Since starting our transition to naturally-farmed (organic) vineyards in 2011, we’ve fully embraced the fact that we were going to be spending more hours in the vineyards than ever before. Although we’ve never looked back on the decision as anything but a chance to make better wine while insuring our farm’s future, there are days when we wax nostalgically of the easier farming of the past. Case in point, a spring like this year’s spring!
Please understand that we wouldn’t wish away the rains we’ve gotten this year. We’ll gladly take whatever moisture Mother Nature will give us. The ramification of the wetter spring conditions, however, is the rampant growth of the vines (and the weeds). The vines’ growth is glorious, especially after last year’s abysmal harvest. But the real challenge is keeping the weeds under control.
Driving past other vineyards with their completely cleaned area under the vine looks so beautiful and enticing. And trust us that we know that spectacular-looking vineyards are part of the marketing allure of the winery. Thus we battle the temptation to put on just a quick strip-spray of herbicides to knock those weeds back (kind of like a quick puff on a cigarette for someone who’s already quit).
That really isn’t quite a fair analogy. Spraying herbicides can be part of a set of sustainable practices. For our winery, however, we chose to go organic, knowing the costs would be far greater, due partly to soil health assessments. Working with two soil scientists in 2011, we pitted nine locations (6 feet deep) checking the microbiology of the first 6 inches of topsoil of each. Five of the sites had been sprayed that year with Roundup and four of the sites we had already taken organic.
The difference essentially was that in the organically-farmed vineyards, the microbiology of the soil was thriving. Those that we had continued strip-spraying showed completely void of any microbiology.
So now, we have a three-pronged approach to grasses and cover crop growing in the fields, all meant to improve the health of soils while encouraging the vines to express more terroir (the real goal of our work).
The first pass through the vineyards is with our flail mower, which shreds last year’s prunings while cutting the grass. The next pass is disking every other row to incorporate the biomass back into the soil for the vine (which helps us from needing to use commercial fertilizers). Lastly, the coup de grace is our new Clemens “under-the-vine” weeder. This is a disk and knife assembly that severs the roots of the weeds from the tops while turning the soil slowly. Although this piece has a learning curve that is fairly steep, the overall impact is starting to really help.
The nice thing about the Clemens piece of machinery is that it also tends to promote the growth of the grapevine’s roots to go downwards rather than towards this soil’s surface. This is important in that much of the unique aspect of the El Dorado appellation’s terroir (characters specific to our region) is found deeper in the soil profile. And ultimately, the goal of making our wines is to showcase what characters El Dorado has (and that no other does). That’s wine worth making!
I see thunderstorms in the forecast for later in the week. Most probably, this will sprout a new set of weeds, giving us a chance to mow through the vineyards once more. Eventually summer dryness will come, the weed stubble will dry out, and just the vines will be green. But until then, expect to find us in the vineyards in an effort to make our soils healthier for the vines. It may not be beautifully pristine, but I don’t think the vines care about that! And now you know too!