May on the mountain
“You’d think harvest would our busiest time of year,” says a very busy Ron Rosenbrand, vineyard manager at the ever-so-beautiful Spring Mountain Vineyard in Napa Valley, “but May may be the most labor-intensive month of the year.”
On this early May afternoon Rosenbrand has some 55 people tending to 350,000 vines, performing a multitude of tasks to get the vineyard ready for the hot summer growing season to come. Add to that the effects of the driest March and April in recent memory, and you get an idea of why everyone is so busy.
To begin with, Ron says, every vine in each of the 135 separate blocks of grapes (Spring Mountain grows seven different varietals, with cabernet sauvignon being the predominant grape) must undergo a process called “suckering.” This involves the removal of unwanted, non-fruit-producing shoots from each vine.
While suckering will increase the fertility of the vines and quality of the grapes, it is extremely time-consuming. Basically, workers wind their way through the rows of vines with clippers. They inspect every shoot and eliminate with a clip those that are unwanted. Sound easy? Grab some pruning clippers and see how your hand feels after clipping the bushes around your house. Then multiply that by 10 hours of work.
The next area of concentration during May is mowing the various weeds and grasses that grow between the rows of the vines, called the cover crop. Plows and tractors can mow much of the 226 acres that are planted with vines, but there are 22 acres (an acre is approximately 44,000 square feet, or a little less than the size of a football field) that must be hand-mowed. Again, this process is very labor intensive. The care of the cover crops can make huge differences in how nutrients are distributed in the vineyards and how the vines use the water that is available for irrigation.
Water is one of the most important factors in a vineyard and this year Ron says that lack of rainfall will force Spring Mountain to begin irrigating early, perhaps this week. In a normal season irrigation may not begin until July. But there has not been a significant rainfall in the Napa Valley since a Pacific storm blew through on Feb. 23, and in the last two months only 0.6 of an inch has fallen, far below the average of 8 inches in a normal year.
To get water into the vineyard, Ron’s crew must inspect drip irrigation lines for the entire property. “The coyotes know where to find water when there is none,” says Ron. “They find the lines, gnaw through them and suck out what’s left.” Each broken line must be replaced before irrigation can commence.
And in wine making, like any form of farming, the devil is in the details. Mildew, mealy bugs, leafhoppers, blue green sharpshooters and a host of other bugs can create havoc in the vines. Ron employs two trained “spotters” who spend all day, every day looking for things that are out of the ordinary. “Anything at all different, we pay attention to it,” he says.
Spring Mountain has received special permission from the Napa County Agricultural Commission to experiment with bio-control techniques in which insects are introduced into the vineyards to control pests. These insects arrive via Fed-Ex or UPS in boxes and the staff takes them out into the fields to eradicate pesky predators.
Spring Mountain also uses an ancient and unique method of training their vines called the “vertical goblet.” Originally used by the Romans as far back as the second century B.C. in the rocky hillsides of what is now known as the Cote du Rhone, this method involves pruning the head of the vines at about five feet from the ground and then allowing the shoots to grow up and around the pruned head, forming a “goblet” shape.
There are about 80 acres of these vines and during the month of May each vine must be hand-tied twice. They are tied a third time in June. While labor intensive, the process allows sunshine to reach the clusters and is tailor-made for the kind of stressful soils found in many of the blocks at Spring Mountain.
While it sounds like May may be the cruelest month, with days for vineyard workers lasting from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. six days a week, Ron says it is a great time of year.
“You can’t beat it,” he said from his cell phone at the winery. “Everything is green and it’s just beautiful.”
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