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Jim Ball Vineyards

February 13, 2015

Winemaker Greg LaFollette describes the highly sophisticated pruning techniques, developed by Greg for his own wines, going into setting Jim Ball Vineyards’ wines apart from all the rest.

JTB: So tell me what’s happening in winery or in the vineyards.

Greg: Right now we’re in the middle of getting ready to do pruning. Its been a very warm winter with no a lot of rain events. Where it has rained, it’s rained a lot. 10-12 inches each time. But in general the ground is fairly dry and we have an early spring root flush, much earlier than normal and we actually have some vines breaking bud.

JTB: I’ve seen that there is bud break in some parts of the county it’s the earliest ever recorded.

Greg: Absolutely. So we are kind of fighting with that and this afternoon I will be pruning some of the Jim ball vines up at David Gensler’s vineyard which is now called Mes Filles. We also just secured a couple of tons of the Mes Filles chardonnay which I previously used in all of my reserve was for LaFollette and also previously for the DuNah vineyard. And there are leaves starting to break out there. So Jim Pratt and I are going to be up there pruning this afternoon.

JTB: So you’re going to be pruning both pinot noir and chardonnay at Mes Filles?

Greg: Exactly. We are looking at sourcing some of the hallowed and interesting vineyards in Sonoma County, including former Marcassin block of Chardonnay, called Lorenzo. With this early bud break and with fairly good bud fruitfulness we are going to pruning a little bit more severely this year to try to keep the vines in balance. The problem with, everybody’s talking about the draught, the problem with the draught right now is that the soil is a little drier and has an earlier root flush, there’s more oxygen in the soil and the soils are little bit warmer so we are getting this much earlier root flush. And our job is going to be to contain and bridle the early vigor and bring that into balance sdo that the later in the year, the vines don’t run out of gas and actually collapse.

JTB: So how do you do that? When you only prune once, how do you continue to contain vigor?

Greg: Well we’re going to prune a little differently this year in the sense that we are going to focus on beating back the natural tendency of the vine to make all of it’s energy go into the end of the canes. Because the vine is a climbing animal, it always wants to put its go juice into one of two places. Either right where the pipeline is at the head of the vine or at the very end of the canes and so we have to prune in such a way and shape the head of the vine and arch the canes so that it thinks that the mid part of the cane, the arched cane, is actually the highest point where it’s going to want to push more strongly with its buds. The technical term for that is beating back apical dominance and source sync dominance.

JTB: Now how do you do that? Now you’re not looking for apical, you’re trying to restrict apical dominance, correct?

Greg: That is correct. And so how we’re doing that is we’re taking the cane and rather than just running it out on the cane wire, we are actually arching the cane so that it’s creating a little bit of a bow and the very end of the cane is much lower than the mid part of the cane because we’re arching it. And so the vine thinks “oh well this arch is the highest portion so that is where we’re really going to want to really push.”

JTB: Is that cane flexible enough to arch without cracking?

Greg: Some are not, most are. But we also are doing something called cane cracking as well which is opening up the zylamen flow. But basically we’re doing both cane arching and we’re doing cane cracking so that we’re essentially allowing sap to flow and reach that mid section of the cane much more easily so that we have a much stronger push on the mid section of the cane. And this is an example of how we are making wine in the vineyard.

JTB: That’s fascinating Greg.

Greg: Well the most important winemaking decisions that you can make are decisions that are made before a single berry even makes it into the winery. And Jim Ball wines are absolutely made first and foremost in the vineyard by partnering with the land and with the vines and with their native tendency to either be very vigorous or not. So we’re really speaking the language of the vine and that’s the language of wine. And we’re doing it right now. We are making our wine even as we speak. This afternoon I will be pruning with Jim Pratt, preparing the vines to make the most supple tannins and best flavors by really distributing our fruit load and our bud lode across the entire length of the fruiting zone. If we didn’t do this you’d see clumps of fruit around the head and clumps around the fruit in the section were the two canes come together between the two heads and very little fruit in between but a lot of vigor. And so what we are doing is we are spreading out that fruiting zone evenly with every single cluster having it’s own individual zone where it has it’s own light, it’s own breeze, and it’s not touching any other clusters. And the way to do that is by starting right now and pruning. And that’s probably the most important thing that we need to communicate is that we are making right now for 2015 before a single berry even enters the winery.

JTB: So pour two glasses of wine with me right now. One where you have restricted apical dominance and done the cracking or arcing and then pour me a second glass of wine where the wine grower didn’t do that. What would we notice in Glass 1 where it was done versus Glass2 where they just let it rip.

Greg: Glass 1 would have more balance and harmony. It would have more ripe tannins and it would have those at a lower alcohol level. Because when you don’t do that you have to wait for tannins to ripen that happens at a much higher brix or degree of sugar. So people who don’t do this kind of thing who have to taste and taste and wait for tannin ripeness are actually doing to have pick at 25, 26 brix. We’re going to be able to pick at 22, 23 brix and have a balanced wine with lower alcohols, riper tannins, and riper flavors.

JTB: And that’s done right now.

Greg That’s done right now.

JTB: That’s fascinating.

Greg: People that don’t do this are not going to make as good a wine as Jim Ball Vineyards will make for 2015.

JTB: How many people out there are taking this sort of trouble, Greg?

Greg: I would guess probably less than 10% of winemakers are doing this. Not many really are doing it that way. I hope I’ve given enough information for the blog session.

JTB: There you have it! Winemaking in the vineyard before a grape is even formed!! Let’s get to work!

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