Winter Pruning

The sun is just rising over the tree line, a dim orange glow through the grey clouds, as the vine pruner parks his pickup. He leaves the truck parked, today, on the shoulder of the highway rather than driving into the little trail that leads to the vineyard. It snowed again in the night, and this morning he’s not sure he can drive in and back out again. Better walk a few yards further than get stuck.

He shuts off the engine, gathers his folding pocket saw, loppers, and pruning shears, and leaves the warm pickup. Snow crunches underfoot, and he knows that it must be below 10 degrees this morning. He’s well dressed, layers beginning with thermal long underwear, lined pants and heavy shirt, vest, parka, two pair of gloves, a heavy knit muffler around his throat and over his mouth, and a knit cap pulled down over his ears. He’ll keep warm today, unless the wind picks up – if the wind chill gets below minus ten, it’s hard to stay warm.
He walks off the highway, up the trail through the windbreak at the edge of the vineyard, following the tracks from yesterday. They’re nearly filled in with last night’s snow. A hundred yards or so and he’s at the head of the row he finished yesterday. Nearly half finished with this vineyard; when it’s done, in a week or so, he’ll be more than half through with the whole winter’s pruning.

Each year he starts pruning when the vines have gone dormant, usually early December; this year he began a bit earlier, the Monday after Thanksgiving, and now the second week of January the halfway mark is close at hand. He’s been lucky with the weather so far – not too cold, no bad storms, or wet, slushy snowfalls to delay his work. He’s been able to prune all day, Monday through Friday, each week in December (except the holiday week between Christmas and New Years – he always takes those days off). Even the shorter days haven’t cost him too much time. Usually he’s able to work from 8 am, even with the sun rising so late during the few weeks either side of Dec 21, but this winter has been particularly cloudy, and the light at 8 has been so poor, he’s taken to waiting until 8:30 – even 9 o’clock some days – before coming out. He always quits at 4:30, and with a half hour out for lunch that gives him, usually, eight hours of pruning. So this year, he’s lost about a half day a week by starting later – that’ll mean a few more days in March, maybe a week longer than normal, to get the job done.

Today he’ll get his usual four rows pruned, and tomorrow morning, by coffee break time, he’ll be half done with this vineyard. The vines, here, are vignoles, trained to a single high cordon; they’ve grown well, and they’re easy to prune. No difficulties finding good sound wood and healthy buds to keep. He prunes each vine every winter to remove part of the past season’s growth; cutting out weakly growing canes to strengthen the vine, and a removing a large part of the strongly growing shoots, too. This pruning keeps the vine compactly growing in its allotted space; it reduces the crop as well, so the vine can better ripen the grapes it has. This makes for better flavored, more aromatic grapes and better wines.

The first vine is a large one, with more than average growth from last year – he’ll want to keep 60 buds on this one, thirty on each trunk’s cordon. These vines are all double-trunked – they’re grown with two trunks coming out of the ground, straight up five feet to the top wire of the trellis, and then one going left and one right along the wire, making the cordon. That’s the permanent part of the vine. From that, where it grows horizontally along the top wire of the trellis, every few inches a shoot grows out and down. These shoots each had two or three bunches of grapes last year. On the right hand cordon he selects eight of the best looking shoots, equally spaced out along the cordon – these he’ll cut so they’ve got four buds left on each. All the other shoots on this cordon he’ll cut away. The left cordon, he’ll do the same, but on that one he’ll leave only seven shoots with four buds on each. That’ll make the 60 buds he wants to leave on the whole vine.

Several cuts with the pruning shears, a bit of pulling to free the cut brush from the trellis and leave it piled in the snow in the middle of the row, and he’s moving on to the second vine in the row. This one’s a bit smaller, not so much growth from last year. 50, maybe 55 buds, he thinks. Once more he selects the best shoots, cutting away the rest. He’s cutting more quickly now, the coordination of hand and eye reestablishing itself today. He leaves 52 buds on this second vine. And the third, the same. The fourth is large, a 60 bud vine. He hardly has to count the buds now, one glance at the vine and he knows how many he wants to leave. A scan along the cordon, and he’s selected the healthiest, best positioned shoots. A series of quick cuts and the obviously weak shoots are on the ground – yes, he’s got plenty of good wood left to work with. Cut, cut, pull brush, cut, pull.

In an hour he’s halfway down the row – in this section of the vineyard, the rows have fifty-two vines. By just after 10 o’clock he finishes the last vine in the row. Time to walk back to the truck, have a cup of coffee from the thermos on the seat, and a couple of his wife’s oatmeal raisin cookies. As he walks back down the row, he looks over the vines, pleased with the way they look. Like soldiers on parade, trim, lean, ordered, ready. He hopes the rest of the winter will be mild. Wouldn’t want any fiercely cold weather now, he thinks, these vines look good now, ready for another growing season, wouldn’t want them injured, would be nice if we could have a long, warm season this year.

After the coffee break, his fingers warmed once more, he’s back at the head of a new row, cutting. Each day through January, and February, and past the middle of March, he cuts, and pulls brush, and the vines square their shoulders, stiffen their backs, stand ready in their rows, waiting in the winter night, waiting on the sun and the rain, the warmth of early spring morning, the heat of summer afternoon, the cool evening of autumn. Another year, another crop.

-Copyright © 1994 L. Mawby