Quality starts with the vine
Of all vineyard practices, row orientation is tops at Red Mountain.
For more than 30 years, Jim Holmes has worked to better manage his vineyard canopy by following the advice of consultants and trying different training systems. What he's learned through decades of experience is to focus on managing the vine well and not worry so much about the canopy.
Holmes, owner of the famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard located in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area near Benton City, Washington, started in 1997 to keep track of his grapes' wine scores published in various wine magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and such). Holmes, who sells to about 25 of the most prestigious wineries in the Pacific Northwest, said that in the first year, his average was 92 out of 100 points.
"We thought we could improve our grape quality and improve our scores if we managed the canopy better," Holmes told growers and winemakers attending a summer field day sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. So they removed the poor quality fruit and heeded the advice of grape gurus to improve canopy and berry uniformity, tweaking their viticultural practices through the years.
"After all the effort, you know what scores we got up to?" he asked. "We got up to 92 points."
He's learned that it's not about managing the canopy. "What you've got to do is manage the vine, and any way that you do that and do it well, it will work," he said.
In recent years, his wine scores have improved, and wines from his grapes have hit 96 and 97 points. Food and Wine magazine ranked one of his wines as a top Merlot in the United States. But the higher scores are not due to any one thing, he said, noting that he uses several different training systems in his vineyard, has different target yields in the blocks, depending on winemaker preference, and various vine spacings.
But while he doesn't attribute his grape quality to any one thing, Holmes has learned the importance of row orientation for grapes on Red Mountain. "Clusters need to be protected from sunburn because those that get too hot will have reduced phenolic development," he said.
He found that shifting his row orientation 12 degrees from the usual north-south orientation to a more east-west direction, resulted in more morning sun on the clusters and less afternoon sun, and solved about 80 percent of the sunburn problems.
"After years and years of trying everything under the sun to improve quality, and finding that it really doesn't make a difference, the one thing here that does make a difference is row orientation," he emphasized. "Don't pay attention to the gurus of canopy management. Manage your own vineyard carefully, with intelligence and thoughtfulness, and then you'll be successful."