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 Manuel Lopez, an 8 year veteran working at Bedell Cellers pruning vines earlier this month. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Manuel Lopez, an 8 year veteran working at Bedell Cellers pruning vines earlier this month. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

If you have a garden with fruit trees or grapevines, you know how important it is to prune these perennial plants every winter. By judiciously choosing branches or canes that will provide maximum exposure to sunlight and limit crop to the capacity of each plant, you will enjoy the best possible fruit from the coming summer’s harvest. 

It’s one thing to know that pruning is essential; it’s another to decisively chop back the tangle of the previous year’s growth to a size and shape that will optimize next year’s crop. It’s hard to follow the two-dimensional scheme on a printed pruning guide; you have to go to the actual, three-dimensional plant to begin to make sense of which limbs should be lopped. And you need to have some idea of what shape the final plant should take — how it will be trained — before you begin.

Even if you understand the theory of pruning, you may find it takes real courage to eliminate most of the plant, as you must. Learning to prune, for many, is like learning to take multiple-choice tests. You have to accept that not all answers are created equal and look quickly for the best possible choices. In fact, it’s a very existential exercise, full of philosophical metaphors. If vines benefit from pruning, how else might we benefit from scaling back in our lives?

Pruning grapevines is site- and variety-dependant. When wine grapes were first planted on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, visiting experts from California, France and upstate New York offered advice that was often contradictory, based on the experience of those regions. California’s viticulture experts said that to maintain wide vine spacing, choose wood that was pencil-sized and trim off all lateral shoots. The Cornell guru advised keeping laterals on big “bull” wood while training vines to a high, multilateral “Geneva double curtain.” Visiting Bordeaux professors recommended we use higher density to increase vine competition and keep canes with short internodes, trained to a low wire.

Although it turned out that everything works — hack away and you will get a crop here — the most appropriate training advice for Long Island was the French model, implemented with a higher fruiting wire than used in Bordeaux because no one here wants to work in a vineyard where every task breaks your back. The Geneva double curtain is more appropriate for native American and hybrid varieties (like concord or baco noir) that naturally grow with such long distances between buds that each vine needs more space than the less-vigorous vitis vinifera (like chardonnay or merlot).

If you pay attention as you drive around the East End’s vineyards, you will see that most individual vines are shaped like candelabra, with two canes from the prior year tied down on the bottom wire, with fruiting buds spread out so that, when they sprout in the spring, they will form the upward shoots (like candles). This system is called “vertical shoot positioning.” It is now the most common training system in the world for wine grapes, mostly because it is relatively easy to create and maintain and can be adapted to mechanical pruners and harvesters.

Get a little closer to the vines and you will see that some varieties are “cane” pruned while others are “spur” pruned. A cane is last year’s growth, trimmed to eight to 12 buds. Spur pruning keeps the first two buds of several canes, coming off older wood. Cane pruning works best with varieties like chardonnay that push all new buds on a cane with equal vigor. Varieties like merlot suffer from apical dominance, where only the buds at the end (or apex) of a pruned cane push in the spring. Leaving several short spurs multiplies the number of apical buds.

As gut-wrenching as it may be to stand in front of a vine and make the decisions that will determine its future, once you get the knack of pruning it becomes extremely pleasant. To spend day after day bundled against the cold, walking down row after row of vines, discovering a balanced pattern in their final shape can be a wonderful meditation. Maybe you are cold; maybe the vines don’t always have wood in the quantity or quality you want; maybe you’d rather be home watching cats on YouTube. But after a while, the constant need to make important decisions becomes second nature. The rhythm of the work takes over and becomes its own reward.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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