Spring came and the first objective besides pruning was to take pruning weights for the six test bays. All bays were pruned, weighed, weak shoots counted, and I calculated the percentage of weak shoots based on the total amount of shoots on each vine. All test bays, even those with some higher percentage of weak shoots are scored in the “moderate” vigor zone, with some pushing the limits into high vigor, which I had expected. The vineyard was a hopelessly tangled mess as it appeared not much hedging has been done the year prior, with some of the most vigorous vines reaching for ten to twelve feet in length.
It was a cooler, rainier spring in 2017 than in 2016 when we saw budbreak in early April, a good three weeks ahead of schedule. 2017 had started off to be pretty classic Northwest spring. Rainy. Damp. Cold. Gray. The usual. Sap flow had begun in early March with bud swelling well under way later in the month. I began pruning the vineyard in early April and completed it by the third week when we were in the wooly bud phase. In the areas of the block with the most vigor and highest regularity of bull canes, I trained kicker canes and left more buds per shoot to suck up some of that vigor in hope to balance them out. Everywhere else I pruned 1-2 buds per shoot depending on the vine’s vigor as per the standard in spur pruned vineyards.
I went through a lot of flagging tape. As I began examining and flagging some of the weaker vines, there was some trunk disease on blast, perhaps more than one disease in fact. The foliage late in the season the year prior had a score of red leaves, which can look quite pretty to the untrained eye, but to anyone who has been around vines knows red leaves are akin to a thousand death sirens simultaneously going off. While it could have been a nutritional thing, there were too many short shoots and small, unevenly set clusters for that to be considered as the sole culprit. My initial thoughts centered around Armillaria, a fungal disease that can lead to stunted shoots with a white mycelium growing beneath the bark that can kill the vines within a few years of infection. Shoots will get weaker and weaker until they succumb to the disease and crumble down, dead. The orchard that had been in existence where the vineyard stood now could have been infected for all I know, and if there wasn’t a real concerted effort to pull out all the old wood debris and sew a cover crop for a year prior to planting vines, it could very well be infected. I also knew there was a major frost to hit the area a few years back that led to cold injury, and there were also signs of Crown Gall. Crown Gall can lead to these boil-like warts, and principally you see these near or on graft unions or even on canes. The galls are caused by a transfer of DNA from the soil born bacteria (though some would debate the bacteria came from plant material from the nursery) into the vine, sending a rush of auxin and cytokinin to the infected area which creates the tumors. Alien…ass…shit…in other words. There were noticeable galls growing near graft unions in many of the stunted areas.
As pruning commenced, I also encountered signs of Eutypa dieback, which also could be symptoms related to frost injury as well as Bot Canker and Phomopsis. The principle trait I’m speaking specifically is of the darkened wedge shaped canker inside a trunk or cane when you cut into it. As the growing season goes on and there’s a canopy to observe, you see stunted vines that have a necrotic or burnt-like look… almost like someone tamped out a cigarette on the leaves. In areas where I believed there was Eutypa in play, I was able to cut back some of the infected area (the “good” thing about Eutypa is that it only spreads a couple inches a year whereas something like Bot Canker moves much faster) while still flagging said vines to watch it over the season as much changes once the canopy is growing.
The troubling, effed up reality is that it could be all of these things all at once or just one or different combos within the vineyard. What could be interesting, however, is how the disease could affect fruit chemistries. Could it also turn out to be a means to make vigorous vines and their fruit turn into something other than over cropped tasting, boring fruit? Either way, it was at this point that I really decided to put a focus on vine health and treat the vineyard from the soil up. If a vine has a healthy immune system so to speak, it will be less susceptible to disease and be more able to sustain if infected. I started with a tea comprised of worm castings and humic acid applied to the soil around the base of each vine trunk and would follow up in the first week of May with a 500 spray (also, coincidentally, the day I called bud break [5/2]… not related, but just a note).
In tandem with this, I potted up about thirty plants from sturdier vines (pencil sized in diameter thank you very much, Jess Cortell) to propagate through the season and plant in the fall just to fill in some of the holes. As it stood I pulled out only around ten dead vines, but there were gaps in the vineyard where they had pulled them out in years past. All in all there are about 50 gaps in the vineyard, which works out to be about 8% of the vineyard (yes, it’s a small block). On vines where I felt Eutypa was in play, and not Crown Gall or Armillaria, I left suckers or buds destined to be shoots to retrain an arm the following year (it is spur pruned after all). Where I felt Crown Gall was the issue I didn’t bother as the new trunk or arm would also be infected, simply flagged the vine, and moved on, trying to keep my shears sanitary so as not to spread it and pray in the general way I do, as a non-superstitious superstitious person. A false rain dance if you will… I know better, but I still do it.
As May progressed we got some pretty warm temps, even reaching the low 90’s around the end of the month. The canopy went from 1-2” growth to 6 to 12” in some areas in less than a two week period. So what began as a classically standard Oregon spring (not to be confused with the not-standard-classic-contemporary Oregon spring where its 90 degrees in April) got a hit of heat right at a critical time for that to happen. With powdery mildew the focus from a pest management standpoint, we began our spray program on 5/25 with an all organic spray program in mind. I later began to include some in-between oil and sulfur sprays on my backpack sprayer in the heavier pressure weeks and experimented with a combination of fresh whey and serenade. I came to find there was no mite pressure in this vineyard in contrast to the major mite pressure I was used to seeing in Willamette Valley’s vineyards. I saw some beetle or some critter-like damage but nothing major… nothing was stunting shoots that’s for sure… just a bite or two out of a leaf here and there. The Gorge was just different, I was discovering, and on a different model of pressure I was only beginning to understand. Here it was wind, UV, and trunk disease at the forefront along with of course powdery mildew, all of which had an effect on the vineyard and crop in 2017.