We all regularly ask: what varieties should be planted in the High Plains? I’m convinced it will be the ones that survive the longest. 2020 has been tough. I’ve seen 10 acres of 4-year old Cab Sauv vines fall apart. The vascular tissue was green when pruned but is now bone-dry. The only green tissue left is the rootstock. That’s easily a $150,000+ problem and just one example. We all drive by the blocks that were pre-pruned and haven’t been touched since. We all know why, but how honest and clear are we going to be about what variety? How many zeros can each grower absorb? How many growers can the industry afford to lose? Napa reset their entire valley after phylloxera and again after AXR rootstock failures.
Here’s my point: the fall freeze in 2019 provided a serious opportunity to evaluate the varieties being planted. It was a 6,000-acre, real-world field trial; no laboratory needed. That is why we are sharing all of our data below. Larry Young said 1989 was the last time a hard freeze occurred that early. Hopefully, it only happens once every 30 years, but that still doesn’t help the grower with the dead 4-year old Cab Sauv I just mentioned. In 1989, or 2009 for that matter, we had far fewer acres and varieties, and scant records. In fact, we don’t have good records of what’s here now. The data I’m sharing here is not a survey. It is raw data. I’m not interested in vineyards that just survive 8 to 12 years. I’m interested in making them last 20 years or more. And that will require a big group effort.
Here’s some huge questions:
Have hard fall freezes happened more regularly than we recall because they occurred November 15th in other years and we just weren’t looking?
Have we chalked up block deaths or horrible bud break in the past to the wrong cause?
How do we define a variety as long-term sustainable?
Can we collect better data at the field level and gain far better knowledge as a result?
Can we come together to understand what truly works and why?
I’d like to find answers to these questions and the many, many others. I’m sure many of you would, too, but that requires two things: sharing more information with each other and a large amount of good data. The High Plains will need 3X to 4X the “normal” amount of data that California or Washington needs, which is why I’m sharing my data set that covers 694 acres and is just barely becoming useful. At 1,500 acres, this data set would become massively powerful because we already have all the answers… in the vineyard. We just have to muster the drive to find them and piece them together.
We’ve made a ton of progress, no doubt. I see the fruits of hard work, and we all stand on the shoulders of the giants who blazed the trails before us. But I also know that the desire to improve our knowledge is far greater than our current progress, which is why I’m hoping to cut a new path for us to evolve. Nature is the true foe. We’re only enemies of each other if we make it that way. We can hide our light from the world, or we can choose to let it shine. We hope to be an example for letting the light shine.
When I look at these data, it says cool-climate varieties did significantly better than their warm-climate counterparts. But I do not know what that fully means. Is it a big part of getting vineyards to survive 20 years? I don’t know but I think so. I lose sleep thinking about these data and about acres dying. I know I’m not the only one. I still walk these dying blocks every two weeks because I’m not satisfied with the current lack of answers. I don’t have answers and it drives me bonkers. It’s a problem I’m not content with.
Ideally, we plant varieties that break bud late, can handle heat stress, enter dormancy before the first fall freeze, and last at least 15-20 years. That’s not an easy ask, but there are a zillion varieties so I’m sure we can find 20 to 30 that can meet those needs. It will just take us solving that as a group. I mean, yeah, some of us can solve it individually, but it will take 20 times longer and many growers will go belly-up in the process. What’s the point of that? So that a few folks can stand on top of the bone pile? I’d rather share information, progress faster, reduce financial losses, and hopefully have an industry that can compete on the world’s stage. But I respect I’m just one person and possibly the outlier.
I think we have a huge opportunity to solve big sections of the puzzle from 2019/2020. I think every single one of us has a piece of the puzzle. We have all the answers in the field. These data are one of my pieces to the puzzle. I’m showing it in hopes that we can all see a little more of the puzzle. I know these numbers are hard to view, but I know we can change these numbers moving forward. I want them to be a catalyst that generates good discussions in good faith. I am 100% certain every grower has useful insights. I’d sure love to hear them. In fact, I think we all would.
Anybody have puzzle pieces they’d like to show, too?