First in an occasional series about the 2015 vintage at Barboursville Vineyards.
“It’s snowing over the mountains,” Luca Paschina said, pointing west toward the Blue Ridge, where snow squalls obscured the summits. “Good thing we’re not pruning in the Shenandoah Valley today!”
Where we were standing, among rows of three-year-old vermentino vines in a vineyard Paschina informally calls “Mountain View,” bright morning sunshine fought a doomed battle against heavy clouds pushed by strong winds. Six workers, moving stiffly in several layers of heavy clothing to guard against the late January chill, snipped dead wood off the vines.
Two months before those vines would show life, the 2015 vintage was already under way at Barboursville Vineyards, about 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville, as at vineyards throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The frigid work of vine pruning not only clears away expired wood from the previous harvest but also helps determine the number and quality of this year’s grapes and prepares the vine to grow again next year.
For Paschina, 53, this will be a silver vintage, his 25th since leaving his native Piemonte, in northwest Italy, in 1991 for Virginia’s Piedmont to become Barboursville’s general manager and chief winemaker.
The winery was founded in 1976 by Gianni Zonin, heir to one of Italy’s largest wine-producing families, but its early wines were uneven in quality. Under Paschina’s stewardship, Barboursville has emerged as a powerhouse in Virginia’s rise to global respect as a producer of world-class wines. And he has become a hero back in Italy: He is to be inducted into the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic this month during a ceremony in Washington.
Paschina doesn’t do this work alone. His longtime vineyard manager, Fernando Franco, recently honored by the Virginia Vineyards Association as its winegrower of the year, oversees the crucial fieldwork from pruning to harvest. Franco handed me a pair of shears and began a quick tutorial.
“We are looking to keep the lightest wood, which is last year’s growth,” he explained, “and we want the canes to be like the size of a pencil. Too thick, and they won’t be productive.” He selected one and snipped off its end just below the second trellising wire, at a height of about 6 feet. That left 10 buds on the cane, each of which will grow a shoot and produce two clusters of grapes, if all goes well. He made similar cuts to three more canes.
“Later we will tie one cane on each side of the trunk on the lower wire” — at about 3 feet off the ground — “and leave the others for insurance in case we get another polar vortex or a spring frost,” he said. If the buds survive through the frost period of April and early May, the insurance canes will be discarded.
“We try to leave the most wood possible, because if I lose 20 percent of my crop to frost in April, or if the temperature drops to 20 below in February, then I have additional canes,” Franco said. “I can always cut them off later, but I cannot put them back.”
Then he knelt and snipped the lowest growth of the vine, leaving a single bud near the trunk. “This spur will grow for next year’s crop,” he said. Finally, he cut away the darker wood, growth from 2013 that produced the 2014 harvest now aging in the winery.
Franco, 56, doesn’t have the high public profile that Paschina does, but he, too, is revered within the Virginia wine community. A trained agronomist who came to the United States to escape civil war in his native El Salvador, Franco began work at Rapidan River Vineyards in 1983 with Joachim Hollerith. A few years later, he followed Hollerith to Prince Michel winery, where he worked with famed Bordeaux consultant Jacques Boissenot, whom Franco considers a mentor. (Boissenot died in September. His son, Eric, consults for Virginia’s RdV Vineyards.) He joined Barboursville in 1997.
Barboursville’s vineyards are planted densely, with 1,750 vines per acre, compared with the 900 per acre common in Virginia not many years ago. Dense planting allows Franco and Paschina to train the vines to produce less fruit of higher quality. It also means the vines need to be pruned close to the ground and the leaves trimmed zealously throughout the growing season so they don’t create too much shade. There’s a trade-off to that system: Grapes growing closer to the ground are in a slightly more humid environment — especially in Virginia — increasing the risk of rot. So Paschina and Franco maximize air flow to keep the grape clusters dry — by reducing the vine’s leaf canopy, and also through the design of the vineyard. Vine rows in the eastern United States typically are planted north to south, to capture the morning and afternoon sunlight equally. These vermentino vines were planted in east-west rows to take advantage of another of nature’s attributes, the wind.
Barboursville’s vineyards cover 182 acres, and pruning lasts from January through early April. Sixteen seasonal workers, three from El Salvador and 13 from Mexico, arrived the last Sunday in January. They will live in a house on the winery property throughout the growing season, returning home after the harvest in October. The same crew comes each year, on H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas; some have been tending Barboursville’s vines for more than a decade.
As Franco let me prune a few vines, stopping me whenever I moved to make an errant cut, a member of the vineyard crew pointed to a nearby vine and spoke to him softly in Spanish. I caught the word “muerta.” Franco grunted in agreement, and the worker used long-handled shears to cut the vine at the ground. It was a casualty of 2014’s harsh winter.
“Last year in March, it was 65 degrees for several days, then the next day it was 7 degrees,” Franco said. The insurance canes they had left on the vines helped mitigate the damage, but the warmth had fooled some vines into activity, and the plunging temperatures froze the sap and shattered the vine trunks.
Paschina picked up the dead vine and pointed to where the bark had splintered, just above the graft point.
“That’s crown gall,” he said. “There’s a bacteria that exists in the vineyard. If the vine is damaged and the bacteria gets inside, it kills the vine.” Later this spring, any dead vines removed during pruning will be replaced with new vines.
Pruning vine after vine, row after row, acre after acre is cold, monotonous work. Yet each snap of the shears, each decision about which buds to sacrifice or save, affects the final product that will be sold — next year, in the case of Barboursville’s vermentino, or in two, three or four years for red wines, including its signature Bordeaux-style blend, Octagon.
“The sciences alone cannot make a great wine,” said Franco. “Every year the challenges are different, and the only thing I can do is keep steady and ask myself, ‘What can I do at this very moment that will influence the harvest? What am I doing today that will influence how the vines are 30 days from now?’ That’s what I do every day. How to find the honesty in the work, so you can tell people: If you pay $40 for this bottle, it’s worth it. That’s a concept that’s unexplainable, but it’s all related to the quality of the grapes I produce every year.”
We walked along rows of nebbiolo vines, where another member of the vineyard crew was tying pruned canes to the trellis using a plastic gun and a spool of wire. “This is actually a nice day for pruning,” Franco said. “When it’s snowing or raining and the wind blows, it can be miserable. Today they say the wind will blow up to 50 miles an hour.” He laughed as a snow squall puffed over the vineyard as if to prove his point. It lasted all of half a minute.
“I love to treat the vines as I treat people,” Franco said, gazing over the hillside. “You give them love, you get it back. That’s what these vines express, the kindness and care that you give them.” He thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “Whenever I’m sad, I go for a walk in the vineyard.”