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A Cut Above: Global Pruning School Comes to Lake County

A Cut Above: Global Pruning School Comes to Lake County

A world-renowned company teaching vineyard pruning techniques has partnered with a vineyard organization in Lake County, California, on their shared mission to train everyone from hobbyists to management to field workers.
Photo Courtesy of Simonit&Sirch

Just north of Napa County and Mendocino lies a lesser-known wine region, Lake County, which is a part of the North Coast AVA. Influenced by elevation (at 1,200 feet), volcanic soil, and proximity to Clear Lake, the largest inland body of water in California, the vines in Lake County benefit from a large diurnal swing and lots of daytime sunshine. The result? Grapes with thick skins and high phenolics – in other words, that winning combination of tannins and acid that leads to great wines.

With vineyards dating back to pre-prohibition and then reemerging in the 1960’s, the region has catapulted to success over the past 30 years. Today, with approximately 30 wineries and nearly 10,000 acres under vine, Lake County is quickly developing a reputation for producing bright and concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Syrah, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. And now the wine region is establishing itself as an innovator in other ways: developing a first-of-its-kind program that not only aims to benefit the region’s vines, but the region’s people as well.

The Lake County Winegrape Commission has recognized a need to further enhance the region’s already high quality of fruit; and, from a sustainability aspect, increase the longevity of both the vines and community. By partnering with the global company Simonit&Sirch to create the inaugural Lake County Pruning School, they’ve created a program intended to educate, increase sustainability, and ultimately enhance the quality of Lake County wine grapes. 

What is the Lake County Pruning School?

Photo Courtesy of Simonit&Sirch

According to Debra Sommerfield, President of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, “Lake County is the first region to host a collective project with Simonit&Sirch, addressing an entire region instead of a single property.” The program, which was taught in both English and Spanish in its inaugural session, was designed to meet the educational needs of all the area’s vineyard workers. They currently have funding for three years.

This first year, the program sold out. More than 100 people were taught vineyard management techniques including how to best control branching, how to maximize the vine’s vascular flow, and about cuts, crown buds, and protective spare wood. Students began with an online session before taking part in a three-day practical hands-on experience in the field.

According to the Commission, attendees reported that the experience was phenomenal, saying they’re appreciative and excited to implement the techniques they’ve learned in their own vineyards. 

Who benefits from the Pruning School?

Photo Courtesy of Simonit&Sirch

The school is designed to reach a wide audience, from vineyard owners, vineyard supervisors, and crew leaders, to experienced vineyard workers. Because it’s taught in both English and Spanish, it has an even broader reach to those in the field.

Each class enables one-on-one learning and an opportunity to exchange ideas and techniques with others in the cohort. According to Simonit&Sirch’s master pruner Jacopo Miolo, “I think the biggest thing that benefits our students is that after working with us they will have the tools to be able to engage with their vineyards in a different way and start an open ‘dialogue’ with their plants.”

Miolo says, “We took into consideration what the most common viticultural practices and traditions are in the area and opened the program up to anyone interested in coming, not only people from the industry but also to people with small family vineyards, journalists, vineyard managers, and entire vineyard crews sent by their wineries to learn useful skills that will make them a more valuable asset for their line of work.”

Miolo explains that, typically, Simonit&Sirch is hired to work with an individual winery to create custom solutions that are in line with the specific goals and issues that might be present in a particular vineyard. Sometimes, depending on the client, they’re hired to achieve certain winemaking criteria in the vineyard that may be vastly different from what a vineyard is currently producing. Miolo says he is trying to emulate what their company has been doing in Italy here in the States: Hosting regional pruning schools that offer a variety of content specific to the practices and traditions most common in that region. 

According to Megan Hoberg, marketing and events manager for Lake County Winegrape Commission, “This is the first time an organization, rather than a single estate, is focusing on an entire region, where people don’t typically get the chance to work together and share ideas.” 

The Lake County Winegrape Commission is also investing in the Spanish speakers in their community. Though the program is not yet credentialed, it provides a level of knowledge that can be visible on a resume. “The potential to reach hundreds of people over the coming years is something we really value,” says Hoberg. “We’re able to provide Spanish-speaking workers with the tools and resources to improve their position.” 

