In Sonoma Valley we take winegrowing seriously. In wine country, “wine growers” are the skilled farmers who grow the grapes for the wine, an esteemed profession because true wine lovers know that the quality of the product in the bottle starts with the work of the hands in the field. While grapevines are prolific and widely planted around the world, cultivating them successfully from the beginning of the growing season until harvest requires enormous attention to detail. From the choice of grape clone to deciding which inputs to use when cultivating the soil, every detail governs the quality of the final product.
The taste of a wine depends on the “terroir” of the vines. Terroir is the combined effect of sun exposure in the vineyards, climate, grape varietal type, soil type, and human influence. When you taste a wine made of grapes from just one specific vineyard, as opposed to a blend of several different vineyards, you are tasting the terroir of a given plot of land. Generally speaking, the more distinctive an area designated on the label, the higher the quality (and usually the price) of the finished wine.
As you’re driving through the valley, you’ll notice terroir in action as you see the differences among vines throughout the growing season. Is bud break the same on the valley floor as it is high up in the steep mountains? Are some grapes ripening before others? Are the leaves changing colors in different patterns? Understanding what’s happening at the vineyards can make a trip to wine country a true learning experience, putting you front and center with the grapes and this year’s vintage.
JANUARY & FEBRUARY
The vines lay dormant during this time. Having shed their leaves after the harvest, the dormancy process allows vines to regenerate after an active growing season. Beneath the surface, the roots continue to penetrate into the soil deeply, searching for minerals to feed them as well as water from the winter rains—some roots will grow as deep as thirty feet down! Above the surface, vineyard workers trim all the excess canes (vine stems) from the vine, leaving the trunk and a select number of canes. Be on the lookout for vineyard workers burning the trimmings in large burn piles reminiscent of a campfire. Many winegrowers save the ashes to use as a natural fertilizer and the wood chips to help preserve the bacterial cultures of the vineyard. Those who practice organic or biodynamic growing practices may even mix the ashes with other inputs like medicinal herbs and minerals to create a powerful natural infusions and teas that stimulate plant growth.
At this time, you’ll also start seeing flowers growing between vineyard rows—particularly bright yellow mustard—which are planted intentionally as cover crop. In addition, you’re likely to see chamomile, calendula, sweet peas and wild radish, among others—each with its own medicinal value for the vine. Each winegrower uses cover crops for different reasons. Some plant it to nourish the vines during dormancy, and others use it on hilly vineyards to stave off soil erosion. Cover crops cultivate biodiversity in the vineyards, attracting just the right insects and animals to help keep the vines in balance. However used, cover crops are generally only present in the vineyards during the winter, when they aren’t apt to compete with the vines for water. They are as beneficial as they are beautiful.
MARCH & APRIL
The early spring is known as budbreak, when the vineyards pop with bright green buds growing from the spurs of a vine cane. It’s an exciting time for growers as it marks the official beginning of the growing season. Despite the hopeful buzz and predictions around the upcoming vintage, this is when the vines are at their most vulnerable. Spring frosts can drastically reduce a crop once budbreak hits. For those of you staying close to vineyards, you may hear a faint buzzing like a faraway airplane in the middle of the night. Those are the large wind machines that blow in the vineyards when temperatures drop to stave off frost and bud damage. Growers use this time to begin the work of de-budding, a process which helps to intentionally and carefully limit the yields, concentrate growth, and create more flavorful grapes
This is also the last you’ll see of the cover crops. Growers are working the soils with tractors and plows to turn over the cover crop to nourish the soil, tilling it under with other fertilizing inputs like manures, natural teas and minerals to foster healthy vine growth and microbiotic life in the soil.
MAY TO AUGUST
This is when the growing season reaches its full potential. Through May and June, the shoots are developing and beginning to flower. Fruit set soon follows into July, and by August, the grapes ripen and develop their color. During this time, vineyard workers prune and trellis the vines to create an optimal growth experience for the vines. Depending on the conditions in the vineyard, some will trellis the leaves high and/or wide to shield the grapes from too much sun, while others work to clear the clusters of too many leaves to facilitate more air flow to encourage more sun exposure and ripeness. Certain winegrowers may choose to cut clusters off the vine while the grapes are still young and green, a practice called “green harvest.” This also helps to limit yields and concentrate the flavors in existing clusters, although this practice is losing its popularity in place of de-budding.
During this time, winegrowers are on alert for vine disease like shatter and chlorosis, among others. Shatter is reflection of poor fruit set and offers grape clusters with berries of different sizes and colors—known as “hens and chicks”—although some growers choose grape varietals that naturally produce more shatter to help the finished wines retain the perfect balance of sugar and acidity. You’ll see chlorosis in action when you see leaves speckled in yellow, reflecting poor soil nutrients and poor photosynthesis. The greatest menace to any vineyard is phylloxera, a disease brought on by louses eating the vines. Winegrowers use rose bushes to detect it above the soil, which you’ll see planted at the end of vineyard rows—both pretty and practical!
You may also notice bluebird boxes, bat boxes, and owl boxes, poised strategically throughout the vineyards. By encouraging these beautiful creatures, winegrowers are able to cultivate biodiversity in the vineyards while also providing natural barriers against detrimental insects and pests.
SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER
Harvest in Sonoma Valley occurs between the end of August through early October. Each grape varietal and vineyard ripens on its own timing and in conjunction with summer temperatures. At this time, the winegrower’s job is to constantly monitor sugar levels to determine the optimal time for harvest. Once a harvest date is set, teams of harvesters work strategically and quickly, vineyard row-by-vineyard row, to harvest the grapes. Most wineries choose to harvest by hand, but some harvest with the help of a tractor. Vineyard workers typically harvest in the middle of the night or early morning, when cooler temperatures help preserve the natural acidity of the grapes—the ultimate sign of freshness in a wine. Harvesting is physical, hard work. Since timing is of the essence, the work is typically nonstop until the entirety of the vineyard holdings have been harvested and off to the winery for crush.
After the harvest, the cycle of the growing season comes abruptly to an end, marking the transfer of the process from vineyard to wine cellar. Winemakers take over the process from here, leaving the vineyard team to rest and tie up loose ends after an intense season.
NOVEMBER & DECEMBER
If you have the opportunity to come to Wine Country in November and December, you’ll see the leaves change their color and finally drop to the ground. While California doesn’t have the same fall colors seen in other parts of the country, the fields of grapevines do show a brilliant quilt of reds and yellows against the golden hills and green-leafed oak trees. With warm days and cool nights, this is one of the best times to visit wine country. While the vines enter their dormant phase of rest, the winter rains soon usher in green grasses and cover crops, and the season begins once again.