green cabernet grapesAfter a couple of years dabbling in community college courses, I’m finally getting around to the one I really should be taking: Introduction to Viticulture. But I’m a firm believer in finding out what you don’t know first, then taking a course to get the knowledge and technique you now know you need. After three seasons of winemaking, I certainly am at that point now. But I should point out that Viticulture is NOT winemaking. This is hard-core farming. Planning a vineyard, planting the vines properly, caring for the soil, controlling pests, managing the canopy and optimizing the fruit yield for the best wine production. Like I said, farming.

Yes, I can hear you saying: “Shouldn’t she be taking a winemaking course?” Maybe. But Andy is the winemaker, I’m the field hand. I’d like to keep it that way. Besides, I was frightened by a UC Davis syllabus a few years ago. Seems the reknowned University, one of the world’s great seats of learning about all things vine and wine, offers a four semester non-degree course aimed at the hobbyist winemaker and vineyard owner. Four semesters, but, as the syllabus says, “Only the first semester will not require mastery of college-level Math and Chemistry.”

Math? Chemistry? I slogged through it in High School then dropped happily into an English Literature major and Art History minor. My alma mater tried to sneak some science into me with distribution requirements. We had to take a certain number of courses in each discipline no matter what our major. I still managed to avoid Math with Biology and Geology. As an Internet friend pointed out, even Barbie knows: “Math is hard.”

So scanning the course description of Intro to Viticulture, I decided this was my course. It’s taught at Santa Rosa Junior College which is an accredited feeder college to Davis, so the curriculum would be the same. But there was no mention of Math. There was mention of a lot of other things including a yard long syllabus that listed enough required reading, term papers, oral presentations and field visits to keep me busy all Spring. Or at least learn me something.

So imagine my shock when I attended my first class Monday night and was told we needed to understand how to calculate the degree days in a wine area season. It wasn’t too hard a formula. But still: Math. I didn’t sign up for Math. Or if there has to be Math, don’t throw it to me on the first day. Start me out easy with glorious pictures of healthy vineyards. The professor didn’t do that either. Her first overhead presentation included full color glossy shots of the disgusting and dreaded Phylloxera bug, scourge of vineyards the world over. I’m debating whether I should share that image on this blog. In the meantime, imagine a translucent cross between a tick and an aphid.

My initial shock over and having figured out the degree days formula, I began to enjoy myself. Calculating a region’s degree days (usually an average of over more than a 10 year period or longer) is one of the factors you use to determine which vines are suitable for your land. Here’s the formula:

GDD = Sum of ((Daily Max Temp – Min Temp)


) –50) for all days April 1 to Oct 31

There are five categories of growing areas — with the coolest, Category One, being regions like Germany (suitable only for long-ripening whites) to Category Five, being Fresno, which is pretty much only for raisins. (Find a good explanation and a regional degree day chart here.) While there are many other factors determining whether a certain grape will do well in a specific region, this is the logical one to start with. You’d be surprised how many winemakers ignore this advice. The professor told how acres of Cabernet were planted in the cooler Santa Barbara highlands area giving years of disappointing yields until they were regrafted with more suitable vines.

root phylloxera

Here's the dreaded Phylloxera upclose and disgustingly personal.

Apparently, that cautionary tale didn’t deter some people in the class. And yes, aren’t there always THOSE people in any class? I was pleasantly surprised to find a good number of wine business professionals seated next to me. Many were involved with winemaking and marketing at pretty impressive well-known vineyards looking to expand their knowledge on the farming end. Also represented were a good number of students who were planning to transfer on to the UC Davis program after their first year at Santa Rosa. Then there were the hobbyists — those of us who found ourselves with a vineyard and decided to plunge in. One of us wisely chose to sit back and keep a low profile on the first class. That would be me. The rest of us didn’t.

Apparently the hobbyists were under the impression that Introduction to Viticulture should have been titled “How to Trick Mother Nature.” Several of them argued loudly with the professor about how the degree days calculation must surely be arbitrary. As one of them said, “Well why couldn’t I grow Chardonnay in Fresno if I watered the vines enough and kept the leaf canopy thick?” The professor gently conceded that grape vines are grown in every continent save Antarctica, but whether they can produce top quality fruit in all but a few specific areas is another matter. Then she wisely changed the slide and began telling us about that disgusting Phylloxera bug.

I’m hoping I don’t have to get John the Baptist and his crew into class to straighten these people out. But somehow I’m thinking they won’t be back as they seemed very disgusted with the professor’s lack of initiative in challenging the forces of weather and climate.

john the baptist with flame thrower

John the Baptist and his crew have a scorched earth policy toward non-natives and those who promote them. Don't make him take a flamethrower...

In any case, I’ll leave you with a few interesting factoids from the first day of class:

  • All variations of Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, are native only to the Trans-Caucus region of present day Georgia in the former Soviet Union. The history of Viticulture, from the Phoenicians on down has been the attempt to maximize the fruit possibilities of the grape in areas that aren’t its natural home.
  • Micro-climate means something very different in the vineyard world. Most of us think of micro-climate as a small area with a distinct climate compared to the area around it — often applied to areas like Sonoma’s Carneros which the Bay fog keeps much cooler than the surrounding area. In the Viticulture world, that would be the Meso-Climate. The micro-climate is the area directly under the canopy of a specific grape vine.
  • Phylloxera is native to the South Eastern United States where the native grapes live in peaceful harmony with it. It has now spread throughout the world. (Another thing to blame on those Southern Red States!)
  • Almost all wine-producing vines — anywhere in the world — are now grafted on to Phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Guess that makes the US, the foundation of the wine industry!
  • If you have different types of vines in the same vineyard — say two Rhone-style varietals like ours — they will cross-pollinate, but the expression of that cross-pollination will only be in the seeds and only if those seeds grow. The fruit will always be true to the mother plant.
  • On that note, John the Baptist forwarded on this New York Times article about how grapevines haven’t had much sex in thousands of years.