Mistake Monday – Don’t Forget the Wires

We all make mistakes, and in the wine and vine world, each year brings a fresh new opportunity to do silly and dumb things. The longer I’m in this industry, the more mistakes I make, which is why I’ve decided to list some of my biggest mistakes each week. My hopes are that you can learn from my mistakes and provide an opportunity for you to share any of the mistakes you’ve made so we can all help each other.

There are always mistakes that are unavoidable, but many times, the mistakes are preventable – and these are the ones we can help each other with.

Case in point: on the first ranch I managed for E&J Gallo, I had 400 acres with 31 individual blocks. I had never run a vineyard before and at the time, I spoke almost no Spanish and my team spoke almost no English. Suffice it to say, communication was difficult. On the southwest edge of the ranch there was a 4 acre block of Pinot Noir. This block was on a very steep hillside, and if there was any moisture at all in the spring, you had to walk to it. I tried to go down there pretty regularly, but let’s face it, I didn’t go down there as often as I needed to.

One day in late spring as we were finishing lifting wires and tucking shoots, my irrigation supervisor, Hirineo, came zooming up to the office saying that I had to look at something! I followed him all the way over to this block of Pinot and thought, what? He started pointing to the trellis wires connected to the end post. It was clear we didn’t do something by the tone in his voice, but I couldn’t sort it out. Finally, he became frustrated with my lack of understanding, walked into the row, reached into the canopy, and just yanked on a wire. Turns out, we (I) forgot to have them drop and move catch wires after pruning. Not only did I forget but in this block of quadrilateral cordon, the inside wires were resting on the on top of the cordon where all the spurs were. The shoots from the spurs had grown up around the wire. AND because the vine shoots were already tall and we had clusters everywhere, when we lifted the wires I forgot to move, we tore tendrils and snapped off clusters as we moved it up and into position.

For quadrilateral cordon, especially on tight spacing, this inner wire is absolutely crucial. It is what keeps the two canopies divided and allows sun and airflow, which meant we had no choice but to move it. We had to break off shoots, tear up leaves and laterals, and knock off clusters. I never completed a hard count of how many clusters were knocked off. Probably because I was brand new to managing vineyards and didn’t really want to know, but I roughly estimated that we knocked off about 1/3 of the clusters. And indeed, at harvest, that block of Pinot was about 1/3 less yield than the one next to it, which was roughly nine tons in this case.

Nine tons at $2,250/ton is $20,250. Yep, forgetting the wires was a $20,000 mistake on my part. And to make matters worse, I found out that my tractor supervisor, Nahu, had actually tried to tell me several times because he had mowed and sprayed it and seen it. I just didn’t understand him. I guess he figured that maybe I didn’t care or knew something he didn’t, so he just let me be the boss. See? I had opportunities to walk my butt over there on a more regular basis, but I didn’t. Nahu tried to tell me multiple times, but I didn’t listen well enough. I didn’t have a system in place to make sure it wasn’t missed. THAT is the definition of an avoidable mistake.

We ALL have those blocks that we don’t go to often enough. We ALL have miscommunications with our team. But we can for sure limit them. Since that day, I do two things differently, and I have never wavered from them since. If I have a block that is hard to get to or is a “step-child” or is one that I honestly don’t want to go to for whatever reason, I make sure I start with that block nearly every time I begin to check the ranch. It forces me to do that. The second thing I do is utilize white boards. White boards, white boards, white boards. Every time we have a task in the vineyard, say for example, wire moves – every block is written on the board and crossed off after completed. Does it avoid every issue? No, but issues are super rare now. If I had done that from the start, I wouldn’t have forgotten the wires nor would I have had to live with a $20,000 mistake.