Managing a vineyard can be a little like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you work your way from one side to the other it's time to start all over again.
That's why it takes a crew of 20 to 30 working full-time to tend the crops in Kunde Family Estate's 700-acre vineyards. Steve Thomas usually oversees the process from the driver's seat of his pickup, but today he has stopped to take a look at our Old Vine Zinfandel.
He estimates its age to be at least 100. The geezer has a few termite holes and a little moss along the trunk but is healthy enough to spit out dozens of grape clusters hidden beneath an unruly mass of sprouts, tendrils and giant floppy leaves. That isn't necessarily a good thing.
Once grapes have set, they have relatively simple needs. They like sunbathing, as long as the light is indirect, and they need airflow to dry the morning dew. Vineyard crews make that happen, strategically thinning and taming each plant's overgrown limbs by hand, a process loosely described as canopy management. On our vine, Thomas breaks off branches near the ground, essentially lifting her skirts so breezes can blow past low-hanging fruit clusters. Then he removes leaves on the north side so soft morning sunlight can penetrate. Layers on the south are kept thicker to protect against harsh afternoon rays.
The newly exposed grapes on our plant are 25 percent smaller and more loosely clustered than the fruit growing on newer Zinfandel vines. That's partly because new vineyards are irrigated, while our plant depends solely on moisture captured by roots sunk as deep as six feet into the vineyard's Red Hills clay. Doing without water is just one of the stresses that contribute to the rich, intense flavors carried within each Old Vine grape. Which reminds me of the saying my mother-in-law used whenever misfortune struck, a rough translation from the Italian: "They're just the bumps that make you grow."
Thomas has spent 29 years watching grapes grow. He worked at Clos du Bois and Kendall-Jackson before turning his attention to the unique opportunities afforded by the 1,850 acre Kunde ranch. Now his job includes babying the property's historic Old Vine vineyards and navigating the hard-to-farm hillside vineyards, as well as managing the open spaces.
This year Thomas has been charged with mammoth planting projects that involve ripping out underperforming Barberas, Old Vine Cab Francs and other varietals that didn't make the cut; breaking up the compacted soil; and replanting the vineyards with new, more promising vines. As long as our vine keeps producing, its place in the historic Shaw Vineyard is secure.