Grape set

In the privacy of her sheltered vineyard, our Old Vine is bearing fruit. The blossoms she produced in May have popped their caps, releasing pistils and stamens that rub against each other in the process. Now self-pollinated, the grapes for vintage 2009 Zinfandels have been born. By the time I visit in mid-June, only a few signs of the miracle are visible, protected beneath a tangle of bright green leaves. Other clusters closer to the plant's trunk bear fruit the size of small pearls.

Threats exist at each stage of the growing cycle, but this year we've been spared a few of the major ones. With brief exceptions, overnight temperatures stayed well above freezing in late spring while buds and blossoms were most fragile. And as drought pressures water supplies throughout California, a few inches of May rain kept the vineyards watered without irrigation. Unseasonably cool, humid days in early June had vineyard managers poised to combat powdery mildew and Botrytis bunch rot, both of which thrive in moist conditions, but by mid-June, 80-degree weather has returned.

The month has been a blur of pest control, canopy management and planting for vineyard manager Steve Thomas and his crew of 20 to 30. They work their way across
Kunde Family Estate acreage one vineyard at a time, dusting vines with organic sulfur and using stylet mineral oil to discourage spider mites. Vines planted to fill holes in existing vineyards are protected with empty milk containers. Heavy construction equipment labors just over the hill from our Old Vine. It is leveling a Cabernet Franc vineyard that no longer made the cut, producing small quantities of unexceptional fruit. The land will lie fallow for a year before a new batch of Cabernet or Zinfandel vines are brought in.

Today workers whip past on four-wheelers and in farm trucks, but they rarely stop. Aside from regular maintenance visits - shoot thinning, bug proofing and mildew dusting - the Shaw vineyard is left alone. Its plants are dry farmed, which means they have survived by taking what Nature gives them and making the best of it. This year they have responded by sending out branches so tall I can't see above them and so plentiful they hide the trunk.

Once crews have gone home for the night, with owls and birds of prey their only spectators, these long, leggy vines dance along with the cool coastal breezes. It's a sight many of us in Wine Country have never seen, since modern vineyards are planted in narrow rows, with vines trained to grow on trellises for easy picking. In contrast, these Old Vines are left
au naturale, ungirdled and free to undulate in each new gust of wind.



In May, vineyard managers turn their attention to replanting vineyards that have outlived their usefulness for reasons of age, disease or the fall from grace of their varietals. While the Kunde crew bulldozes these underperformers, Old Vine Zinfandels are left alone to do what they do best. Our elderly plant sprouts buds from nooks and crannies that seem all but dead. They unfurl into spiky leaves, each a work of art. Just days later, nubby little shoots push past the foliage. At the end are tight clusters of blossoms, each of which can theoretically become a grape.

Bud break

Weeks after the Chardonnays and young red vines have popped their first leaves, above, the Old Vines are just beginning to stir. A few weeks of bright April sunshine and a good tilling of the soil sets the stage. Then several days of gentle rain gave this plant the jump start it needed. Bud break is a marker in Wine Country, a signal that the season has started and next fall's wine is on the way.


The Kunde family grows 25 varieties of grapes on their 1,850-acre
ranch, in vineyards that follow the contours of the countryside.
Their land fronts the Sonoma Highway on one side and climbs
into the Mayacamas Mountains on the other,
encompassing seven different microclimates and soil types that range from deep loam to rock to 5 million year old volcanic ash. Soils and climates are matched to varietals, with the richest reds grown in the highest, hottest vineyards and tender Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs planted in the cool, rich loam along the valley floor. From a distance the land looks quilted, adorned with tidy rows of feather stitches. The rows look even tidier after the cover crops have been removed for the season, adding rusty red to the palette of bright greens, browns and yellows.

Cover crops

Tall yellow mustard brightens the sleeping beds throughout winter and spring. In the Shaw vineyard, below, a mix of bell beans, vetch and peas are planted to enrich the soil in this vineyard while keeping the ground from washing away during heavy winter rainstorms. That thick cover crop is allowed to stay between the rows until late March, when it is plowed under, releasing its nutrients and allowing the vines to absorb every last drop of moisture that comes their way.


New haircuts aren't always flattering. They draw attention to termite holes, battle scars and barnacles that have accumulated over the years. Vineyard crews tidy up each wild appendage, leaving behind an inch of new growth at the top of each branch that resembles a blunt-cut fingernail. Grapes are produced from wood that is made the previous year, so care is taken with each cut. Pruning activates the plant's hormones, signaling the start of a new season. And because these Old Vine Zinfandels are not irrigated, they're left sleeping until all the newer vines are off and running.