summer shaping up?Grapes positioned and thinned

It is a warm afternoon. I stand before one vine thinking how best to address the task at hand...fruit thinning. The bicordon before me has 10 spurs, each with 2 new shoots, this year's new growth. The 20 shoots have set anywhere from 0 to 3 grape clusters each. History at Las Madres tells us that the average cluster will weigh 5 to 6 ounces. Having done the math, if we allow 1.2 clusters per shoot, 24 clusters per vine, we will have approximately 4 tons per acre at harvest - a moderate targeted yield for Syrah. Like Rodin and his marble block, my job is to see within the vine and bring forth this year's goals. Never 3 clusters on one shoot. Clusters shouldn't touch. Pull additional leaves from the canopy interior allowing filtered light within. Work only from the north side of the vine, leaving shade on the south side, providing protection from August and September sun. Meet these marks and we will average the 24 clusters per vine.

As I address the vine, Derek, my nephew, queries, "Why do the vines set so much fruit?" "It is in their genetic code, I suppose. Remember, it's all about their future generations, all about survival of the species, in short Derek, all about sex." The individual grape berry is like a womb hosting an embryo, the seed (up to 3 seeds in some cases). The more grape berries, the better the chances of survival. Vinifera, or wine grapes, have no knowledge of our intentions regarding their future. We will "chisel and shape" in such a way that they will become fabulous wine made from meticulously farmed grapes.

A day in the vineyard oft times can be experienced as hours of repetitive toil. With passion, the day might also evolve, time lost with the task at hand, into creative expression of living art. Today, I feel as Rodin must have over 100 years ago. Mindfully, I will pull out from within this unruley tangled vine, the 2009 vintage. Emulating Rodin's famous sculture, "The Kiss," I succeed if the grape clusters do not touch, if they will, for this season, be captured...apart.

Harvest [top]

Throughout the season, as a winegrape grower, I help move the vineyard towards a hoped for conclusion. We fight the elements, be they frost in spring or heat spikes in summer. We sculpt the vineyard looking for harmony between canopy and clusters. We meter water to assure appropriate stress. Everyone works at Las Madres. Then, in early September, after verasion, when the grapes have turned from green to dark dark purple, one can sit and wait for ripening, for what the future has in store ... I can't. I walk the rows, pulling leaves, tucking shoots, cutting and manipulating the clusters. I know I don't ultimately shape the future yet I want a hand in it. I am prone to doing, moving, inventing. I have been known to stomp and swear in attempts to facilitate the process, as Jean would attest.

This year, in mid October, nature had her own plan. Rain, and lots of it. Over ten days time I heard everything from "showers" to devestating remnants of a Japanese tropical storm. As is oft times the case, as an event nears one sees the beginning of consensus. Between 1.5 inches of rain in Santa Rosa, and 1.05 inches in Napa, predicted. In 2006 we incurred over an inch of rain with no ill effects. "Relax," I counsel myself. Still, it is never comfortable. At the behest of our customers' wishes and my absolute understanding of what is required of Las Madres to create memorable wines, we elected to hang the fruit through the first Harvestrain of the season. We needed a little more concentration. Every farmer knows this is necessary from time to time. "Wash the reds before you bring them in.” From the first resonant "thwack", as rain pelts our roof, till after the sun next shines, it is my time to worry.

The rain and winds began in earnest after midnight October 13th, and failed to let up until 4PM the following afternoon. My rain gauge showed a solid 4 inches of rain! The promised clearing for the next day, instead resulted in dense fog and showers. Worse, the temperature hovered in the high sixties and low seventies for most of the next week, a catalyst for any one of more than 15 fungal problems. We went to work in attempts to dry the fragile fruit. I enlisted the help of our wind machine, normally used for frost, and a number of leaf blowers. Honestly I am to this day surprised how successful we were in drying the clusters. Unfortunately, the weather never really cooperated and we did not get true drying weather. My idea of perfection bruised, it was time to pull the fruit, and in little time the fruit became wine.

It is February and our winemaker, Jacqueline Yoakum, pulls barrel samples with a wine thief. The color, as wine spiraled into my glass, was black. That mere inch of wine in glass allowed no light to pass. The nose, very subtle, showed spice, crème brûlée, a bit of fruit, and something else I could not put my finger on. I am a bit nervous as 2009 was by far our most difficult year in the vineyard. Our consultant, manager and friend, Armando Ceja says 2009 was a once every 20 year event. A bit more swirling and then the taste. Black fruit, and rich dark spices, reminiscent of black mole (pronounced molay), an incredibly complex flavored Mexican sauce showcasing six different chiles and, believe it or not, chocolate. We are just thru ML (where tart malic acid is transformed into softer, rounder lactic acid) and the wine is extremely young. When cleaned up and racked I expect more of the blue and red fruits to come through.

As a vineyard owner, fortunate enough to have customers interested in designating Las Madres, I am acutely aware of the concept of "vintage". When telling the story of our vineyard, I am happy to include the nuances of each vintage. 2004 was a year in which we endured the hottest September in recorded history. The wine was luscious, fruit forward and, inspite of the heat, well balanced. In 2005, we hung fruit until November, creating a more complex Syrah. The challenge of 2009 will never be forgottten. The aromatic and flavor profiles of this wine, at its very young age, are different than other vintages, much like the differences between siblings, yet convincingly from the same family. We work hard in the vineyard, oft times stubbornly in pursuit of perfection. Yet, what is perfection? Perhaps it is best to recognize and honor the collaboration between ourselves and Mother Nature and honor what is given. The Mothers, Las Madres, have given us something wonderful to remember in 2009. [top]

Gone Fishing