Friday, February 8, 2008

Vineyard Tour #3: Frei Vineyards

On February 6 we had the wonderful opportunity to visit with Jeff Lyon at the Gallo Family Dry Creek Frei Vineyards. On these 640 acres they grow Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet. Jeff is manages the entire ranch with amazing knowledge and experience.

Every block within the ranch is managed specifically according to varietal, rootstock, soil, spacing, and trellising system. In 1993-96 they developed a trellising system they call the "Elkhorn," a modification of the GDC or Geneva Double Curtain. It is a heavy duty cross arms systam with rake arms that control the canopy to provide correct sunlight penetration to the center clusters. Especially used for Cabernets, because Cabs take dappled sunlight for a prolonged ripening season in order to decay the green pepper vegetal flavor characteristics.

The Elkhorn Double Curtain

Another view:

These trellises can take a lot of weight. Jeff's research on Cabernet, and with the size of this ranch they have a lot of freedom to experiment, indicates that higher crop levels mean longer hang times, which produces higher quality fruit. He likes a N-S orientation for Cabernet rows.
He feels Cab does better on cordon trained vines because their buds tend to push at the end of the canes while the middle of the canes remain fruitless. thus kind-of negating the whole rationale for cane pruning. He is beginning to go away from renewal spurs, instead relying on the bas of the cane to produce next years wood.

The next block has been converted to box pruning to facilitate mechanized harvesting.
Converted to Box Pruning

Another view:

Very interesting: pull 2 canes upward to train out and create cordons on a higher pruning wire. These rows are managed completely by machine: pruned, de-leafed and harvested. The labor cost of cane pruned vines is high. With this system, you get a lot of very short shoots, tiny clusters, tiny berries, lots of sunlight, 20 more yield that VSP cane pruned vines (7+ tons/acre). Remember his philosophy that higher yield for Cabs produce better fruit. And also, these blocks produce fruit for the $8-10 bottle price point, therefore the imperative to decrease labor cost. Hand harvesting vines is a back breaking, slave driving, hell of a job that causes repetitive motion disorders such as bursitis and tendinitis. No one loves it, trust me, so I'm sure no one is crying over switching to other jobs in the vineyard.

Sheet Water Reservoir

Standard Cane Pruned Vines

Some interesting things garnered from this visit:
Pumice can be a problem: Pumice is the stems, seeds and other woody materials left over from the de-stemming and crushing. It is commonly stored and re-applied back into the vineyard. Pumice is high in potassium, but is also high in alcohol content (ie:red grapes) which turns to acetic acid in sunlight. Acetic acid is a highly effective herbicide, but you must apply it in the dry times. If it rains after application, it will kill your cover crop, and in years like this past harvest, it has rained a lot, so the piles of pumice just sit there. Of course you can compost it, but that decreases the acetic acid rapidly, so you lose that benefit. And not all soils need the extra K.

Gallo's Frei Vineyards has practiced sustainable growing for 20 years. They use no pre-emergent herbicides, only elemental sulfur and copper fungicides. These vineyards have not been tilled for many years. Jeff is aware that not tilling is better for the soil, resulting in less compaction, preservation of soil structure, and establishment of natural crop cover. The soil type at this ranch is the deep red Manzanita gravelly clay loam and this area has been farmed since the 1800's.

Head Pruned Zinfandel

Jeff with the Class


Anonymous said...


I've lived in Sonoma for 30 years and drive by these vineyards every day. I'm embarrassed how little I know about them. Thanks for some condensed versions! So do you have a zillion friends?


shibumi said...

THX for your commentaries. I am really enthralled that you are becoming such an expert vintner and horticulturalist. I read your blog w/enthusiasm.


anile said...

Thanks for reading me!