Spring in the Vineyard

In vineyards across Pennsylvania, the vines have spent months in hibernation. Now as the weather warms, signs of life emerge. Buds open — first the whites, then the more temperamental reds — and the visible work begins.

We chatted with Nelson Stewart, vineyard manager at Allegro Vineyards, in mid-April while he was out among the vines.

“Everything is still pretty dormant,” he explains. “We’re waiting for the buds to open. The Chardonnay is going to be one of the first. We’ve had some cold nights, but I don’t think it’s hurt anything.”

This waitful period comes on the heels of a busy winter. After Thanksgiving, Stewart starts pruning, something that requires intense attention on each and every vine.

“You cut off probably 96 percent of everything, and leave some wood for next year,” he explains. “[Grapes] grow on one-year-old wood. We’ve taken all the prunings out, either mulched them or gotten rid of them. We’ve tied all the vines down to the wire so that they’re ready for the buds to come out. Once the buds open — and after the frost — we’re off and running.”

Another name for that essential bit of year-old wood is “cane” — these special shoots have developed brown bark and dropped their leaves. That is where the buds will emerge. The timing of that “bud break,” as they call it, depends on the weather, both how hard the winter was (this year was not so bad) and how warm the spring is.

By the end of May, all of the buds will be open. In Allegro’s vineyard, last to the party will usually be the high-maintenance reds: Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. That’s one reason why those varieties are trickier to cultivate on the East Coast: The growing season is short. About a month after bud break, bunches of tiny flowers will bloom on the vines, each with the potential to become a grape.

In a small way, the timing of the COVID-19 crisis has been providential. These early spring months require the least amount of toil — and staff — in the vineyard. Right now, it’s just Stewart and one other worker. After a winter of pruning and preparing the ground, it’s a matter of waiting and watching the weather.

“I don’t want it to get too cold,” he insists. “It would be nice if it stayed warm and dry, and the sun came out — just like Sonoma [laughs].”

“When the buds open, I’ll need people,” he explains. “I leave extra cane on the vine so the buds will have a little bit of insurance. That will need to be pruned. Shoots come out and they will need to be knocked back. Next week, we’ll shop at some nurseries to replace vines that have died.”

“When you’ve done your homework and gotten things done in a certain timely way, then this is the lull before the storm,” he adds. “Once the buds start opening, then you’re off to the races and it seems that all you do is try to catch up. You go from feeling like everything is under control to ‘Holy Smokes, what do I do now?’ So that’s the exciting part.”