My friend Iñaki is aeronautical engineer and for many years he dedicated himself to repairing certain aircraft breakdowns. One day he told me that when he was in the airport hangar and things were not going well, he just had to touch a plane and realize that that was what made everything else worthwhile. It is a story that he told me years ago and that I still remember.
Something similar goes for me, though in another part of life, of course. It’s been a long time since I stopped traveling by plane for many reasons, so I go by with photographing them every now and then. But it’s not the airplanes that sometimes give me that much-needed inner peace, it’s just setting foot in a vineyard.
This vintage I have had the opportunity to share a few days with Juan and Susana, two very dear friends of mine who have a winery. I really liked the days when it was harvest time. Like Iñaki, walking through the vineyard also made everything worthwhile at that moment. There were no problems; there was no external noise. It was just the vines and I. They laughed, because their custom is to gather everyone close together and have different conversations about music, especially Spanish rock, some movies and a lot of wine and food while harvesting. We used to start around eight in the morning, and the truth is that at that time I’m not much of a conversation partner. At nine o’clock either, to be honest with you, so once Juan gave us our assignments, I took my bucket and my clippers and I went to the other end of the vineyard, away from the conversations. And of course, I did what I wanted. Not because of being against Juan’s instructions, of course, he is the one who knows a lot more than what I do, but because I let the vines guided me.
That was when I enjoyed the most. I liked going around each vine looking where I was going to start pruning. Then, go over and pick each cluster with one hand, carefully cutting and carefully placing it in the bucket. The care was at the beginning, after five hours of harvest I no longer had so much, but everything was still just as special. It was, is, a great experience, observing each vine and seeing how different clusters have grown during the last months according to what was done during winter pruning. Some clusters were larger, some smaller, but very large and healthy grapes formed all of them.
It is indeed wonderful to see the result of working the vineyard without chemicals, pesticides nor any other product. Juan has some vineyards he doesn’t do any kind of work on them. But above all, that connection with each bunch, in silence in the middle of a vineyard several kilometers away from the nearest village and in a place where there is only us. Background conversations, reflections on life and the way things are going, thinking about how a plant has created a bunch of grapes that will end up turning into a glass of wine in a few months, after different procedures in the winery: destemming, pressing, fermentation, etc.
It is true that it is strenuous work. You are cutting cluster by cluster and placing it in the bucket. When the bucket is full, you have to go to the boxes to unload it and return to the vine. Repeat the process over and over again until the vineyard or the day is over and tomorrow we go back to finish it. I can’t explain it, but being in the vineyard surrounded by vines full of grapes and harvesting is something special. It is a repetitive task and, as I have mentioned, exhausting, but it is very rewarding too. I don’t talk to plants, nor do I sing to them, but I do respect them. They have worked hard for months to get to this point.
It’s been a couple of weeks, a few more when you read these lines, than the harvest ended. One day we went to the field to do two other tasks related to the vines. First we were cutting the sierpes of the vines that have American rootstock. It turns out that in many of them, below the grafted part, which is also the underground part, vine shoots grow that, if not cut in time, absorb all the food from the soil and the plant above the graft ends up dying due to lack of nutrients. The work consists of removing the soil that cover the root to get to the sierpes and remove them with pruning clippers or, in most cases with a hand ax. This ensures that the entire flow of the sage goes from the roots to the aerial part of the vine. In this way, the plant will continue to produce quality bunches for many years.
The second task we did was winter pruning. Once the harvest is finished, the shoots are not cut nor the leaves are removed. They are still full of sap, so you have to wait for the vegetative cycle of the plant to finish. This is when the leaves dry up and fall off, and all the sap returns to the roots. Thus, the plant is prepared to face the cold of winter.
There are many written manuals and many professionals who organize courses on how to do a correct pruning. Suffice it to say that each grape variety is pruned in a particular way; each training style (bush vine, trellis, etc.) is also pruned differently. It is even pruned in one way or another if you are going to enter the vineyard with a tractor and do not want to damage the arms of the vine.
When we started pruning, the sensations were the same. Observe the plant, decide which arms to leave, which arms to prune, how many buds to leave, which ones and why, remove the parts of the vine that were no longer useful and which by removing them will help make the plant grow with more vigor giving greater yield.
Like Iñaki with airplanes, I find my calm in a vineyard. Carefully cutting the clusters during the harvest, removing the sierpes and selecting buds and thumbs during pruning are special moments. Those that you enjoy in silence and are shared between you and the plant, surrounded by nature, a blue sky clear of upon us and with heat or morning fogs. Everything counts and everything is felt in those moments when everything happens while I keep my feet in the vineyard.