There is nothing natural about pruning—it is quintessentially human and thus, cultural. Most people seem to view the removal of the accumulation of annual growth as something like housecleaning or yardwork—removing clutter, creating some semblance of order—kind of like mowing the lawn or weed-whacking. So it is understandable that they view it as manual labor of the most basic kind, the sort for which one would hire temporary labor—the guys you see standing on the street corner, waiting for a job. Unfortunately, most “people,” applies not only to tourists, but also to many grape growers, and not only in the New World.
Because, contrary to most people’s assumptions, pruning is one of the most highly developed and ancient crafts. At its highest level, it can be compared to joinery, musical instrument making, or even surgery—surgery of the grapevine. Why is pruning so important? The formation, the structure, and the ultimate life of a grapevine are the cumulative result of each pruning cut, numbering from hundreds to thousands over the life of the vine. If you believe in the value of old vines, as I do, then you will see pruning as pivotal to the cultivation of vines 50, 80, and even 100 years old.
There are many nuances to each cut: the exact placement of the cut, its nearness to the permanent structure of the vine, the size of the cut, the angle of the blade, the sharpness of the blade, the placement of the cutting blade versus the holding anvil relative to the living tissue which will remain...and this is but a brief enumeration of some of the more obvious considerations—all of which are addressed in the instant the pruner makes the cut.
At Cain, our vines are relatively simple: each year, we will leave no more than two short canes (3-5 buds, each), and exceptionally, we might leave a 1-bud replacement spur in order to reconfigure the vine in coming years. Even this simple vine will require a minimum of four cuts, and more likely six or eight or ten—all of which are accomplished in a flash, seemingly in “the blink of an eye.” To see this, watch a video of Alberto Ramos pruning three vines—you’ll think you have gotten the idea—that is, until you try it for yourself.
All of this happens before thought begins. Through practice, it is deeply embedded in hand-eye coordination and in muscle-memory in much the same way a musician masters an instrument, or an athlete hones a skill that the rest of us could not begin to approach. But even if you practice, you will not do a beautiful job unless you both respect and love the craft. This is why, at Cain, each person prunes the same rows each year. Each year they will revisit the same vines they pruned the year before, see how each vine grew, and decide which buds to leave for the coming season. As you prune the same vines, year after year, a body of work begins to emerge.
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Pruning is the single most important act in the vineyard year. Care and devotion accompany each cut as the pruner makes his way through the vineyard.
The defining cut: Gustavo's shears remove last year’s growth, selecting just one cane, below, which will provide the buds for this year’s harvest, and the new cane for next year.
Since 2002, each year, Jose Antonio Torres-Ayala has pruned these same vines.
All photos by Charles O’Rear.