There’s always something going on with the grapes in the Willcox vineyards. Throughout April, everyone worries about their “babies”—just starting to show growth in the fields. A couple of days each week, concerns of freezing temps awakened me more than once—neighboring vineyards’ windmills sounded like distant helicopters ready to take flight each time the temps dropped to the low 30s. These propane-propelled wind machines help warm the ground in an effort to prevent freeze damage.
Now that the frost fears are past, vineyard workers are thinning, tying, and pruning—training the vines into canopies. Most of the vineyards are in full bloom and the grapes are starting to form. They are in the phase of growth called “grape set.” The flowers from the grapevine have bloomed, and are forming small (and hard) grapes. They will grow in size until véraison (the onset of ripening) occurs and then start to get sweeter until harvest, which typically occurs in Southern Arizona around the middle of August through the end of September. Winemakers are counting the weeks till harvest with one eye on the vines and the other on the weather.
Where it all begins—planting
In mid-April, I eagerly signed up to help two different vintners plant some vines (I call this part of my journey Vineyard Immersion 101). Both Carlson Creek and Sand-Reckoner Vineyards were adding new varietals to their existing acres of hearty grapes. Over the course of one weekend, I learned that planting grapevines ranks up there as one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done.
The lure—Muscat and music
At Carlson Creek Vineyards, a couple dozen volunteers armed with shovels and buckets full of new baby vines soaking in water spent the morning planting 3.3 acres of Muscat of Alexandria—a sweeter grape, destined to become a new varietal in the winery’s Sweet Adeline series. Robert Carlson and family turned community planting into a major event, complete with a tented gathering area and plenty of carbs, coffee, juice, and soft drinks to get all excited about the task at hand. The promise of live music, more food, and a taste of their newest release, Carlson Creek Riesling 2011, after our hard work, sweetened the draw.
My partner, Don from Orange County, CA, did the digging and I held each small shoot of a vine at the appropriate height as he shoveled dirt in the vine’s direction (typically toward my face). We added more dirt by hand and foot to surround the vine and secured it within its hole, with a final tug to lock in its roots. Then we moved on to the next hole… and the next… and the next, planting nearly three rows as a team. I completed a personal record number of squats and deep-knee bends, plus inhaled a lot of red dirt that day. I can only hope this red Willcox soil is as beneficial for me as it is for the grapes.
I must add—that Carlson family really knows how to throw a party.
The Sagrantino saga
The following morning, another planting ‘party’ began bright and early at the Sand-Reckoner Vineyards, just down the lane from my home. No tent, no music, just a group of eager workers straggling in. That day we were under the able tutelage of Don Sobey, who has helped other Willcox vineyards plant their fields.
As two able-bodied males dug holes with post-hole diggers ahead of the planting crew, Sobey instructed on the proper way to position the vines in the deep holes and secure their roots properly for a healthy start. The method involved lowering oneself to the ground about a zillion times, reaching deeply into each hole to set the roots, working gingerly to pack dirt all around, then staking and sheltering each plant. It became apparent that gloves were more of a hindrance than help, so I quickly tossed them aside and began plying the dirt bare-handed—a truly earthy experience. It took at least three weeks for my hands to regain softness.
For a small crew of fewer than 10—friends of Sand-Reckoner Vineyards owners Rob and Sarah Hammelman—it took the better part of the day to plant an acre of Sagrantino, described in Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes as a “lively, somewhat tannic red grape, grown in Umbria in central Italy.” I wonder who I must contact to get that updated to “now growing in Willcox in southeast Arizona.”
The added benefit was plenty of Levi-time—the Hammelman’s 2-month-old son—and a nourishing Sarah-home-cooked lunch.
I had to call it a day midway through the afternoon when the body refused to follow the mind’s directions to rise once again to a standing position and lug the bucket of vines to the next available hole. I left the planting of the last rows to my younger, heartier cohorts, who did an admirable job of establishing every last vine. Hammelman reports 100% growth from our efforts.
And why do we do this?
I asked two planting partners, Tucsonans Ashley Victoria Drake and Brad Swepson, to sum up what draws them into such intense work for no monetary reward.
Drake responded, “We met Rob and Sarah through mutual friends and told them we would love to help out (picking grapes sounded easy—ha ha). The first time, we helped put up bird netting. (Zarpara Vineyards’) Mark (Jorve) and Rhona (MacMillan), the Carlson boys, and others were there, and we worked our butts off! Sarah cooked a feast after we worked, and everyone drank wine and shared stories.
“We keep volunteering because the community of wine-making in Southern Arizona is too romantic not to. Our first experience is re-created every time we go, with people we have come to think of as our friends. Both Brad and I crave tight-knit, ‘locally produced’ community, and Willcox offers us that and so much more. The wine is a big plus, too.”
I agree. There is something very humbling and fulfilling about working in the vineyards with like-minded souls. As you plant each vine, you sense that you’re part of a much bigger process that cannot be defined. The work can take its toll on a body, but it entrenches the soul. Just think, in three years, we will be enjoying these incredible new Arizona wines—the fruits of our labor.