Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | July 29, 2010

Hell On The Heart: Dropping Fruit in the Vineyard

The Farmer's Left Ventricle Chardonnay

Often referred to as dropping or thinning fruit, cutting back crop yields for The Farmer is like cutting out a piece of his heart. This week we’re cutting out the piece of The Farmer’s heart labeled Pinot Noir, last week he lost the left ventricle – it was Chardonnay.

And while I am notorious for cutting people out and have found it easier and easier to stomach over time, The Farmer has a real tough time with it.

The tug of war with the heart, between grower and winemaker, and sometimes with a consultant thrown in between can be a tremulous as a bad relationship gone one step further towards just being wrong.

Dropping fruit is done at various stages of the growing cycle. It occurs at different times and for different reasons for white and red grape varieties. There are several alternative philosophies about why to do it, how and when to do it. All practices point back to harvesting the cleanest and best fruit a grower can deliver to the crush pad come September and October.

As some of the greatest winemakers, viticulturists, and farmers say in The Valley, “Whatever you do in the vineyard, do it for a reason.” Reminds me of a boss who used to say, “I don’t care what decision you make, just make a decision.” Same difference. Both great lessons in life and in the vineyard.

One form of cutting back yields and fruit is a method we employ at Thomson Vineyards during pruning. It’s at that time when growers make some of the most important decisions in the vineyard they’ll make all year long. Sometimes decisions made on their own, or alongside winemakers, growers must gauge the future sales market, assess current or pending contracts, predict the seasonal weather pattern and match those variables up against pruning style, personal preference, skilled labor availability and cost; nearly 10 months out from harvest.

After pre-pruning, decisions are made about how many positions on a vine or buds on a cane to keep. We sometimes carry up to 12 positions on our cane pruned Creek Block Chardonnay to balance the vigor in the vine throughout the growing season. Sourcing energy from the total leaf area and healthy canopy translates to fruit ripening and flavor development. If the vine is carrying too little or too much fruit flavor development can be stunted. Canopy and irrigation management, and ultimately a balanced vine produces fruit with more defined flavors. Terroir has its own affect, but that’s another heartache blog for another day.

Unfortunately, the balanced vine theory seems to get tossed aside when it comes to dropping fruit. For some, it suddenly it becomes about the cluster and no longer the vine carrying the clusters. Thomson Vineyards subscribes to the balanced vine theory during all facets of the growing season and while dropping Pinot Noir this week looked for even fruit distribution across the vine first and segmented out specific clusters second.

Cutting Away Chardonnay $1 at a Time

Crop yields are restricted again during shoot thinning when vines are left with 4-6 shoots per foot of canopy. Leave too many shoots the vines may be over cropped or the shoots left will shade out each other and the fruit.  An overly thick canopy leads to less frost resistance and an increased potential for mildew. Thin too many and the vine is potentially left starving for enough leaf area to transport sunlight as energy into the fruit clusters and it’s challenging to ripen the fruit before harvest.

Some growers drop fruit just after berry set, while berries are still hard and cannot be damaged by human hands as they get into the fruit set to cut bunches and chuck them to the ground.

Dropping crop on the ground is often associated with what level of wine the winemaker is hoping to make, is it gonna’ be premium, ultra premium or premium-XXX wine? Is there really a difference? Seems a bit like a 92 vs a 93 on the 100 point rating scale. But let’s not go down that road again.

Second crop is usually addressed at some point during the growing season as a form of refocusing energy away from bunches that flowered late and throughout the upper canopy. Send a crew through, cut it out. It’s still a form of dropping it on the ground.

Cutting out fruit at 75-90% veraison is a popular time to drop those clusters which display partial or certain percentage of green grapes within the bunch, or total green bunches, for red grape varietals.

For whites, just prior to harvest one last push to develop flavors can occur, dropping less desirable or under developed clusters on the ground. The closer to harvest this is done the less susceptible delicate white varietals are to damage or disease.

At whatever point in the season a grower makes the determination to drop fruit, or is asked by a winery to drop fruit, it sure is hell on the heart. When growers are paid by the ton, each cluster or pound cut out by a pair of shears is that much less noted on the weigh tag. It’s worse the further into the season you get. To see fruit clusters you’ve handled with care for upwards of 10 months, dusted lovingly with sulphur, meticulously gone over row by row, time and time again checking for juice sucking moths, bird damage or other pests, reviewing each and every single berry – to see it in a big heap of fruit on the ground is just plain rough.

A quasi gentleman friend asked me in January, over a very long dinner, if I cut people out or merely put distance between myself and the other. Wanting to be agreeable at the time, I answered the latter. Well, I lied. I cut people out with intention and purpose; much like cutting back Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot crops.

Rather than drinking the ’82 vintage wine (close enough to the year I was born) and attempting to be agreeable that night, I should have answered that every situation requires a different response or applied set of practices, just like in the vineyard. However, in the case of that particular man, I think he’s best dropped on the ground with the rest of the Chardonnay fruit we put there last weekend; with intention, purpose and best of all a reason.

So, what’s your intention, purpose or reason for dropping fruit?

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Responses

  1. This is a very timely blog on a very important issue. I talk about this farming practice nearly every single day in my tasting room. There exists a natural conflict of interest between growers who get paid by the pound and wineries desiring high quality, concentrated fruit, usually requiring thining and massive leaf pulling. These things cost money and in times like these, many grower’s are not likely to send their guys out in the vineyards anymore times than absolutely necessary.

    Here’s the kicker:

    This is the coolest summer in 39 years. Fog lingering longer, less sun in the afternoon is bad bad bad for grapevines. Couple this with the fact we are two weeks behind from the late May and June rain, this is the year to thin fruit. I remember back in 2002 a neighbor with 30 acres of old vine zin didn’t get the sugars the winery wanted.

    30 acres X 2 ton per acre X $2,800/ton = one big ass mistake.

    This year we seem to be heavily set too. Perfect storm for a disastrous year.

    Get out there and thin… the grapes will be high quality too!

  2. I’m dropping fruit because 1) my vines are still young and to allow them to carry a full load could damage their development (so I am told) 2) to get 100 points on my dog’s tasting scale (much more accurate than the Wine Spectator). Great blogpost. Thanks for sharing.


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