Last summer we got a call from a family south of San Jose in the small town of San Martin. They grow walnuts there, and a few years ago planted about 200 Syrah and Grenache vines. The vines were in trouble and they didn't know what was wrong.
We went down to take a look and found that Powdery Mildew was the main problem. The vineyard was actually in pretty good shape. Most of the time we get a call like that we find a vineyard that has not been properly pruned, suckered and tied up. In those cases the damage to the vine is severe. Grapes are wild aggressive plants, and with improper care, they will grow like a weed. If the trunk and canes have not been kept in shape by suckering, pruning and tying up, it takes three years to restore them. The same amount of time to start over with new plants.
Their experience with the walnut orchard though had served them well. The pruning was good, the trunks suckered and strong, and the plants trained properly. They had just made a few small mistakes. They had watered too much and the vines had gotten to vigorous. It's very common for people to think vines need more water than they really do.
That vigor had created an environment that let Powdery Mildew thrive and they were not sure what, how and when to spray. That's the other common mistake people can make. It was too late to save the grape crop. Once mildew spreads to the grapes, they will never get ripe enough to make wine. They make look ripe, but the mildew prevents sugar development and stunts all flavor.
As we explained all this too them last year the entire family came out to take notes, ask questions and learn all they could. I really enjoyed our time with them. Their enthusiasm to learn was really fun.
This year they followed the watering and spraying schedule I left them with. Calling just once to track down a Powdery Mildew spray I recommended to stop the active spores left from last season.
A few weeks ago though they emailed worried about the vines. They looked 'wild and out of control', and they worried about mildew again. I made sure they didn't do anything right away. Doing anything while the plants flower in late May will ruin the crop, so I assured them: "wait, and we'll be out in a few weeks."
This morning we headed down and spent a few hours with them again. The vines were doing well, still full of vigor so they had gotten very bushy. Stef and I showed them how to thin the shoots, and remove laterals, then tie the vines into the trellis. We worked half a row with them until they had it down, and left them working away. They were happy that the wild vines now looked like the well tended vineyards they had just seen in Paso Robles.
Going down and visiting with them is a trip Stef and I both enjoy. A friendly family, full of cheer and enthusiasm about growing grapes and making wine is a trip that is a lot of fun for us. We'll go back in a month or so and check on them, and I'm sure their little vineyard will be doing great.