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Local Limelight: Weeklyish Articles Of Interest

Oregon Vineyard Winter Work
By Trudy Kramer, Kramer Vineyards

The harvest is over, the grapevines are done, the leaves fall off and our weather turns cold.  The vines go into dormancy.  What do viticulturalists (vineyard specialists) do in winter?  Take a vacation? 

Yes, it is a great time to do that, but there is always work to do.  When winter approaches, the rainy, snowy weather makes it quite difficult to do anything outside so the work is done when a few nice days in a row suddenly occur.  The soil needs to be somewhat dry.  Tractor work is limited to even dryer times.  Our soils are clay and it is easy to slide down a hill when it is wet.  Most vineyards in Oregon are on hillsides which makes this a big safety issue.  Hand pruning of the grapevines is a primary task during this time.  We usually have from December to March to finish pruning. 

When the leaves fall off the vine usually by November, it is easy to see the structure of the vine.  The trunk shows the age of the vine by its girth and tends to be gnarly.  The trellis system most commonly used in Oregon is called Guyot.  There is the vertical trunk and then a horizontal shoots on either side with vertical shoots coming up from it.   There are many kinds of trellis systems.

The most important thing to know is that the fruitful buds on the vine are on the newest shoots that grew the previous year.  This makes grapevines “biennial.”  If you cut all the shoots off that grew the previous year, you get no grapes.  Usually, only two shoots are selected to be the fruiting canes for the coming vintage.  They are selected from the shoots that are close to the top of the trunk called “the head.”  About 90% of the growth from the last vintage is cut and pulled out of the trellis and laid down on the ground.  This is called “removing brush.”  I have done this and sometimes when the shoots are yanked out, they act like a whip and, zing, you get a swat to your face.  When brush pulling is done, all that remains is the trunk and two shoots sticking up.  To avoid damage from wind, they are then tied down horizontally to the lowest wire on the trellis and pruned so the shoots do not cross between plants.  A young or closely spaced vine is pruned to one shoot.  The vine is ready for the next vintage.

Before mowing, it is a great time to take cuttings to use as grafting material or as plants to root for a year away.  If plants should die due to dog blight, deer blight, tractor blight, or gopher fodder, plants can be rooted as replacement vines.  Many vineyards purchase previously grafted vines to plant at this time.  Nurseries also take orders for vines for the next planting year.  Planting of new vines usually occurs from February (if there is good weather) thru May.  Since moisture is the most important variable in young vine survival installing a drip system is critical.  Shoots can be rooted in garden plots.  After amending soil and tilling deeply, soil is covered with black plastic and shoots four buds long are jammed into the soil with two buds in the soil and two buds above.  Frequent watering is critical.

Other winter tasks include replacing broken posts, repairing the trellis, maintenance of tractors and other equipment, updating records, planning for new vines, arranging to acquire vines from a nursery, mowing the “brush” to cut it up so it goes back into the soil, and herbicide spraying or weed removal between plants.  We usually will disc every other row in the vineyard.  This will add to the humus in the soil. 

The first sign of growth in the vineyard is when sap starts dripping where the pruning cuts are made.  Then “bud break” occurs sometime in April.  The buds swell and cast off a brown shield protecting the bud from winter damage.  The fuzzy new growth reveals green leaves and shoot growth.  The average date of bud break is April 7, but in recent years it has been as late as May.

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