Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | July 6, 2010

At War With Weeds

Land of the Free. Everywhere Except Thomson Vineyards!

On Monday I passed a half-dozen ski boats headed to Lake Berryessa as I made my descent from the mountain vineyard to the valley floor; somehow I managed to get all-American tri-tip, hamburgers and hot dogs delivered to me throughout the weekend, but always in the form of a care package brought home from a poolside BBQ that my swimsuit went to, but I never made to; and on the Fourth of July I opted for the hot tub and a mango margarita over fireworks and beer.

I spent three long holiday days in the vineyard with The Farmer and he jokingly began referring to me as, “The Indentured Servant” or “The Slave Laborer.” We eventually settled on The Farmer’s, “Apprentice.” My friends jokingly referred to me as, “The No Show.”

So, just what were we up to in the vineyard? On Independence Day we waged the war on the weeds in Block 6 (which I’m now referring to as “The Devil’s Block”). And earlier in the weekend we beat the weeds in Block 7. I also mowed cover crop in BRAVIUM Block (formerly known as Block 5) and this time ensured row 105 did not end up a casualty of war.

Going to war with the weeds is really only possible with a whole lotta’ Intel and an entire army or at the very least – a platoon. During the months of March through June you may recall the unseasonable amounts of rain we got in the valley. That same rain that enabled you spend your holiday weekend wakeboarding, rafting down a river or running through sprinkler systems as if the word “drought” never existed. For Thomson Vineyards, the unseasonable amount of precipitation led to standing water and was basically an inevitable muddy sinkhole in about 30 rows of our mid vineyard Chardonnay. These conditions made it impossible to get the boom sprayer through hell’s gates before the devil turned up the heat, dried out the land, and sprouted a healthy crop of the weed called cows tongue. The devil didn’t stop there though; those weeds are now cemented right on in beneath every single vine for 15 to 30 rows of Carneros cracked clay. An army of two, The Farmer led the charge with a weed whacker and I followed suit with the spot sprayer. For 30 long and arduous rows over two days.

Dry Farming in Carneros

The whole weekend weed campaign was interspersed with a fair amount of leaf stripping which included careful oversight by and Spanish lessons from Roberto. Hojas means “leafing” for all of you considering signing on for the campaign. And you don’t leaf with just your dominant hand; you leaf feverously with both as fast as you can, for as long as you can. This is after spot spraying since 7 a.m. where you’re required to gas the ATV with your right hand and thumb and spot spray with your left hand and trigger finger. Take a moment and think on that…

In between the defensive maneuvers we implemented in Block 6 and 7, I scouted trellis parts in St. Helena at A&J Vineyard Supply, picked up some spray material at Suisun Valley Fruit Growers, drank some Grgich Hills wine and a few Sierra Nevada Summer Ales. I was also on KP duty and managed a bit of light clean up in The Farmer’s Ag Office – The Farmer managed to teach me how to operate several new pieces of equipment.

Farm Approved Eyewear

Just about every piece of Thomson Vineyards equipment requires the initial use of a forklift since most of our equipment is circa World War II. Each piece is made up of well over 3 ton of massive steel (They sure don’t make ’em like they used to! God Bless the USA) so the forklift was the first piece of equipment I was certified on. A propane powered forklift. Yeah, the Thomson’s were using alternative fuels before it was cool. Second was the, “Look Ma! No hands,” ATV scenario, including safety training related to mixing spray chemicals and wearing appropriate eyewear while doing so. And finally the trellis wire spool, which is so heavy you need a forklift to get it set up correctly and two sets of hands are required.

The July 4, 2010 weekend campaign ended on Merlot Monday, as it should have in the Merlot vineyard. Where the auspicious and elusive Monticello Merlot got the wires raised, canes tucked, laterals removed and careful inspection took place of each and every last berry. Okay, maybe I didn’t go to that extreme. After all, I had been working 12 hours a day for the past three days. The fruit looked solid though and I sense it’s going to be (as usual) better than average mountainside Merlot.

Merlot Monday

And when I say, “campaign ended” I actually mean that once the Merlot vineyard passed inspection we held a combat recap and strategy session where we attempted to decide the best course of action to continue battling the weeds and get a crew in the right place at the right time to finish the hojas. Followed closely by a discussion about the final push to get what may be the last spray of the season on, over the course of the next several nights, and ensure that what looks to be like a solid clean crop of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir remains just that – solid and clean to be harvested, crushed (most likely in October) and turned into premium wine.

A few years back someone told me, “First rule of combat. Never leave a man in the field.” So much for the first rule of combat. The Farmer will be in the field for the rest of the week applying JMS Stylet Oil to ensure that crop stays right on course to win the 2010 war. Be sure to raise a glass to him this week and every other week of the season for that matter. And please, not a glass of wine. Do you actually think they drink wine at war? They drink whiskey at war…and tequila in hell!


  1. Great post. I feel your pain. I spent the large part of the previous weekend with a hand sprayer walking the whole vineyard. Tons of work…

    • Kieth, The Farmer never uses the spit bowl at Tasting Rooms. He says, “I don’t spit because I know how hard it was to put it in that bottle right there!” Thanks for reading.

  2. As for the War of the weeds, it can be a futile endeavor. You can reduce the weeds spread by seeds by pulling and removing before the seeds mature (especially mallow), but those that spread by rhizomes and similar methods, you’re going to struggle – unless you’re willing to use Round Up.
    I find myself pulling Russian Thistle every time I’m in my vineyard.
    This winter, I will try to establish a dense seedbed of cover crops – heavy in lupine. I’m curious if that will compete with the others and suppress their growth.
    Not too fond of barley and oats as those can spread like wildfire.
    Can you give me a good reason to let those grow?

    • Arthur, we put down the dense seedbed of cover crop you suggest in your comment and it has nearly eliminated the weed base in our Pinot Noir Blocks, Creek Block and BRAVIUM Block Chardonnay. It’s where the water stood in the vineyard that prevented the cover crop from germinating and then played host to a cess pool of thick brush style weeds. Birds are bringing in a lot of non-native weeds and shrub/tree like growth. The only rememdy for that is a shovel. That’s the ecosystem though, right?

  3. I forgot to mention that my vineyard is on a 40% grade….. (oops) and in Los Angeles. No need to worry about any standing water (well… maybe except maybe in Mayor Villaraigosa’s lawn).
    The resident pigeons are more likely to thin my cover crop than add to it (so much for ecosystem….)
    Can you recommend a cover crop mix, its ingredients or the place where you bought it?

    • I saw a D5 Catepiller for sale on Silverado Trail over the weekend. How are you navigating the terrain and how many acres? We buy our cover crop materials from in Santa Rosa. Old time Farmer with a ton of knowledge, who has supplied us through apples, pears, prunes and now wine grapes. Give them a call (707-526-6733) and I’m sure they’ll be happy to discuss what would be best for your site. I’ve called The Farmer in the field to check on the mix we put out. Lot of buzz out there right now about lupine. We’re using bell beans to suck nitrogen out of a 6 acre block that is fallow. Any varietal requests or predicitions about what to plant?

  4. I navigate by foot – great exercise. I have the legs of a 20 year old cyclist 😉
    It is only 1/10 of an acre, though.
    Besides lookin’ darn purdy, lupine is thought to help trap nitrogen in the top soil and have some other benefit that I cannot recall.

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