Notes from the Field: The Lady of the Vines

Combing. Most of us have done it. Imagine you’re combing the hair of a squirming child, who protests that her hair doesn’t NEED combing, despite the fact that she’s spent the entire day swimming in a chlorine-filled pool at a friend’s birthday party. Perhaps, this child fell asleep on the long car ride home and was carried carefully to bed, and at 6:00 the next morning bounces cheerfully into your bedroom with a head that looks like it was used to make a hurried and untidy nest by a den of anxious ferrets.

If you’ve experienced that, then you surely know all about combing.

Now, picture grape vines. Having grown steadily all spring, the vines are long enough to reach the ground, and the tangled clusters of lush green foliage are in desperate need of untangling.

“Remove any lateral shoots,” instructs Jordan, the Vineyard Manager, as I stumble up the vineyard path, easily half an hour late.

“What’s a lateral shoot?”

He points at a cluster of leaves and stems.

“Here, coming off this stem is a second stem, see? That’s a lateral shoot.”

“OK,” I say, pretending that I understand. But I’m pretty sure I don’t.

“Like this?” I ask him, removing a stem from a cluster.

“Nope,” says a Jordan patiently. “That’s a leaf.”

“How do I tell the difference?”

“A leaf is just a leaf,” he explains. “See how this shoot has another little green stem coming off of it? That means it’s a new vine, and it will keep growing if we let it, clogging the primary vine’s access to light and air. See this?”

He points at a well-developed shoot about halfway down the vine that has grown to a length of five inches or so, with a series of leaves radiating off of it.

“That’s a lateral shoot.”

“I see.”

“Not a leaf.”

“Clearly not a leaf.” I grasp a knotted mass of vines and begin to untangle them.

The shoots are still tender at this point in the growing season, and they’re smooth and pliable to the touch. The coolness of the canopy is a relief from the hot sun, and the vines are gentle and forgiving as I uncoil them, thinning down the lateral shoots until the remaining foliage looks clean and orderly, hanging down in lustrous tresses.

“Does every vineyard comb by hand like this?” I ask Jordan, trying to learn something useful. The sun is beating down hard on us now. I can feel it on the back of my neck and arms.

“Nope,” he replies. “A lot of varietals prefer to grow upwards using the Vertical Shoot Positioning method—and those can be combed by machine. Our varietals, such as Marquette, Frontenac and La Cresent, all prefer to grow downward. And so we comb by hand.”

I finish untangling a cluster of vines and stand back and survey the result. I imagine that I’m combing the hair of a gentle dryad—a spirit of the wood, clothed entirely in robes of pale green silk, the fabric pouring off her shoulders, swirling about her delicate ankles as she dances across the sylvan hillside.

“Isn’t she lovely?” I say out loud. “The lady of the vines, with her hair all combed down, soft and green like a wood nymph.”

Jordan stares at me baldly.

“Agricultural personification is fraught with pitfalls,” he says, turning back to combing his vines. “Best to stick to the task at hand.”

And that was the last word I was able to get out of him all morning.