Winter, even here in our relatively mild central coast, is a time of dormancy. Barbecues are covered or rolled into the garage, basketballs and baseballs lie forgotten in dusty corners, roses and grapevines raise bare arms against cold and shredding skies.
Like most fruit trees and vines, grapes require this period of dormancy to build strength for the coming vintage. In a way, this time of year is truly the beginning of the next vintage, just as January is the beginning of our new year. A vine is impacted by its past—the type of trellising selected, the demands of past years in terms of water and heat and production, and the amount of tender care and handling it may or may not have enjoyed. But that is in the past. Now the vine is resting, rebuilding, getting ready to produce a new "leaf," as a year is often referred to in viticulture. A new leaf, new buds, new clusters as if nothing had gone on before, as though nothing can deter it from beginning fresh.
Like all plants, a vine is mindless in the sense that it will joyously burst into life in the spring and given its own way it will sprawl, climb, and spread like the weed it is, until, exhausted by its summertime orgy of sun-chasing growth, it finally produces some wild clusters of bird-size fruit.
It is up to the husbandman, gardener, or vineyard manager to prune, shape, domesticate, and tame those shameless vines into tidy rows of well-branched vines dripping with the appropriate number of grape clusters per acre—discipline bringing order and strength into nature.
This time of year vineyards look so bare and sad; their last scrap of glorious, gypsy-colored leaf blown away and trampled into the mud. Vines are chained together like prisoners, gnarled shoulders hunched like beggars against the rain.
But vines need this period of rest. Cold weather slows the flow of sap so the vine's cells harden, forming a protective layer of strength and structure in the base of the vine. Roots stretch comfortably in moist soils, no longer burdened by a search for water and nutrients with which to feed hungry tendrils and pregnant grapes above. Roots expand outward and downward, a mirror image of the springtime spirit of the plant above.
A few months later, nodes will begin to swell on the old wood of the vines. The first tiny leaves will fan out, and then growth will be fast and rampant. Grapevines grow at a rate of approximately two inches per day in spring, rapidly covering their trellises with veils of dancing greenery.
That is when we really begin to think about the next vintage. Will there be enough rain, enough heat, too much wind, too early frost? Without enough leaf canopy, the fruit will sunburn. With too much leaf, it may not ripen properly. Severe wind or rain at pollination time will interfere with fruit set. Hard summer rains will cause mildew. Once the vines physically burst into life, the vineyard manager's life is a constant contest between attaining perfection and keeping interlopers away. But when, actually, does vintage begin?
It begins now, as the vines suck water and strength from the soil like racers taking their first deep breaths, gathering themselves for their next leap toward freedom and the sun.