A New Year Means it’s time to Prune

Jowler Creek Vineyard and Winery has more than 3,500 vines in its certified sustainable vineyard. Jowler Creek is located near Kansas City, Missouri and Weston, Missouri and leads the Midwest in green, sustainable, and eco-friendly practices to produce its award-winning wines.

It’s the time of year when spring is in the air but winter is not quite over either. In agriculture we often think of the farm producer working in the fields throughout the spring and summer to produce a crop and harvesting that crop in the fall. You might also assume that since no vines are actively growing, we simply take the winter off. But did you know that the winter months are when the grape growing and wine making season actually kicks off?

Even when the cold winds and snow are blowing, we are busy in the vineyard taking the first major step to producing quality wine grapes. It is in the winter months that we are busy “pruning” each and every vine by hand to get it ready for a new year of growth.

Why we prune

Left alone, a grapevine will grow vigorously and produce a dense mass of vines soon resulting in older wood with very little fruiting ability. Uncontrolled, dense vine growth also leads to poor air circulation in the canopy which negatively impacts fruit quality, because a thick canopy is a great environment for fungus, rot and disease.

Not only is canopy management via pruning important to maintaining fruit quality, it is also important to even ripening later in the summer. By pruning and managing how vines grow on the trellis, we get even sunlight on the vines so that all the grapes in a block ripen a nearly the same time at the end of the season.

The red wood is one-year-old wood and will be fruitful in the coming year.

The red wood is one-year-old wood and will be fruitful in the coming year.

Without getting too nerdy in the biology of the vine, grapevines produce fruit on one-year old wood. What is that? Well, when a bud sprouts in spring and grows into a new green leafy shoot extending from the larger grape vine, the shoot turns from green to red-brown by the end of the growing season and this is known as one-year-old wood. The following spring some of the buds from one-year-old wood will grow flowers, which develop into grape clusters. Buds on older wood (usually brown and bark-like) produce only leaves or shoots.

Recently pruned Norton grape vines at Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery.

Recently pruned Norton grape vines at Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery.

With all that in mind, the number one goal of pruning is to manage the amount of one-year old wood on each grapevine to produce the maximum number of clusters that the vine can support and ripen in a season.

The internet is full of resources for how to prune, what shoots to cut, how much and in what form. There’s a lot more information on pruning than we can fit into one little blog. We can, however, provide a couple links to YouTube videos we made on pruning in Jowler Creek Vineyard. 

New pneumatic

When it comes to pruning grape vines, we trim the shoots and woody canes by hand selecting and leaving the best one-year-old wood behind. We use our pruners to then cut off 90 percent of the shoots from the year before.  Imagine, if you will, hand-pruning 3,600 vines on our 6-7 acres of vines. It takes a long time and you can bet our hands and shoulders get pretty sore. For 10 years we have done all this by hand, even dragging the kids out in bundles of warm clothes to nap among the rows while we pruned. As the kids grew, they graduated from sleeping in the stroller and backpack to playing for hours in the SUV.

In 2016, we finally graduated from manual hand pruners to pneumatic powered pruners. Using air pressure, the new tools cut through the thick woody shoots with just a pull of the trigger. We are still pruning one vine at a time and it can work on the shoulders, but we are so grateful for the reduced risk of corporal tunnel.

The pruning rig consists of a generator to run the compressor which powers the pruners.

The pruning rig consists of a generator to run the compressor which powers the pruners.

With a generator for power, an air compressor feeds the pneumatic pruners while we work our way down the rows one by one. Our “pruning rig” moved about using our CASE Farmall 45 tractor completes our mechanized pruning platform.

Thousands of little things

 We often say that there are thousands of little things that effect how a wine will ultimately taste. One of the big things that impact the whole process is how we prune. Pruning sets the stage for plant nutrition, even ripening, fruit quality and even the eventual flavors in the grape. So next time you enjoy a glass of wine snuggled up by a nice warm fire, tip your glass to the wine makers who get the whole process going by pruning the grape vines in the winter months. Cheers!