June 7, 2017
by John Komes
As a vintner, one of the questions I’m asked most often is: “Is this going to be a good year?” The reviewer, of course, is referring to the condition of the grapes. My response is that growing grapes is kind of like a football game. They both have four quarters.
The first quarter – or season – is winter. In football, the first quarter involves deciding what game plan to use after seeing your opponent on the field. Winter for the grape farmer is much the same, analyzing the rainfall and pruning the vines to get the desired outcome. The way you prune – and the number of spurs you leave on the vine – determines the amount and quality of the fruit you’ll get. In football, similarly, the first quarter determines what formation best suits the situation.
The second quarter is spring. Now the game gets interesting. The farmer must play defense, protecting the vines from frost and wind. Either condition can change the whole offensive game plan, causing damage or loss of the tender young buds and flowers that eventually turn into fruit. Either of these would be akin to losing your star running back, something to avoid as much as humanly possible.
At half time the farmer pauses to consider the crop load and canopy management techniques. At this point, with the end game in site, efforts should be directed at the highest possible quality of fruit, not necessarily the greatest quantity.
The third quarter is summer. Things happen quickly during this phase. The clusters take shape and the grapes go through verasion (when they soften and, with red grapes, change color). The farmer prays for warm days, cool nights and low humidity. He or she must determine when to water and how best to prune the vine canopies so that the grapes get enough sunlight to ripen but not burn. The third quarter of the football game is also a show of force, a time to determine the strength of your team and the weakness of your opponent and let them play to their capabilities.
Then there’s the fourth quarter. At the end of the third quarter of Super Bowl 2017, if you were to ask the Atlanta Falcons coach if this was going to be “a good year,” he would have had a positive reply. The fourth quarter is crucial. You either have a maintenance strategy or a go-for-broke strategy. In grape farming, if the weather is favorable and the fruit looks good, it’s a matter of maintaining your position with a little crop management, dropping a little under-ripe fruit to encourage uniform ripening. But if the weather changes and rains are on the horizon, you might try to hasten ripening by dropping lots of fruit, hoping that a smaller crop will ripen more quickly. If it does rain, you can try to keep the berries dry, but if the berries break down before picking, you know how the Atlanta Falcons felt after Super Bowl 2017.
So you see, farmers never know how a vintage will turn out until the fruit is picked and the game is over. I hope you enjoy your next bottle of wine, and next year’s Super Bowl!