Instead of attending Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, a break in the weather between winter storms found me drinking my morning coffee while driving the windy South Mountain Road from Santa Paula toward Fillmore along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County’s Heritage Valley (check out Pam Strayer’s Unified coverage here). The day, while dry, was full of moist air from the river and the rains.
On one side of me, bright balls of orange decorated the glossy dark green leafed citrus trees and on the other steep hillsides banded with chalky marine and red sedimentary layers reminded me of what’s underneath. Soon purple lupine, golden poppies, and yellow mustard will splash across the horizon on the glowing verdant hillsides.
Cisco, my faithful Australian cattle dog sidekick, was along for the day, sitting up front, alert and making excited noises. Until the Thomas Fire, he lived on ranch lands like these, the smells and sights of the citrus trees a familiar backdrop to extended excursions.
We’d both been invited by winemakers Bruce Freeman and Gretel Compton to join them on this sunny January morning at the South Mountain Vineyard of Clos des Amis; Cisco could spend his day running around with Molly and Brody, their AUS cattle and shepherd mixes.
For me, I’d be pruning grape vines, a task I’d long yearned to learn.
For over 25 years I’ve enjoyed the outdoor work of climbing and pruning trees and shrubs with loppers and chainsaws; my Meyer lemon needs regular shaping to fit inside its narrow spot along the driveway as do my Cecil Bruner roses, and my two California lilacs also need pruning to keep in control. While I have three chardonnay vines growing, they have only been in the ground two years and I need to learn how to take care of them.
There’s no imposing facade or fancy sign for the winery; a green dumpster by the road was the indication of where to turn in to find Clos des Amis.
In fact you’d never guess that on both sides of the Santa Clara river there are vineyards that go in to Clos des Amis wines. Few people know that Ventura County once grew many wine grapes — or that there’s a small but increasing number of vineyards here today.
Leading the vineyard revolution is Bruce Freeman of Clos des Amis who warmly greeted the dog and I once we wound our way to his handmade and solar powered winery which I first visited in October of 2016 (after narrowly escaping a car crash that sent two telephone poles down, one on each side of my car). On that day, we had planned to visit the vineyards but that changed when we were trapped there on the road for an hour or more, leaving us with barely enough time to get up to the winery for a chat and a barrel tasting.
While we waited for his partner Gretel who was making our lunch, Bruce showed me the progress he is making on his latest project: sparkling wine. In 2010, he bottled enough pinot noir from vines in Camarillo to experiment with, and recently he bottled chardonnay to make into sparkling wine and this he will be selling.
Bruce is an artist who teaches print making at Ventura College, and for years, he designed and crafted the exhibits at the Ventura Museum. As a hands-on person, the labor involved in making sparking wine does not seem to intimidate him; he even hand made his riddling racks.
At lunch we had their Chardonnay and I was able to taste one of the experimental bottles of sparkling wine — very dry and with lovely strawberry and raspberry fruit and a bit of fun funk too. (At the end of the day, as a thank you, Bruce offered to me a bottle of wine; of course I asked for the sparkling! He seemed surprised and warned me that it’s an experiment and he’s not sure whether it will have bubbles or be flat which makes it even more exciting to me and to share with Sue).
After showing me the sparkling wine project, we climbed in the truck wearing our work clothes with sun hats and water bottles for the short but steep drive up the hill to the vineyards. Cisco jumped in the truck too, but Bruce’s Australian cattle and shepherd mixes ran along side and in and out the orchards. This of course looked like too much fun for Cisco so we let him out to race and explore with the other dogs — he was definitely in his element out there!
And so was I.
While again not what most people picture as typical vineyards as they are small and embraced by avocado and tangerine trees with chaparral on the steeper hillsides, the views of the Santa Clara River Valley all the way to the sea, across to Santa Paula Peak, and further east to Interstate 5 and Castaic warm my soul.
We drove past one small vineyard “the old vineyard” dubbed because it was the first, and on to the “new” vineyard” which has a range of reds including malbec, carignan, and the Mourvèdre we were about to prune.
First, I picked my tools –gloves and a pruner — and Bruce sharpened them up. I chose narrow ones for manuarevability but next time I’d bring my own which are more powerful — I hadn’t expected the vines to be so tough!
Bruce showed me the basics. We’d prune above the second of the little nubs that will become buds and break out in a few weeks, he said, then toss the old canes into piles. He planned to select some of the best to expand the mourvedre.and he showed me what he’s looking for but I decided to let him choose those and to focus on pruning.
Let me just say: it’s not that hard, but it’s a lot of work. So why do it?
Pruning, says Wikipedia, is a horticultural and silvicultural practice involving the selective removal of certain parts of a plant, such as branches, buds, or roots. Trimming cuts away dead or overgrown branches to increase fruitfulness and growth. Pruning such as this is done in the winter when the vines are dormant — taking a nap.
Some say pruning is the most important step in the winemaking process.
First some vocabulary:
- Trunk: the part that come out of the ground
- Cordon: the arm or arms that reach out of the trunk
- Spur: areas where the canes grow from the cordon;
when pruning, you want the spurs to be about a fist width apart
- Canes: these shoot out of the spurs and are where the grapes come from but only from second year wood; each new cane produces two clusters of grapes.
- Bud: this is on last year’s wood and where the new cane comes from;
when pruning, the cut is made above the second bud
The quick video above from Sutter Creek’s Avio provides some basic guidelines, but neglects to mention the artfulness to this task which takes the form of balance and beauty, form and function. Balance comes from cutting enough but not too much: if too much is cut away, there won’t be much of a crop, but if there’s too much, then the crop may not ripen. The vine should also look balanced when the pruning is completed.
This video from Sonoma’s Jordan Winery discusses the importance of balance; it’s longer and has better production values too (great job Lisa Matson!)
In the video, fifth-generation Alexander Valley farmer Bret Munselle points out that while a larger vineyard might pre-prune with a machine, it really takes a human with the right tool and knowledge to select the spurs to leave for the next season. He also points out that pruning earlier will mean an earlier bud break, and that if you don’t prune at all, bud break and a crop will still occur.
This morning, the rain came again with a BANG– a torrential downpour with thunder and lightening meant no pruning today — and we got twice as much rain as predicted with over an inch falling in Santa Paula in about six hours — which means no pruning tomorrow either because two more storms are on their way and it’s pouring rain right now.
“The vines will love the drink after we hacked them back and gave them some fertilizer,” says Gretel. “As soon as this storm is passed we will finish up South Mountain and move on to Fillmore! Stay tuned!”
I’ll add more photos and maybe make a video of my own that shows more about what it’s like to prune wine grape vines. In the coming year, I plan to visit the Ventura County vineyards of Clos des Amis and other Ventura County vineyards too every month or so and report on the vintage. So subscribe — it’s free!