How Vineyards Grow

People often make comparisons between the development of character in a person and flavor in a grape. In both cases, a bland, easy life creates a mediocre product. With most crops, farmers want a maximum yield in minimal time. Not so with vineyard managers. Long growing cycles in rough country lead to more complex flavors in the vines' fruit, which eventually make their way into the final product. The historical wine-growing regions in Europe are often situated on the sorts of flats that seem amenable to agriculture, yet the climate can be cool and unpredictable, often creating just the right amount of stress on the vines to create grapes with character. But the same irregularity in weather also leads to the phenomenon of good and bad vintage years.

In Calfornia, however, the weather is warmer and more predictable, so there is less variation in quality one year to the next. But to avoid merely sweet, yet bland grapes, growers have headed to the coastal hills and mountains to artificially stress vineyards with rocky and often under-nourished soil, where warm summer days are accompanied by chilly nights and morning fogs. In contrast, the state's great Central Valley overwhelms the vine with abundant sun and rich soil, producing high yields of fat, sweet grapes fit only for consumption as fruit, juice or second-rate wine.

As with most crops some conditions suit some plants better than others; with grapes, of course, you're talking about the right mix of difficult conditons. Chardonnay, for example, does well in the gentle hills north of San Francisco Bay, where breeze and fog keep temperatures down in the summer, while surrounding areas swelter. Further inland, mountainsides are decked with reds that need higher daytime temperatures to ripen, yet those same coastal conditions alternate the hot days with cold nights.

These distinct weather conditions in close proximity to each other are called micro- climates, and California epitomizes the concept. In other parts of the world, you might have to travel a thousand miles to find the range of geographic and temperature diversity availble in a hundred-mile loop in California. This explains why dozens of grape varieties are grown in California, while in other parts of the world large regions may be devoted to only the two or three types of grape compatible with the area.

This marriage between the grape and its home is encompassed in the French term "terroir." This refers to the terrain where the vineyard grows, and the adaptation of the vines to the specific environment contained there. Grapes grown from a vine in France will be substantially different from the identical vine in California, and those distinctions will be evident in the wine. This is the effect of terroir.


Grape vines may live to be a hundred years old, but the optimally productive life of a vine is about 20 to 40 years. Again, the comparisons to people are obvious, and, same as with human beings, there are diifferent cycles of life beyond those dictated by the year. There is infancy, youth, adulthood and old age. Older vines produce better, more complex fruit, but less of it; so a balance is struck between quantity and quality.

Vines are planted either as complete plants or as root stock; in the latter case, after the root takes hold, cuttings are grafted to it which grow to become the fruit-bearing branches. This more complicated method is popular because it allows growers to use root stocks which may be more compatible with the soil, or have resistances to various pests. To this base cuttings from different grape varieties can be attached, creating, say, a hearty vine that's comfortable in its location, but has a delicately flavored fruit reminiscent of a vineyard across the world. After three or four years the vine bears fruit suitable for harvest, and while growing, the plant sends roots far down into the soil, reaching for moisture and allowing it to survive even the driest summers. And since it needs a dormancy induced by cold temperatures, the vine can also survive chilly winter weather.

As winter closes, sap starts to rise within the plant, and buds begin to form in early spring. While summer approaches, leaves form and open, and just as it begins, flowering appears. The tiny, white buds turn to grapes while summer heads into fall, and as they mature, the grapes for red wines turn from green to almost black, the grapes for white wine from green to a golden yellow.

Meanwhile, suger levels rise within the grapes, and winemakers closely monitor the balance of acids and sugars. At this point, anxiety increases as the rainy season approaches; rain may dilute the juice within the grape and upset all the delicate chemical balances desired by a winemaker. At some point, the picking crews are sent out, usually in the dark of dawn, so that there's pleanty of time to complete the harvest and crush the grapes before the ends of the day. Different vineyards and grapes ripen at different times, so there's usually of continual flurry of activity in grape-growing regions from late September to early November.

Afterward, the leaves dry up and drop away, and the plant enters dormancy, resting for a couple of months until its starts the cycle anew.

Throughout the year, those tending the vines accompany the cycle with their efforts. Vines are pruned in the winter, the cutting affecting the amount of grapes that will ultimately grow; lower yields mean more flavor, and workers cut so as to achieve the right mix of amount and quality. Arms of the vines will also be twisted and trained to the shapes desired.

Then, in early spring, when buds first appear and killing frosts threaten, giant fans are deployed; the circulating air prevents frost from forming and settling. As spring progresses and shoots appear, they're tied to the wire trellising to support the weight of grapes to come. By mid-summer, weeds are beginning to appear and have to be removed, either with plowing or herbicides. Excess growth may be cut away, to reduce the yield in pursuit of higher quality. In some regions, the vines may be irrigated.

The harvest begins in September, finishing up by November. Fertilizer may be applied, and the ground might be plowed, so as to created berms along the base of the vines, to protect them against excess cold.

Though the grape vine is inherently sturdy, it is vulnerable to an array of pests and maladies. Phylloxera, a tiny mite, feeds on the roots and ultimately kills the plant. Native to North America, it was brought to Europe in the 1800s on vines imported from the New World. Toward the latter part of the century, it wiped out most of the vineyards of Europe. Resistant root stock from America was replanted, which helped the European wine industry recover. But even native American vines are not immune; in the late1980s, many California vineyards succumbed, dictating replacement on a massive scale.

Besides the catastrophic effects of such major pests, there are less-disastrous yet still- nagging nuisances. Several types of mildew can infect the plants, but regular spraying helps keep them at bay.