March 4, 2008
Head of the Class

IMGP2683_edited.jpgWhile driving about Amador County's Shenandoah Vineyards this past weekend I kept getting distracted by the area's older vineyards, now dark and bare as they stretched in neat rows up and down hills. Looking not unlike ballet dancers frozen in time, these are some of those bleak, scaly and gnarled old vines. In this case, they're Terri Harvey's hillside plot along Steiner Road, and they date from 1869.

They're head-pruned vines, meaning the trunk of the vine is trained to develop a big head, with canes growing loose and free through harvest, after which they are trimmed back, just as if they were getting an overdue haircut during winter dormancy. Then the cycle starts all over.

At any rate, not long ago I interviewed Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti about a range of grape-growing and winemaking topics in the nearby viticultural areas of the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi. Inevitably, the subject of high-alcohol wines came up, a topic of continuing debate in California's wine trade, especially since Corti last summer said he'd no longer routinely stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol. Several high-alcohol wines, zinfandels especially, come from the Sierra foothills. At one point duiring our conversation, Corti wondered if the higher alcohol levels from super-ripe fruit could be tempered if growers only would return to the old practice of head training their vines rather than continue to adopt modern trellis systems that often expose clusters of grapes to more sunshine as they are strung high on various wire systems.

I'm no farmer, so I have no idea of the merits of his suggestion, but what struck me in the Shenandoah Valley was how many vineyards actually still rely on the old-fashioned method of head pruning vines. It would be interesting now to round up samples of zinfandel from head-pruned vines and samples from more conventional trellis systems to see how their alcohol levels and aesthetic attributes compare and differ.

My interview with Corti, incidentally, is the topic of tomorrow's Dunne on Wine column in The Bee's Taste section. It was occasioned by Corti's induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, to take place Friday night at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Corti, the first non-academic and first non-vintner to be inducted, therefore will have another forum for sounding off on his frequently provocative views on the state of California winemaking, maybe even high-alcohol wines and head-trained vines.

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