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This is the way I was shown in France, where, although I did not realize it, the tradition was already beginning to be lost. When I came to Mouton Rothschild in the summer of 1983, my first goal was to get to know the vineyard and the vignerons—not easy, since there were more than 50 blocks, some 30 vignerons, 20 vigneronnes, and 10 tractorists. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. Just imagine how the party felt when the daily lunch swelled to over 400 people at harvest time! Each vigneron had a slightly different approach to his work. I looked for the one who focused on the plant, who had both energy and care, who was in love with his craft.

The man who taught me to prune, Jean Deyres, was said to be the most vaillant. At almost 50 years old, he nearly killed me—pruning steadily in freezing temperatures, before sunrise, after sunset, through rain, snow, sleet, and hail, day after day. Each day he would begin promptly and work steadily, stopping only for lunch at home (precisely 30 minutes), until he had reached his self-appointed goal of having pruned 1000 vines. In this way, “Jeanno” would prune all of the vines in his assigned blocks, and then have another couple of weeks to do additional paid work for the chateau. In the longer days of summer, and on weekends, he would go home to tend his garden and his chickens and rabbits. He even built his own house in this way. That is, when he was not responding to a call from his volunteer fire department, of which he was a member.

In most cases, Jeanno had pruned the very same vines for more than twenty years, ever since he had begun working at Mouton, after returning home from his service militaire in Algieria (1957). At first, he walked to work, or came on his bicycle. In the sixties, he got his first automobile. When Jean Deyres was taught to prune, it was an apprenticeship. He was assigned to follow in the same row behind the master vigneron as he pruned. The vigneron would make all of the principal cuts. The apprentice’s task would be to pull away last year’s growth and to trim the two canes that had been retained. Eventually, the apprentice would be allowed to skip ahead and try his hand at pruning a vine—not “under his master’s watchful eye”—but always within the peripheral vision of the vigneron. If you know what to see, if it has been deeply embedded from a lifetime of muscle-memory and hand-eye coordination, you don’t think—a glimpse is all it takes. That apprenticeship would last three years before the new vigneron was given a block of vines to tend on his own. The work is exacting, physically demanding, and relentless. It also carries with it the love and constancy associated with any repetitive practice: a pianist playing a Bach prelude for the 1000th time, a mother tending her baby, day by day. The familiarity can be not only comforting, but it can allow one to go deeper.

That is the beauty of it. When we listen to the Bach prelude, when we see the mother with her child, and when we walk in the vineyard, we know that there is much more than we can comprehend. But we can begin to appreciate the depth of work, the care, and the unstated knowledge and love that underlies what we can perceive.

—Chris Howell, Winemaker

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Copyright ©2012 Cain Vineyard & Winery, All Rights Reserved

Image 5
This small lateral has two extra buds that could compete with and crowd the principal bud which will give us this year’s harvest.

Image 6
Even this tiny bud must be removed.

Image 7
Jean Deyres (center), before the start of the Napa Valley Marathon, 1988. At 50 years of age, his goal was to break 3 hours. He nearly did, coming in at 3:02.

All photos by Charles O’Rear, except the portrait of Jean Deyres by the author.

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