Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center and the Virginia Cooperative Extension Bring Grape Pruning Workshop and Competition to Loudoun

Participants in grape pruning workshop gather outdoors

With over 4,000 acres of grapes in Virginia and nearly 800 acres in the county alone, Loudoun grape growers know a thing or two about vineyard maintenance. Grapevines require consistent annual pruning in order to produce healthy fruit for wine pressing. This is a process that takes skill and precision to result in uninjured, healthy vines and fruit. Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith (AHS) Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) and the Virginia Cooperative Extension partnered to invite grape growers of all stages including those who were just starting out, to those who’d just installed fences to protect unplanted crops, to others who have been growing for decades, to attend a free grape pruning workshop and competition at Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg to review the fundamentals of dormant pruning and to practice pruning strategies for grapevines. More than 50 people attended the workshop in what was the 7th year of the pruning contest.

Beth Sastre, Commercial Horticulturist of Agriculture and Natural Resources with the Virginia Cooperative Extension-Loudoun translates for the Spanish-speaking attendees under overcast skies.

Beth Sastre, Commercial Horticulturist of Agriculture and Natural Resources with the Virginia Cooperative Extension-Loudoun translates for Spanish-speaking attendees under overcast skies.

Stone Tower Winery is a family-owned winery that sits upon a 300-acre estate owned by Mike and Kristi Huber. Situated in western Loudoun, Stone Tower offers views that seem to go on forever beneath an endless sky. On the day of the workshop however, the views were damp, and the sky overcast, but that didn’t stop participants from showing up with gloves on, pruners in hand, hats on, and hoods pulled up, ready to get to work.

The day’s activities were explained by Tremain Hatch, Viticulture Extension Associate at Virginia Tech, who began the workshop by explaining the fundamentals of grape pruning, including the anatomy and physiology of grapevines, why and when to prune, and several other considerations for grape farmers when pruning vines.

He showed examples of how grapevines should look before and after pruning, and what to look for when the vines are ready to be pruned. Hatch explained that grapevines, if not pruned and contained, have a wild growth pattern. They can produce excessive grape clusters, reducing the sugar accumulation in the fruit, affecting the fruit (and wine) pigmentation, and overgrown foliage, which can shade the fruit from sunlight, inhibiting growth, and reducing the grape yield.

Mizuho Nita talking to the grape pruning workshop attendees

Mizuho Nita talking about grape disease management

After the fundamentals lesson, Virginia Tech Grape Pathologist Mizuho Nita talked about grape disease management, identifying key diseases, and discussed how to manage them and where to locate the resources to do so. Some of the diseases discussed were downy and powdery mildew, grey mold, black rot, and anthracnose, all of which can be effectively managed through the combined use of culture, sanitation, resistance, and fungicide. He also talked about one of the most devastating grapevine diseases, crown gall, which is a chronic bacteria and common issue among Virginia vineyards, affecting the entire vine, including the root system. Some of the more experienced grape growers shared their experience with losing vines to this disease, which made the seriousness of the disease even more apparent.

When the disease management portion concluded, participants braced themselves for the outdoor component of the workshop where afternoon plummeting temperatures, squishy soil-lined paths, and grapevines awaited.

Tremain and Corrigan demonstrate how to properly prune

Tremain Hatch and Corrigan Herbert demonstrate pruning techniques on Marsanne block

Corrigan Herbert, Vineyard Manager at Stone Tower Winery worked with Tremain Hatch to demonstrate how to effectively prune both young and mature vines. Participants jumped into this hands-on activity and carefully followed instructions as they selected a vine and began pruning. Herbert indicated what and how much should be retained from each vine and explained what happens after the new growth begins to establish itself. She elaborated on the importance of positioning the vine, a crucial element of maintaining the vine architecture.

Herbert shared that of the 300-acre property, the vineyard at Stone Tower covers 90 acres and houses over 100,000 vines, all of which need to be individually hand-pruned. When asked about the constant maintenance of such an enormous vineyard, Herbert explained that she and many other grape growers live on the property in housing built specifically for them. She also shared that Stone Tower provides H-2A visas for some of their foreign employees. The H-2A visa program is a federal program that helps American farmers fill employment gaps by hiring temporary and/or seasonal agricultural workers from other countries.

As participants moved from block to block (blocks are rows of vines, partitioned by grape variety), Herbert and Hatch worked with each to improve or applaud their technique, and explained what they would be looking for when it came to the grape pruning competition.

Not all workshop attendees participated in the competition. Many were animated spectators, excitedly rooting for their grape-grower companions. As competitors prepared for the 5-minute showdown, they were spaced out among the blocks after selecting the section of vines that they wanted to prune. When Hatch yelled, “GO!,” the competition was on!

Participants are pruning during the grape pruning competition

Competitors pruning grapevines during the grape pruning competition

The competitors, using the knowledge they gained at the day’s event as well as from their own experiences, began meticulously pruning the vines, aiming for quantity as well as quality. As spectators cheered on and offered tips, the competitors were zeroed in with concentration, snipping and tossing the discarded vines into the alleyways (the long continuous rows of breaks in between the blocks, designed for machine and foot traffic access) for easy cleanup. When time was up, Herbert and Hatch examined each pruned vine, made their deliberations, and had all workshop participants head back indoors to announce the winners.

There were prizes for the first, second, and third place winners. Each winner received a swag bag as well as cash prizes of $100, $50, and $25 in the form of VISA gift cards, respectively. The winners were:

  1. Freddis Membreno, Stone Tower Winery
  2. Blanca Alonso, Stone Tower Winery
  3. Oscar Lechuga, Bleu Frog Vineyards

Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center and the Virginia Cooperative Extension are bringing these types of workshops to vineyards across Virginia. If you would like to stay updated on upcoming viticulture-related workshops and meetings, subscribe to the Virginia Grape Disease Updates blog, hosted by Virginia Tech.