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¡Vamos hacer sombreros!

June 10, 2010
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Old vines eventually die. When I took over management of Old Hill Ranch in 2000 approximately 25% of the vines were either dead or just hanging on by a thread. I wanted to replace the dead vines but how does one do this in an ancient vineyard, with no irrigation and the added stress of competition from the healthy neighbor vines?

My first experiment was a huge failure. I took cuttings from our old vines and sent them to a nursery where they grafted them on to Saint George root-stock. A year later they sent me 1000 vines in little pots and we proceeded to plant them in the spring of 2002. I then spent most of that summer huffing and puffing pulling water hoses over twelve acres trying to keep the vines and their tiny roots wet. By the time I finished one pass the first vines had already dried out. So I would do it again. About half the vines died in the first year. The vines that survived are still in the vineyard but they are stunted and not productive.

My first lesson was not to be too ambitious. My second lesson came when I finally had an opportunity to meet some old-timers who actually had experience inter-planting vines with-out irrigation. I took notes and added a few newer technologies and now I think we have it dialed in.

Today we just finished inter-planting 500 root-stock into the ancient block. Here is how we do it.

Fist we dig holes. Big holes.

Then we add compost. Lots of compost.

Then we plant a “jumbo” Saint George rootstock in the hole and bury the head under a mound of earth to keep if from drying out. We construct a large moat around the mound and water with lots and lots of water. We call the finished product a sombrero.

Now comes the tricky part. We do nothing. As the soil starts to dry out the root system will (hopefully) follow the moisture down into the earth. This is the key. If we keep watering the roots will become lazy and stay near the surface. For dry-farming we need deep roots. So at this point it is survival of the fittest, if the vines thrive they become part of the Old Hill wine but if they just survive or die, we will rip them out and do it all over again. We did this last year and we had about a 90% success rate.

The next step will occur in one or two years when we will graft a Zinfandel bud onto these rootstock. Then it will take another two to three years before the Zinfandel become productive. With irrigation we could cut this time in half.

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