Venerable Viticulture

There are a few books that just never seem to go away.   Even though I may have read them twenty years ago or more, these are the books that I open first when I have a fundamental question.   The first of these is Philip Wagner’s  “A Wine-Grower’s Guide”.  A new edition of this book was published by the Wine Appreciation Guild, ISBN 093266492X in 1996.

I first encountered Phillip Wagner over 30 years ago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.  Phillip was delivering his thank you speech after receiving an award.  He spoke of recent research to select new hybrid grape varieties that were mildew resistant and winter hardy, and the strategies that European breeders had to use for selection.  He then went on to say “I grow grapes inMaryland.   We have cold winters, hot, humid summers, and an annual hurricane season.   If a grape will survive inMaryland, it will grow almost anywhere”.   This down to earth, hands on, practical approach to viticulture is the factor that made his books so popular.  The first edition was published in 1945.  This is another of the books that I’ve replaced several times through book loans that never returned, and the 1980 edition is my present copy.  A 1996 edition is the most recent.  Phillip died in 1996 at the age of 92.

I specifically chose the Wagner book for this review because it has a focus on the cultivation of hybrid grapes, those which have been selected from crosses with non vinifera parents.   Even though present market demand is for wines from vinifera wines such as Chardonnay and Merlot, there are many who believe that the future must lie with better hybrid selections that can be grown with no sprays and higher yields.  There is no question that with the present hybrids the vineyard and winemaking practices are different from those for vinifera.   Wagner shared his insight.

The second book is Winkler’s  “General Viticulture”; Universityof California Press.  The 2002 edition has authors Winkler, Cook, Kliewer, and Lider, ISBN 0520025911   This is by far the most widely used North American viticulture text.   In contrast to Wagner, the focus of this book is on vinifera grapes and California.   My copy, which has only been replaced once, is the fourth printing, 1973.  It has a wealth of information, ranging from a history of viticulture, the species of the genus Vitis, climate, soils, grape physiology, propagation, diseases, and a host of other topics.

Winkler also had a way of finding practical solutions, and the text is filled with guidance for the performance of day to day vineyard management.   Those in the grape industry actually have a measurement called a “Winkler’s Thumb”.    This is the distance that a bud on a spur must exceed from the head or cordon in order to be counted as a fruiting bud.   If the distance is less than a thumb width, the bud may not be fruitful.

Each of these texts offers good guidance for the novice grape grower but in addition, has enough detail to be a useful guide for the experienced and practising grower.   Even though I may have read a text in its entirety, I find that each time I return, I find material that seems new.   I never quite pick it all up the first time through or I forget the details when it is out of my mind.  A good text is always an adventure of discovery when you’re trying to do your job just a little bit better this year than you did last year.

This article first appeared in the British Columbia Fruit Grower.

Gary Strachan is an expert consultant and planner for the grape and wine industry. He can be reached atgestrachan@alum.mit.edu and is also listed on LinkedIn.