Today it’s sunny, windy and cold, and although we need rain at this time of year, the weather is perfect for pruning. I only own a thousand vines—old vines with thick, twisted trunks that produce vegetation at waist level or above, so while I started pruning a week ago, I will already finish today, and enjoy the fleeting satisfaction of looking out over “clean” vines free of last year’s shoots and ties, their growth reduced to two short, trimmed shoots. One shoot is six or eight buds long (the “capo frutta”), and will produce at least one bunch of grapes per bud. The other (the “sperone”) is much shorter, the length more or less of a thumb, with two buds that will grow a shoot each, one of which will be next year’s “sperone.” It may sound confusing, but it isn’t: once I am there, looking at the vine covered in last year’s growth, I zero in on the healthiest shoots—those with the diameter of a ring finger, say, and buds neither too close together (a sign of weakness) or too far apart (a sign of too much vigour). I settle into the task, still myself and observe. I get into the zone, as athletes say, and when I do, the pruning goes fast, my cuts placed surely and applied cleanly.
I will come back another day to extract the severed shoots from the trellising and pile them up in the middle of the row to burn once the damp weather arrives and to saw off any large branches the vine no longer needs. Today, I will move along the row, trimming the new and one-year wood, shaping each vine for the imminent growing season, hoping my guesses are right. Have I left enough buds? Too many? Will the vine be able to ripen all its grapes? I wish I could see underground, in order to appreciate the mass of roots. Then, I would have a clearer idea of the plant’s capability—of the supply network, one could say, ready to serve the ripening fruit. But I can only imagine how far down the roots reach, how dense the capillary network is, by looking at the vine above ground—its height and breadth and vigour—and projecting the size and state of its underground corollary.
I don’t know if plants can see, but they communicate, although possibly without intent. The hue and sheen and pliability of the vine’s bark tells me how it weathered last summer, the width of the trunk (divided by the plant’s age) indicates how fertile the soil is. The number and length of the shoots go a long way toward revealing what kind of grape it is (there are a dozen different kinds in my vineyard, red and white), which I otherwise couldn’t tell at this time of year, without leaves or bunches of grapes to guide me. Occasionally, I see a vine that isn’t going to make it—one I pruned last year but that hardly produced shoots. Its trunk will be sawed off at ground level, its roots allowed to finish drying up, the underground stump dug up and a new vine—if we are lucky, cloned from the old—planted next winter in its place.
I think of the seventy-five years the vine has lived—of the weather it has borne, how dry the summers must have been, how violent the storms coming from the north at the vineyard’s back, of the rains and of all the grapes the vine has produced, season after growing season, sending forth leaves then shoots, flowering, swelling its grapes, nourishing them with moisture drawn up from the Earth. Then I think of the Septembers, seventy-five in all, of how the vine would have been relieved of its grapes one day, how it would have stopped pumping out lymph toward its extremities and, instead, let it slide back down through the trunk and into its roots for shoring up.