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Chris Corley
March 2, 2021 | Chris Corley

California Sprawl

When we were kids, I used to love going to the vineyard with our dad. With the winery under construction, and the young vineyards in their resplendent California Sprawl, it was an exciting time for the 'grown-ups', and a fun place for us kids. I was 10 years old when the winery was built, and wine and grapes didn't mean much to me at that time, although I had a great admiration for our dad ... he was a builder, visionary, and creator, and even my young eyes could see and appreciate that.

The land had been cleared of the old prune trees and black walnut trees back in 1970, and the vineyard was established and thriving. I think I recall hearing when I was young that the largest black walnut tree in California was just a little north of us, a bit further up Big Ranch Road. Big Ranch Road was a fairly quiet country lane back then, and our dad knew all the neighbors up and down the road, and by extension, so did we.

Back then, vineyards didn't look like they do now. They used to grow more wildly, in what was known as 'California Sprawl'. The spacing between vines was much broader, sometimes planted 8' x 12' apart. The tractors were big, and the valley bins that the grapes were picked into were also big, holding 2+ tons of grapes each, and they were usually tipped into a big grape hopper off of the back of a flatbed. It was very different than the typical vineyard in Napa Valley now, which is usually highly manicured, with much more fruit exposure, and a wall of leaves rather than a true canopy. 

As a kid roaming around in the vineyard back then, it was fun hanging out under a California Sprawl. Since the vines were spaced so far apart and planted on pretty aggressive rootstocks, the vines would grow very aggressively, the shoots growing thick and strong across the wide rows, their tendrils ensnaring each other and creating a true canopy that you would go under. In the old days, you need to fight your way through the vineyard rows sometimes. The grapes were entirely underneath the canopy, with little to no actual sun exposure. 

Over the years, viticulture has progressed towards tighter spacing in vineyards, smaller tractors, increasingly manicured vines, greatly increased fruit exposure. This all lends itself towards clean, wonderfully ripe California wines, which we love. I wonder, though, as we observe naturally increasing heat and less rain, if we might see a slight shift back towards more natural canopies to protect our fruit from the sun. We can see many vineyards protecting their fruit from the sun by hanging shadecloth over the grapes, but I remember seeing the old growers on our vineyard accomplish that with training and vine leaves.

As we celebrate fifty years of winegrowing in the Napa Valley, we are looking forward, but it is fun to reminisce about being a kid, hanging out under the sprawling grapevines 40 years ago.


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