Wondering Between the Vines

2/16/2018 4:20:39 PM

Wondering Between the Vines

An Update on VIGOR By Christian Palmaz

One of the first memories I have in the Napa Valley was as a child, sitting in the backseat of my parents car as they drove up and down the Valley visiting wineries.  As my parents likely quibbled about some historical detail regarding the next winery we were visiting, I remember staring out the window mesmerized by the rows of vines zipping by.  Almost like a farmers kaleidoscope, the perfect rhythm of alternating row colors drew my attention not to the vines themselves but to the spaces in-between.  I wondered, what was so special about those “weeds” growing in-between the vines and why does every vineyard seem to be different.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m still basically asking the same question.  Dare I say it, but I think we spend more time at Palmaz Vineyards talking about the cover crop than the vines.  What blend to plant, when to alternate, when to cut, when to spade — lots of questions, even more debate.  Wise vintners know that the right cover crop is the cornerstone of a balanced and sustainable vineyard.  Manage the correct cover crop and you’re well on your way to a successful vintage.

But doing so on so many different parcels, with ranging soil types and microclimates across three elevations isn’t simple nor straightforward.  One would think that after 20 years we would have this pretty dialed in, right?  Yes and no…  Soil resources change constantly and so does the root system.  Insect populations change and new less-welcomed tenants move-in.  Far better than any pesticide, the right cover crop can provide habitats for predatory insects who fight for the right team and maintain a healthy balance.  The right cover crop not only replenishes nutrients and protects from erosion, but also assists with soil texture and desired moisture levels.  Guessing wrong can sometimes set you back more than just one vintage.

So how do we ensure we get it right?  Data and a tight collaboration between the vineyard and winemaking team.  Data streams in from all corners of the vineyard.  Everything from soil moisture, inspect populations, nutrient levels, microclimate data, and more are accounted for during the vineyard’s management.  These invaluable tools give us micro-level data at specific points in the vineyard.  Useful, but still only a small portion of the greater picture.

In order to provide that macro-level view, two years ago, we launched our VIGOR system.  VIGOR, stands for Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition.  Essentially it’s a camera on the belly of an aircraft that snaps special images along certain spectrums of light twice a week.  VIGOR’s primary role was meant to improve growth evenness by optimizing irrigation to each vine.  In just it’s first year we learned detail about vineyard growth not often seen even in academic research.  By year two, we began to see finer dynamics between the cover crop and vineyard performance.  Subtleties invisible to the human eye were suddenly apparent thanks to the infrared spectrum and big data analytics.

Now heading into year three, I am seeing the effects of these tools coming together.  The cover crop is getting smarter and more diverse.  It’s looking more and more like a vegetable garden than a bunch of weeds.  The vibrant and diverse colors seen in each area of the vineyard may look random but in reality are some of the most engineered and thoughtful acts of farming I have ever witnessed.

I’m thrilled to see what we continue to learn in the coming years from these powerful tools.  I’m proud of the Palmaz Vineyards team for continuing to push viticultural limits by asking challenging questions and continuing to wonder, what’s between the vines.