Happening now - 4/28

Chemistry woes, suckering and sulfuring... what?

Chemistry can be a good and bad thing. Chemistry is good when you make love with it. Chemistry is bad when you make crack with it. — Adam Sandler

With monads and diads, and pentads and triads,
My brain has been addled completely;
And what’s really meant by ‘something-valent,’
Is a question I give up discretely. —
John Cargill Brough

In the classroom

How do I hate thee, let me count the ways

Whew! Finally came up for air. Sorry for the digital silence. Seems like ages since I last wrote—four weeks actually, exactly the time I’ve been held captive by my Basic Chemistry for Winemakers class.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve undertaken the UC Davis Winemaking Certificate program—a wallet-emptying, five-course, two-year-long slog meant to prepare those interested in the wine industry as a career. Anyone can take the first course, Introduction to Wine and Winemaking, as a standalone, and many folks do to increase their understanding and appreciation of wine. But if you want to go on and take the full curriculum, a college-level chemistry course is a required prerequisite for the additional four units. That prerequisite will be waived if you can prove you took at least a semester of chemistry in college (which I have), but unless you just graduated, or you have the retention of a herd of elephants (which I assuredly don’t have), that would be ill advised.

UC Davis has taken the most tortuous elements of general chemistry, bio-chemistry, and organic chemistry and combined them into a 13-week waterboard course called Basic Chemistry for Winemakers, which they’ll enthusiastically enroll you in for a mere $599 (that’s above and beyond the $8,810 you have to pay for the Winemaking Certificate program). Actually, if I count up the true time I’ve already spent, and will undoubtably yet spend, trying to wrap my head around everything from covalently bonded polyatomic ions to mole relationships in limiting reactants to alkenes and aromatic hydrocarbons, well jeez, that $599 is a hell of a deal at about $2 an hour!

At this point, I’m only about a third of the way through the course, but at first blush, it’s feeling like serious overkill. I mean, are we really going to need this much chemistry to craft a good bottle of red?!

I’ll admit, I’m finding the course really difficult. Well, maybe not difficult per se; I actually understand pretty much everything our professor is teaching us. And a lot of it is interesting. But it’s the pace that’s killing me. I really wasn’t planning on spending three to sometimes five hours a day on this. I’ve got wine to make!

We have a lot of reading and three or four homework assignments every week that we must finish by that Sunday night or we lose credit. It’s critical to do them all as the homework makes up nearly 25% of your final grade. They are called Dynamic Study Modules (DSMs) and are basically practice tests with 15 to 20 questions each. The fatiguing element is that they won’t let you complete the module and get credit until you answer all the questions correctly. If you get one wrong the module attempts to teach you the concept again and then re-asks you the question TWICE, which you have to answer correctly both times in order to move on. Auuugh! They can take so much time, at least for me.

But I’m beginning to suspect there may be another issue at play here. I’ve always been a good learner—if it’s something I’m interested in—but I’ve never been that good of a test-taker. Okay, let’s be honest, I suck at taking tests. Just the anxiety that builds as I prepare for a test is enough to guarantee failure. And to make matters worse, the actual formal tests (not the DSMs) we’re taking are timed. We get two hours to answer 22 questions—some have multiple parts, and a large number of them involve equations of some sort. I can already feel my palms sweating.

We have a formal test every two weeks, and so far it’s felt nearly impossible to absorb and retain the sheer volume of new concepts and information we “learn” during that time. I did okay on the first test, 89%, actually above average for the class. The second test, just a few days ago, not so good, 81%, definitely below average. In fact I didn’t even finish in time—left three questions unanswered.

The real problem for me is that I haven’t been in a classroom situation (if you can call this powerpoint/Zoom virtual lecture experience that) in 45 years. I’m a bit rusty on this type of listen/read/memorize/recall-under-pressure type of learning, and I’m clearly overcompensating with my approach to trying to be successful. Unfortunately, this has made the entire experience decidedly un-fun.

Our professor, Grady Wann, has his PhD in chemistry and clearly loves the discipline. And he genuinely wants us to love it too—not sure that’s ever going to happen Grady! He’s a good lecturer and is tireless in his efforts to normalize the virtual environment we’re forced to adopt. He also has 27 years’ experience in the wine industry, as a research enologist, winemaker, winery manager and consultant before joining UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education in 2008. So what he’s attempting to teach us isn’t just theoretical; there’s supposedly real-life application here. It’s just that so far I’m struggling to find it.

I accept that in order to truly understand the science we might employ in our own winemaking, it’ll be very helpful to have a basic foundation in chemistry. Just how much is enough? We’ll see. Looking ahead at the syllabus for the remaining 9 weeks of this course I can feel the heart palpitations kick in. Lordy!

In the vineyard

The art of suckering

Is there such a thing? Perhaps for a kid in a candy shop, or a lamprey on the back of a great white shark, or actors in adult movi… c’mon now, stop! See what I mean? It’s really an inappropriate name for anything, particularly something you do to grapevines to improve their productivity. But it’s critical for developing the best grapes, and hence the best wine, and it’s happening right now here in vinelandia.

The following is adapted from a post on the Kendall-Jackson blog, written by winemaker Matt Smith this time of year about a decade ago. It’s still as good a description of suckering as I’ve ever read.

The new shoots have been growing really well over the past month. And now is the time to remove any unwanted growth that has emerged on the vine. During pruning this past winter a short section of one of last year’s canes, complete with two buds, was left on each spur. These two buds are intended to grow into this year’s canes and produce two clusters of grapes each.

