Bloomin’ Vineyards

“We’re in bloom,” Vineyard Manager Ned Hill explains. It started in late April and we’re nearly at full fruit set (you’ll glean that definition by the end). To Ned, every moment in the vineyard’s life is important and worthy of dutiful attention and care. He’s a good father, careful not to choose favorites. For me, as the observer with no maternal ties, this is possibly the most exciting time in the vineyard. It’s pretty much the grapevine’s equivalent of conception. It’s where the magic happens. Actually, there’s no magic involved, only fascinating, brilliant, amazing science…which is arguably even better than magic.

The vines have been dormant all winter, existing in a pre-pubescent state of inactivity. Existing, yes, but not really doing much of anything valuable. (No offense pre-teens.) But then, all of a sudden, the sun is hotter and stays out longer during the day, the humans are smiling more and playing outdoors, and the grapevine bursts into bloom. It’s not a big, bushy, colorful bloom like the hydrangeas, peonies and cherry trees, but it’s impressively delicate. Teeny, tiny little white flowers burst forth out of brilliant, baby green vines. And the best kept secret in the valley? They smell! You have to actively smell them to smell them, which is why not many people know. It’s not like the valley and rolling hillsides are saturated with the smell of grape flowers, but if you put your nostril right up to the vine, the tiny blossoms will reveal their subtle, sweet, unmistakably floral scent to you. Each varietal has its own distinct perfume.

Then, the flowers that became pollinated (fairly easy for the grapevine since they’re all so close to each other) start to look more like little green footballs which will grow and change color and develop sugar and acid and slowly, but surely (and actually quite quickly) become grapes. Hopefully they’ll all become sweet, dense, concentrated grape berries with softened skins and good acid, but there’s no way to tell how this will go just yet. We’re only at the very beginning.

Grapevine just before bloom. Same vineyard, natural variation. Hasn’t yet flowered.

Because of a couple days of high heat around the time the first buds bloomed, some flowers fall off into Ned’s hands as he grasps them to test for how sturdily they’ve set. As we walk further down the vineyard row, we notice that this is happening a lot less just a couple vines over, and I hear Ned breathe out softly in relief. Flowers that don’t set properly fall to the ground, never to become grapes. The pollen has to actually meet the ovaries. The cap has to fall off. Everything has to go just so. If you get too much of a heat spike or a rainfall after bloom and before the flowers set, there stands the risk of “shatter,” when flowers fall off without setting, leaving the eventual grape clusters sparse, as opposed to tightly packed with grapes. But the grapevine is pretty well evolved, and when the going gets too tough, we have experts like Ned Hill to help these precious vines along.

This cluster has bloomed and “set”, so each little round green head you see will grow into a grape.

As veteran grape grower Steve Hill, of Parmelee-Hill Vineyards, replied when I asked him why he has to work 6 or even 7-day weeks at this time of year, “From a Friday to a Monday is an eternity of time [in the vineyard].” So we’ll have to check back in soon!

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