What innovations does the Lake County Pruning School offer?

Photo Courtesy of Simonit&Sirch

Simonit&Sirch’s methods include focusing on the vine and making it central to the entire winemaking process. Miolo says they are constantly observing each and every vine individually to get an understanding of the strength and limitations of the plant. A lot of what they teach is how to make those observations. “This is a whole new approach compared to the traditional working method where the production and winemaking goals are central, and the health of the vine is an afterthought that is dealt with when a problem presents itself,” he explains.

The Simonit&Sirch Method is founded on four basic principles used to prune and ensure the lifespan of the vine. They first look at branching, which is the shaping of the structure to ensure proper development and vine growth. Next is to ensure proper vascular (or sap) flow through the plant, separating desiccated areas from the main flow. They also pay attention to reducing the amount of cutting surfaces and respecting the crown. Precision pruning reduces the amount of exposed wood and resulting wood disease. Lastly, their pruning techniques allow for a portion of protective wood that will prevent the vine from suffering further desiccation.

According to Miolo, their approach is based on more than 30 years of work in many of the world’s wine regions. “We manage experimental vineyards all over the world where various research is being done, privately for our clients as well as for research purposes,” he says. “For example, there are recent articles by the French professor of viticulture Alain Deloire that explore some of the internal workings of the grapevine and how an approach like ours, with specific cutting techniques that pay attention to the details in the organs of the vine, help avoid the compromise of the sap flow that leads to disease and damage.” These vineyards are documented and open for visit for anyone who is interested.

As each area has different factors that will determine what their best practice should be, Simonit&Sirch has modified the specifics of their training program to address the specific needs of the vines in Lake County.

Generally speaking, Miolo says there are three main factors that come into play when trying to determine the best course of action in any vineyard or viticultural area. He calls them The Three Ps: Plants, People, and Place. 

Miolo tailors his approach based on what plant material he’s working with. By focusing on the specific grape varieties he’s working with, as well as the current state of the vineyard, he is better able to understand the characteristics, the weaknesses, and the strengths of the plants he will be dealing with, in order to identify what pruning techniques will work best for those plants.

Next, Miolo looks at the people who are working in the vineyards. His approach may vary depending on how many years of experience his students have and whether there is a strong tradition of viticulture with customs and practices that are widespread throughout the region.

Lastly, Miolo wants to understand the place. The elevation, soil, temperature, humidity, wind, exposure to sunlight, and precipitation all affect his approach to pruning. Additional considerations include specific parameters of the vineyard, such as the distance between rows and vines, the slope, whether it’s terraced, or on the valley floor.

What are the lasting implications?

Photo Courtesy of Simonit&Sirch

The end goal of the pruning program is to improve the overall lifespan of the vineyard, while also providing more control over production from year to year as the climate varies. The program offers a vine pruning system that takes the vines’ natural defense strategies and morphology into consideration while pruning the vines in a way that will cause as little harm as possible. Ultimately, their pruning techniques will establish the base a plant needs so it has better resistance to drought and disease over its lifetime. “All of this is done with a methodology and common language that is easy to replicate for the best coordination of a vineyard crew in any kind of situation,” says Miolo.

From Miolo’s point of view, “We give the opportunity for anybody that might be interested in what we’re doing to try it out, hands-on, to get their own opinion on what our pruning method is all about. It’s easy to read about what we’re doing. There are myriad articles and opinions around the wine world about Simonit&Sirch, but until you have the opportunity to prune a vineyard together with us, you will not know for sure what it is we are doing and why. But, when we get the chance to work together, people quickly come to realize the meaning and importance of the knowledge that we are trying to share, and then the word spreads.” 

Simonit&Sirch has been working on their own campus vineyards in Friuli, Italy since the beginning of the first experiments by the company’s founders Marco Simonit & Pier-Paolo Sirch many years ago. These vineyards, healthy and still growing strong after decades of working with the company’s method, are a testament to their approach. But this program helps growth in other ways that are perhaps even farther reaching than the health of the vines: they are helping to build global relationships and strengthen local communities through unique educational opportunities, which is perhaps the ultimate measure of success. 

Contact for more information or to find out when their next class will be offered.