Vines are pretty complex organisms, however, and given successful growing conditions with ample water and nutrient-rich soil, they often produce many more shoots than were intended. These shoots can emerge from buds that were hidden beneath the bark, or push from the secondary buds within the main bud. Grapevine buds are not singular, but rather compound buds that contain a primary and two secondary buds. This is an evolutionary adaptation to weather and pest conditions. If the primary bud is damaged (or the shoot is destroyed by frost), one or both of the secondary buds will emerge to ensure that the vine lives on to produce fruit.

Sometimes the secondary buds push anyway. These are called “doubles” or “triples,” which refers to two or three shoots emerging from the same bud location on the spur or cane. Suckering is knocking off all this extra unwanted growth that is weighing on the plant’s energy. Every growing part of the plant is an energy sink, which means extra shoots or buds will take energy away from the business of growing and ripening the crop.

In some cases, particularly with vines showing vigorous growth, extra buds may be left on a vine in order to reduce the energy the plant has for the intended crop. This is a good strategy where a site has ample access to water and very rich, deep soils. Then, once the shoots slow and are about to stop growing, they are removed and the rest of the crop is allowed to mature. This practice is called leaving a “kicker cane.”

So, right now is prime time to get into the vineyards and remove this unwanted growth. The shoots haven’t formed their fixed attachment to the vine yet, which means they pop off with just a little bit of pressure. It also means that it’s easy to accidentally knock off desired shoots so care must be taken—but wait much longer and it gets a whole lot tougher to remove them.

The video above is a sequence from my film Tiny Vineyards showing Ron Chapman expertly suckering a head-trained Zinfandel vine in the historic General Vallejo Vineyard.

Okay, so bear with me for a moment. After a lifetime of wing shooting, fishing, gathering and growing I’ve started to reconsider my subjugation over other living things. In reality, pruning and suckering are more than just giving your vines annual makeovers. They are oddly vulnerable encounters—powerful experiences steeped in responsibility—if you care to think that way. In fact, if you want to go really deep with the ethical imperative of the human/plant relationship check out this blog post about growing Bonsai trees on plantedshack.com. Grape vines are a remarkable corollary to this discussion.

Don’t worry, I don’t entirely subscribe to this way of thinking. I love how you can train a grapevine to do pretty much whatever you want. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. To the contrary; the results can be truly magical. So, if all this is a little too woo-woo tree-huggin’ kumbaya for you, just think of suckering as another chance beyond pruning to sculpt the vine for years to come, and have a direct impact on the quality and quantity of the grapes.

Those oft-repeated adages about how you can’t make good wine from bad grapes, and how the best wine is actually made in the vineyard are the mantras of enlightened winemakers everywhere. An article on the subject in Wines & Vines quoted Napa Valley winemaker Aaron Pott musing, “If you get it right in the vineyard, even a trained squirrel could make good wine.” Allison Tauziet, the winemaker at cult Cabernet producer Colgin Cellars in St. Helena, agreed. “It truly is what I believe makes great wine. It’s not in the winemaking, it’s in the vineyard. Make careful picking decisions, and then keep the winemaking simple. Let the wines speak for the vineyard.”

Of course, if you don’t pay attention in the vineyard you can always use chemistry in the cellar to try and craft a good wine.

Wait a minute, I see where all of this is headed!

Time to sulfur

Using the noun as a verb—another odd bit of nomenclature in viticulture. But then again, winemakers call pumping the wine out of a barrel, cleaning it, then pumping it back in “racking.” Well, I’m racking my brain to understand the connection. The online dictionaries define “racking my brain” as “to think very hard to find an answer. If you rack your brains, you strain mentally to recall or to understand something. The rack was a mediaeval torture device where the victim was tied to the rack by his arms and legs, which were then practically torn from their bodies.”

Hmm? Sounds like chemistry.

Anyway, there aren’t a whole lot of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides one can use if you’re trying to grow your grapes in a sustainable, organic, or especially bio-dynamic method, but fortunately elemental sulfur is one of them. Sprayed as a dry powder or dissolved in water as an aqueous solution, sulfur is highly effective against powdery mildew—one of the most common problems in small vineyards in northern California.

Up until now our spring has been relatively cool, but the forecast for the next couple of weeks suggests a heat wave on the way, and with it the first chance of powdery mildew developing. It’s time for that first sulfur spray. This is all totally new territory for me, but I’m now responsible for two small vineyards (more on those later) so I’ve got to walk the talk—and today was the day.

On a commercial level most chemicals are applied with large machines that can handle several vineyard rows at a time, effectively spraying under constant high pressure. The tiny vineyard owner must resort to a backpack sprayer and a side-mounted pressure pump—a pretty awesome piece of gear, actually! I ordered mine direct from Amazon (of course) for $75. A 4 lb. bag of sulfur dust was $15. I was ready.

It was great fun this afternoon learning how to control the pressure and maximize the sprayer to effectively cover my two vineyards with their first dose of mildew protectant. The only downfall of the backpack sprayer is that with a total capacity of a little over three gallons, you run out of solution after spraying about 30 vines from both sides. This requires stopping, remixing solution (I used about a half cup sulfur to 3 gallons water), and refilling the tank multiple times. It only took about an hour to spray our tiny Malbec vineyard of 64 vines, but it was over three-and-a-half hours to spray the second vineyard of 225 vines (photo above). The whole time I was pumping the pressure rod with my left arm, so I’m guessing that’ll be a bit sore tomorrow.

Watch the video below from the Tiny Vineyards film to see a couple masters of the spray wand plying their craft at two great tiny vineyards in Sonoma.