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An example of layering, in which a cane is brought from the old Cabernet Sauvignon cordon on the right to where a vine was missing, burying it so that a new sho ot would emerge to become the new trunk. The new vine, still connected to the old one, was grown in place.

An example of layering, in which a cane is brought from the old Cabernet Sauvignon cordon on the right to where a vine was missing, burying it so that a new sho ot would emerge to become the new trunk. The new vine, still connected to the old one, was grown in place.

Melissa Hansen

Faced with diseased and missing vines in an aging wine grape vineyard, Kent Waliser made the bold decision not to replant a 60-acre Cabernet Sauvignon block. But not replanting meant that corrective measures would be needed to keep the old block profitable and new winery relationships forged.

When Waliser joined Sagemoor Farms in Pasco, Washington, as general manager in 2002, he was immediately challenged with a 30-year-old Cabernet block that was planted eight feet between vines and ten feet between rows. Three percent of the vines were missing, the trellis materials were showing signs of age, and the block had grapevine leafroll virus. Irrigation had been converted from sprinkler to drip in 2001, soils were inconsistent and variable, and the block had no ability to improve its low tonnage.

“But there are two sides to every story,” he said during a session on replanting wine grape vineyards at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. “I knew that there weren’t many 30-year-old vines left in Washington. And, low tonnage is not a problem if you have customers that want low ­tonnage.”

So, instead of replanting, the decision to keep the old vines was made, and a plan developed to turn the vineyard into a profitable one. Elements of the plan included:

•    Developing relationships with respected wineries
that were interested in old vines and would produce vineyard-designated wines
•    Sharing the new vision with experienced employees
•    Knowing the company’s bottom line
•    Reinforcing the importance of vineyard and quality consistency
•    Providing customer service to wineries
•    Expanding the process to involve more people ­connected to the vineyard

Corrective steps

To deal with the skips or missing vines, vines were replaced using a technique called layering—bringing a cane from the neighboring vine, laying it on the ground where the new vine is needed, and allowing it to root and grow up. Waliser said that in the same amount of time it takes a new plant to grow, they can fill the space by layering. “Plus, you now have a young vine that is connected to what’s now a 40-year root system.”

To manage the leafroll virus in the old Cabernet block, he uses Extenday, a reflective white fabric used in tree fruit and grapes to improve color and hasten ripening. Leafroll virus can reduce Brix in red wine grapes by about 10 percent compared to healthy grapes, according to Washington State University research. The disease can also lower juice pH and reduce skin tannins.

Waliser believes that the reflective material, when put under the vine rows at bloom time, helps the grapes accumulate more heat units to get the grapes over the ‘ripening hump.’ Although Extenday helped ripen the block in 2009 and 2010, the reflective material didn’t help during last year’s cool season.

But not all corrective measures involve saving an old block. Sometimes, the best remedy is removal, ­converting the vineyard to apples or cherries.

In one case, he noted that Sagemoor had planted Pinot Noir grapes in a hot, windy site. The block was missing vines, and the contracted winery had lost interest in the grapes. Instead of replanting with a different grape variety, Early Rainier cherries were planted and, in 2011, the cherries grossed the highest per acre of all Sagemoor’s crops.