In 2017 we were given less than 100 cuttings each of Savagnin, Poulsard, Mondeuse, and Serine – varietals and strains rarely found in the New World. Upon receipt last winter, we stuck the cuttings directly into our soil “own-rooted” rather than grafted onto American rootstock . Unfortunately, only about half the vines began to grow in the springtime.
Over the past 16 years we’ve grown spoiled own-rooting hearty Rhone varietals at 95-98% take rates. But these new, more delicate varietals faired much worse merely stuck in the ground, nakedly introduced into the Ballard Canyon climatic extremes.
2018 – Return to the Rootstock
If we continued to own-root it would take decades to propagate the limited number of cuttings into a production vineyard. Once we saw the poor success rate of the own-rooted cuttings last spring, we decided to plant rootstock in order to establish the American roots in our soil in 2017 and begin grafting in 2018.
As expected, the macho American rootstock thrived in Ballard Canyon, quickly growing into sprawling bushes. Throughout the 2017 growing season, we showed visitors the difference in vigor between the huge, burly American vines and the feeble French fellows growing side by side.
Grafting allows for a five-fold acceleration in propagation. To graft, only a one-bud length of vine is needed to attach into the flesh of the rootstock versus five-bud lengths stuck upright into the earth own-rooted. In addition, the success rate of grafting is much higher than our dismal results own-rooting – largely due to the robust strength of the American roots.
Because the American vines are so vigorous, we were able to take dozens of cutting lengths from each rootstock vine and we are further expanding our root-stock nursery. We will continue to graft the delicate Savignin, Poulsard, Mondeuse, and Serine vines onto rootstock in coming years.
The return to using rootstock grafting comes at a time when we have own-rooted 22 acres, over 83,000 vines, in the past two years alone. Our own-rooted vine count now exceeds the number of grafted vines in the entire vineyard. Ruben loves the way the vines behave own-rooted – self-regulating, conservative, mature – from the very first crop onward.
The very benefit of rootstock – its strength – creates a decades-long integration period as the robust rootstock vine and the less-vigorous vinfiera sync into balance. During this period the young vines will often over-produce and need to be trimmed back and green-harvested. Additional irrigation is needed for young, grafted vines in Ballard Canyon in order to ensure a healthy graft union and to feed even “drought tolerant” strains of root stock. It’s no wonder why Ruben has been on an own-rooting bonanza of late.
We believe our arid climate and dry-farming approach will prevent phylloxera from flourishing and killing the entire own-rooted vineyard blocks. However, at some point soon, we would like to even out the vine ratio to 50-50 protected v. non-protected. After all, at the end of the day, my goal in life is to pass along this glorious operation to the next generation.
The fact that the weaker new varietals need the help of root-stock to grow in Ballard Canyon has given us the excuse to add more grafted vines to the vineyard.