“You’ve got numberrrr… three,” stated Ramsay AhSam, meticulously documenting the designation of the pruning shears he handed to Mark, as he had with every worker before him as well. The pruners had been sharpened and oiled over the summer, and great care had been taken to ensure that they were equal to the task before them now. In our second installment of “From Grape to Glass,” in which we are seeking to chronicle every step of the wine making process, we look at the first step of the year for wine makers, the step of pruning the vines prior to their budding, in preparation for the growing season.
It was a brisk spring morning in March, cold enough to warrant sweat shirts and fingerless gloves, but far from the brutal arctic cold that the great plains of Iowa are capable of this time of year. Mark had to leave our home in Omaha, Nebraska, well before the rise of the sun, in order to arrive in the western Iowa vineyards in time to meet the pruning crew. He was the first to arrive, and sipped his coffee and listened to NPR for a few moments before Ramsay AhSam pulled up in his Subaru Outback, removed the padlock from the gate, and allowed a small procession of vehicles to pass into the vineyard. Once inside, the crew signed in on the payment sheets, were issued the requisite implements for pruning the vines, and together the group of half a dozen or so struck off toward the vineyard.
This particular area is known as Black Wing Vineyard. It was so named by Ralph AhSam and Jim Gapinski, its owners, for the RC135 reconnaissance airplane, which both of them once flew for the USAF, and which sports one black wing in which is stored the tools of their most secretive trade. To this day, with its relative proximity to Offutt Air Force Base, a “black wing” can occasionally still be seen flying overhead, though the day that Mark was there, most of what soared high above were v formations of geese, happily honking to herald the advent of better weather that they, like we, had so long been waiting upon.
Grapevines grow out of the ground like trees, and the thickest part leading into the grounds and secured there with roots is aptly named the trunk. The trunk extends upward, until it reaches the wires strung out there by the vintner. It then branches outward along the wires, and the extensions are known as cordons. From the cordons flow canes – thin wisps of vine that are thin but woody, and fall with gravity to resemble a weeping willow. On the canes are knobs, known as “nodes,” and on the nodes are buds, which most plants possess. The area between the nodes thins out, and is called an internode. A cane may have many, many nodes, and the pruners set out to ensure that these are uniform in length and equally spaced, in preparation for fruit to bud in the summer months.
While grapevines will naturally grow in the wild, those from which the fruit is expected to come fine wines must be carefully and skillfully cultivated. The purpose of pruning is to space out last year’s growth, which contributes to the health of the plant, improves crop yield, influences the growth of the plant for the following year, and also improves the aesthetic of the vines. Over the years, pruning trained the single vine to branch into two trunks. “Two trunks establishes strength and stability,” says Ramsay. “We train them to have two.” Those we pruned that day were Edelweiss, eight year old plants, well established, with thick trunks, plural, extending upward toward the sun. Edelweiss is a vine that is fragile, and easily damaged by strong winds. We had to exercise a degree of caution in working with them, especially on a brisk morning when the vines, like our fingers, would more easily shatter in the cold.
“The first one we do is the first we’ll harvest – the earlier you prune, the earlier you harvest, generally speaking,” explained Ramsay. For this reason, we had begun with the Edelweiss, which Ramsay anticipated harvesting the earliest. From vine to vine the crew would move, side by side, their fingers working over the vines, first running along the cordons to locate the canes, then swiftly, in a practiced manner, down the canes, counting the nodes 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, pausing, and clipping. At the cut between nodes seven and eight, the cane was then inspected. Where the green of living flora could be detected, the cane was judged healthy and the pruner moved on. Where the cross-section of the internode offered no signs of life, on the other hand, a second cut would be made in the next internode, in the hopes of detecting the green color of life. And this was done again and again, sometimes all the way up to the cordon, until green was found. Where there was green, it would grow again. But where no green could be found, the vine was dead or dying, and systematically removing the dead canes provided the best chance for the vine to be revitalized.
