Since I know very little about grafting grape vines, what I witnessed in Riverbench Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley caught me slightly off guard.
If one could imagine a vineyard version of the zombie apocalypse, this might come close. With lush green Pinot Gris vines to the left and a healthy block of Pinot Noir on the right, the three barren rows in between appeared to be decapitated brown sticks covered in black tar that foggy mid-April morning.
I turned to Laura Booras, Riverbench Winery’s general manager, and said, “It looks dead.”
“It does,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “It looks like an injury at first, with sort of a wound and the covered up piece, but apparently, it heals itself in a really cool way.”
In early April, Riverbench grafted a new grape varietal onto about 550, eight-year old, Pinot Gris vines. Pinot Gris was a tough sell and planting new vines is expensive, so grafting was the answer. The vineyard team carefully cut the vines about halfway down and new shoots of a different species were perfectly aligned, then tightly wrapped in tape and coated with black tree sealant to keep out infection.
“The beauty of how they do this is that they line these pieces up exactly with the larger piece so that the circulatory system basically still works,” Booras explained. “You get the xylem and the phloem going as it’s supposed to.”
The varietal grafted is a first in the Santa Maria Valley, and as far as they know, in Santa Barbara County. It was tough wood to track down, taking seven months to finally find in Northern California.
What Booras and Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy had their hearts set on does have history−in France−a bright, fruity red grape called Pinot Meunier, [pronounced pi.no mø. nje].
“We wanted it because it’s one of the major grapes of Champagne and we want to take our sparkling program really seriously. So, we figured this was the next step to develop the vineyard part of that and using this as a blending component down the line, which is what they do in Champagne as well,” she “It tends to add an interesting element to sparkling wine and that’s what we want to see. We’re not trying to imitate Champagne, but they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, so they got a lot right.”
The somewhat scary part is the fruit won’t come for two years, but Booras is confident it will be worth the wait.
“We’re psyched! It’s more exciting than scary. People have been making sparkling wine here for a while, but we want to do it on a totally different level and really make some awesome wines. It pushes us in the right direction.”