Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Collector’s Corner

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Vineyard Articles

Sculpting the Vine: To Build Great Wine

Each January, our vineyard crew returns from their holidays anticipating the pruning season. Marcos Guzman, Salvador Solario, and Jesus Valdez stand in the leafless vineyard, arms folded, breath steaming in the cold air. As the men look out over the bare vines, each wearing his pruning shears in a sheath, the importance of their job is on their minds. Soon, they will begin pruning and shaping the vines to restrict vigor and create balance, setting the stage for ideal growing conditions.

The difference between a good wine and a great one is in details; perhaps no other vineyard task contributes as much to the quality of the next vintage as the annual pruning. Pruning is so important that we allow only our own full-time crew to prune our vines. And even though our vineyard workers are experienced pruners with many years of service, each year they review pruning techniques by attending "pruning school" here on the property.

Unlike some other growers, who use machines to trim the canes to six inches or so, our well-trained crew does all of our pruning by hand. Using machinery saves money and time initially, but in the long run, this method removes some of the history of the vines, thereby obscuring the opportunity to learn what each vine can tell us. Seeing the vines without their leaves enables the pruners to gauge the prior year’s growth; as they move steadily through the blocks, examining each vine, each spur position, and each cane, pruners determine how uniformly the vigor of each individual vine was expressed during the last season.

In addition, pruners must also determine the uniformity of shoot density. Crowding of shoots is a type of imbalance that creates conditions that can promote development of fungal diseases. By evaluating each vine individually, workers can decide how to balance each plant’s vigor and improve overall uniformity. The goal is to ensure that all clusters mature and ripen at the same time.

At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, we defer pruning until mid January to March, to reduce the risk of disease. Everything about pruning is deliberate: the length of a spur when the cane is cut, the angle of the cut, the number of spurs, their spacing, and their angle towards each other. Blocks that are susceptible to frost are pruned later, while blocks that tend to lag in ripening are pruned earlier. During pruning, the cut canes are piled in the middle of the row where they are collected and either shredded for compost or burned. After pruning, each vine may have as many as twenty open cuts, each of which is vulnerable to fungal infection. To reduce the risk of infection, each wound is hand-painted with a protective sealant. Although this method of meticulous hand pruning is painstaking, we believe it is well worth the effort to promote the long-term health of the vines so that they will go on producing superb wines.

Throughout the pruning season in the Napa Valley, the rain and frost come and go; overhead, cloudscapes float by, chased by flocks of starlings wheeling in unison. The mustard rises, painting the valley floor yellow. Now the vineyard is ready for the next cycle of its life, ready for its buds to swell and break open. Shoots will emerge and elongate; flowers will bloom, and berries will set and ripen for another harvest. And next year, it will happen all over again.