This work continued all morning long, and the crew worked diligently. The relative cold alleviated the need for water breaks by and large, though occasionally one of the workers would excuse themselves briefly to use a port-a-john. Over the course of the morning, nearly an acre was pruned in this manner.
The crew that day was made up of equal parts “regulars” and volunteers. The volunteers, like Mark and a man from Kentucky who was planting his own vineyard, were there to learn. The regulars, on the other hand, were paid employees from the area who arrived seemingly out of habit, having done so for many years on end now, who came as much out of camaraderie and tradition as they did to earn their wages. Among them were “Big Mike,” who told Mark he works as a doorman at a local bar. By his great size and broad shoulders, Mark judged him to be overly qualified for such work. On the side, Mike deals in scrap metals, buying and selling to make a living. Once in the vineyard, however, he was an agriculturalist at heart, telling jokes to pass the time as he carefully pruned each vine as he came to it. “He’s a child at heart. He keeps it light and loves having fun. He keeps things light-hearted,” said Ramsay AhSam fondly of his faithful employee.
The next regular in the vineyards that day was Joel. “He lives right behind the winery, he’s our neighbor,” reported Ramsay. “From the moment he was out there he loved the atmosphere. The first time we got done pruning, he stepped back to admire his work and was blown away. He’s very meticulous.” Joel struck Mark as the quiet type; he concentrated on his work, and pruned with great diligence, often going back over the work of the rookies to ensure it had been done to satisfaction. The last of the regulars was Ed. “He takes so much care with his work, he takes pride in the vineyard and in the community,” explained Ramsay. “He’s the guy that everybody knows in town. He helps at every funeral that happens in Glenwood, he knows the ins and outs of the community, he knows everyone personally,” added Reynette, Ramsay’s mother. They explained that Ed was “the honorary mayor” of Glenwood, on account of the relationships he had forged with the citizens of the community over so much time.
“They’re the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” said Ramsay admiringly of these three locals. “They’re all so positive. I can trust them out their by themselves. I trust them with the quality, the timing, the knowledge – I trust them to come back tomorrow. They take great care in the vineyard, because they really appreciate it.” It occurred to Mark then just how important this was. The task of maintaining acre after acre of planted grape vines, from pruning to fertilizing, from spraying to watering, and eventually, all the way up to harvest, was not a task that could be undertaken by an individual. That’s why it was so important that the community have a stake in it, not just in drinking the wine, but in producing it as well. And in the tiny town of Glenwood, Iowa, having these devoted natives to help with the day-to-day operations, and later in consuming the fruits of their labor, was precisely what was needed to make a winery work in a tiny rural hamlet.
The crew paused at lunch, when Reynette AhSam summoned them up toward the buildings to have lunch. She had, after her heritage, prepared “Hawaiian burgers,” marinated in teriyaki sauce and adorned with a pineapple slice. And because Edelweiss was the grape of the day for the pruners, glasses of the finished product were passed about and shared. The workers sat down, on tailgates or in lawn chairs, and relaxed after a morning of strenuous but fruitful effort. The sun began to warm the earth.
It seemed to Mark that the work of pruning boils down to one part knowledge, one part crew. Anyone with money could own a vineyard, but it became clear, listening to young Ramsay AhSam give his specific instructions about pruning Edelweiss, instructions that would change the next day when the Nortons were pruned, and again the next when the Vignoles got their turn, that a great deal of knowledge and research were required if one were to go about this the right way. Just as important and the precise know-how, however, was a willingness of the laborers to undertake the daunting task of caring for an entire vineyard. And these workers, Mark realized, were more than just employees. They cared for the land, and for the grapes that grew upon it, and they cared for the AhSam’s, whom it was clear in turn also cared for them. Money will never create a great wine. Tradition can help, but it is only one ingredient; community is needed, as is respect and hard work. Those, more than anything, appear to be the ingredients of success in this industry.