On the vine

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Having spent the middle of March in Napa and Sonoma, followed by two weeks in Italy’s Veneto region, with a return to eastern Long Island the second week of April, I feel like I have tracked early spring from one side of the globe to the other.

In every location, on my earliest drive past scores of vineyards, the vines looked entirely dormant (if not dead). Inspected more closely, their signs of renewed life became apparent. First, the woody brown canes showed a dark, wet stain from sap rising from the roots to the canes’ neatly pruned ends. The sap drips like water, but taste it: It’s sweet, full of sugar made by the prior year’s leaves and saved in the wood throughout the winter.

In Napa, I stopped to investigate a young planting of pinot noir vines (among the first to emerge in spring). Their buds were swollen, with wisps of cottony insulation indicating that the scales of the buds would soon burst with the force of emerging growth.

A few days later, after a day of soil-drenching showers, I saw bud break for the first time this year. It was on a rocky, sheltered south-facing plot of the Chappellet family’s vineyard on Napa’s Pritchard Hill, where an old, deeply rooted chardonnay clone’s primordial leaves glinted green in the sun, beating all the younger plants to the punch.

This time of year is one of great hope and excitement for a vintner. The first warm days of spring, the blooming of every flowering plant, have always heralded an end to winter’s dangerous cold. On this visit to Italy, I found translations of a few words of Monferrato’s ancient language that, in themselves, expressed the hardships of a northern Italian winter, which the coming of spring softens:

“Pusca,” a false wine for the poor, made by decanting water through the sludge left after grappa is distilled.

“Musé,” applied to oxen’s muzzles (so they don’t bite).

“Al Previ,” an old tool to heat the bed.

“Sciunfetta,” an earthenware pot used to contain the coals for the previ.

“Marusé,” a man who arranges marriages. Needed if the bed isn’t warm enough.

“Gabanestra,” the rainbow, seen after a spring storm.

Every time I see the sap run, and bud break follow, I am reminded of Dylan Thomas’s poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age …”

While Thomas’s poem has a heart-wrenching conclusion (as great poetry must) at a lover’s tomb, the force that drives the green fuse of the grape vine engenders life, creating fruit that is transformed into wine. Wine then gives illusions of immortality to the drinker: a happier outcome than Thomas’s shroud, eaten by a “crooked worm.” Oh, where is the rainbow in Welsh poetry? But the Welsh don’t grow wine grapes.

In Verona and the Veneto, not far from where Romeo and Juliet lie entombed in the Capulets’ grave, vineyards and orchards vie for space with factories, housing developments, and towering, violet-tinted glass hotels. Over a four-day period, driving along one highway I noted (as I had two weeks earlier in California) the running of sap and swelling of buds.

At the end of the first week of April, I observed Verona’s cherry trees burst into color, stimulated, as in Napa, by a violent rainstorm. The next day, a veil of tiny green leaves was visible in the vineyards.

Relative to other deciduous plants, grapevines are slow to bud out. In fact, the slower they are, the better. No one wants to see the tender new shoots killed back by a late spring frost. In Napa, spring frosts are so common that vineyards on the valley floor have permanent windmills installed, to move around cold fogs that turn to ice after the vines have budded out. Smudge pots are still used where windmills are absent. Lighting hundreds of pots of oil to heat acres of air in the freezing hours before dawn has been an ancient chore for eons in frost-prone vineyards.

There is less risk of spring frost in the Veneto near the Adriatic sea, which was far behind Verona in terms of spring’s surge. A maritime climate always delays spring, since it takes water longer to heat up than it does land. Similarly, Long Island’s East End, influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, Peconic Bay, and Long Island Sound, rarely risks frosted buds in spring.

Here, almost every other deciduous plant buds out before grapevines. It’s usually the first week of May when Long Island’s vineyards spring back to life. If you have a chance to visit a local vineyard now, be sure to examine some vines at bud break.

The sight of those tiny leaves, curled protectively around dwarfed cluster-buds of the year’s new crop, may make your blood run faster, too. Do you see that rainbow over Peconic?

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