The Living Vineyard
It is early June in the four year old Pinot Gris vineyard. The winegrower stands on the vineyard soil in a space between the vines, reaching out, touching a young grape leaf. He looks at the leaf blade, attached by it’s stem to the growing vine shoot. This leaf is near the growing end of the shoot, and is itself less than half grown. At the tip of the shoot, a tiny new leaf is emerging, and further back down the shoot, every three or four inches, older and older leaves live.
The young leaves are small, the size of a quarter, and pale fuzzy green; the older leaves on this young shoot are larger, palm size, and deeper shiny green. Later in the summer, these leaves will have grown to the size of the winegrower’s hand. Now, most are less than half grown. At this size, they do not contribute as much food to the vine as they use in their own growth. Soon, however, they will be large enough to be a contributing part of the vine, nurturing other, younger parts of the growing vine.
During the summer and into the fall, the mature leaves will bask in the sunlight, using the energy of sunlight showering the leaf surface to power the myriad chloroplasts in the leaves, converting water and nutrients to carbohydrates, the fuel of the plant cell. This fuel powers the growth and reproduction of the vine. The miracle we call vegetative life goes on, silently, every day, in every leaf, in every part of every vine in the vineyard.
The small young leaf in the winegrowers hand is maturing, readying itself to participate in the productive life of the vine. Now it is nourished in that growth by the output of other, older leaves, as well as by the carbohydrates stored last year in the vine’s root system, held overwinter underground. After the harvest last fall, the vine began in earnest to transfer carbohydrates produced in the leaves down through the canes and trunk into the root system of the vine. There this cell food was stored, used sparingly during the dormant season to maintain the vine’s health, held in readiness for the onset of growth in the spring.
Now, below the winegrower’s feet, in the soil, this underground portion of the vine lives and grows. The winegrower feels, dimly through the soles of his feet, the pulsing life of the earth. As the growing leaf in his hand unfolds, deep in the vineyard soil tiny rootlets push out from the vine’s feeder roots in search of water and nutrients, mirroring the growing tip of the shoot’s pushing out toward sunlight.
Some roots reach out toward the surface of the earth, there to take in the first moisture that flows into the soil from the melting snows of winter and the rains of spring. Other roots extend outward fanwise, competing with roots of vineyard grasses, meeting roots of adjacent grapevines. Yet other roots reach deep into the soil, seeking minerals unweathered. These roots live deep, there to tap the old sources of water the vine will need when the droughts of summer dry out the soil near the surface.
The grapevine succeeds where other plants fail by being thrifty, growing well, remaining healthy in relatively unnutritious, ‘poor’, soils. And, too, the grapevine succeeds by sending roots deeper than other plants, into virgin earth, being the first to move nutrients upward from the deep soil reservoir of the planet, upward through the grapevine, into the air.
The aboveground parts of the vine are balanced by the underground parts. The grapevine pierces the earth / air boundary, growing into both regions, requiring each. Then combining within the vine, transforming water and nutrients and sunlight into living tissue.
The vine moves sunlight down into the earth, in the form of carbohydrates. Too, the vine moves minerals from deep in the earth into the air in it’s growing plant tissues.
And most of these tissues in the air, the leaves and shoots and most of the canes, die each year. They are pruned from the vine by the winegrower, and decay, providing food for soil bacteria and fungi, nurturing that portion of the cycle of life in the vineyard. And these fungi and bacteria maintain the health of the vineyard soil, making possible the life of the vine. Over the winter they decay fallen leaves, in the spring they feed on the mulch of pruning left behind by the winegrower.
Early in May, the sap, blood of the vine, fluid carrier of plant nutrients and water and cell foods through the vine, begins to rise upward from the root system, bathing the cells of the trunk, canes and overwintering buds. As the days warm, with more and more sunlight warming the cells, the bud begins to grow, forming the young shoot that the winegrower now holds.
This shoot is already two feet long, with seven leaves including the tiny newborn at the end, and the leaf in the winegrower’s hand. The winegrower counts the leaves from the base of the shoot. He holds leaf six. Near leaf three, a small flower cluster is growing, now a bit larger than the grower’s thumbnail. And near leaf six, another, smaller flower cluster grows.
By late June these flower clusters, and a few dozen more on other shoots growing from this vine, will have grown larger. The individual flowers will have separated, the whole cluster will appear to be a tiny cluster of grapes, the ‘grapes’ the size of BB’s. But they are not grapes then, no more than the fragrant, white apple blossoms of May are apples. No, they are flowers that have yet to open into bloom. In this vineyard, that blooming will happen most years by July 4. But unlike the showy apple blossom, grape bloom is often unnoticed. The small flowers open, they are pollinated, the petals fall off as the grape grows, and the flower cluster becomes a cluster of tiny, growing grapes. No fanfare, winegrapes are ‘perfect flowers’, they do not require pollen from another flower, so they have none of the insect attractors like bright color, fancy shape or appealing scent.
So the grapevine reproduces, succeeding itself. It is the fruit of this process, the grape, that the winegrower seeks that he may in time nurture that fruit, through fermentation, into wine.
But today, now, the winegrower holds in his hand a young leaf, beside it on the shoot other leaves and flower clusters, all growing. The winegrower anticipates the fruit to be harvested, the toil in the vineyard in the months ahead. But the vine does not anticipate, it merely grows, reaching into the air for the sun and into the earth for nourishment, producing the fruit that will be wine.
-Copyright © 1998 L. Mawby