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Crew Wine Co. Experiments with Trellis

Hanging curtain trellis system designed to improve grape quality, reduce costs

by Jon Tourney
Karl Giguiere, co-owner of Crew Wine Co. and JK Vineyards in Yolo County, Calif., walks among an experimental planting of 2-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines that use the hanging curtain trellis system.
Dunnigan Hills, Calif.—Crew Wine Co. in Yolo County, Calif., is experimenting with a newer, non-traditional trellis system on 110 acres of vineyards that were planted in 2012 and designed to produce a larger number of smaller, looser clusters for red grape varieties to reduce vineyard production costs and enhance wine quality.

Called the “hanging curtain,” the trellis is a high-wire system with installation costs similar to a more conventional vertically shoot-positioned (VSP) trellis. The vine trunk grows up a 6.5-foot-tall stake and is trained into a unilateral cordon from the trunk along a cordon wire at the top of the trellis. In addition to a higher cordon, the trellis diverges from VSP based on cane training and shoot positioning. Instead of being trained straight up (as with VSP), the canes are trained downward and draped across two wires below the cordon wire—then to an even lower wire, located about 1-foot above the irrigation drip line.

The goal is to create a long, loose curtain of leaves to shade the fruit but allow better air movement to prevent powdery mildew and Botrytis bunch rot. This design should produce a wall of fruit spread throughout the curtain, enabling more even ripening of each cluster. Smaller clusters are expected to produce more concentrated flavor. Vineyard spacing is 8 feet between rows with vines 6 feet apart.

Crew Wine co-owner and vineyard manager Karl Giguiere said there is additional cost and labor to train the vines during the first three years, but once in production, the goal is to save money on mildew and mold control. And since the leaves and canopy are spread out, it could also save on leaf-removal costs. The vines can be mechanically hedged for the initial pruning pass to save on overall pruning costs. Giguiere said the trellis also offers good potential for managing high vigor.

The first crop from the hanging curtain is expected in 2014. The trellis trial involves 40 acres of Petite Sirah, 30 acres of Petit Verdot, 27 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller plantings of Tempranillo and Tannat. The grapes are intended for Crew Wine’s Matchbook and Sawbuck brands.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is all about quality, and we still want to get good tonnage at a reasonable cost to match our $10-$15 per bottle price point, with yields of about 8 tons per acre,” Giguiere said.

“With the labor shortage and increasing costs, we’re looking for more affordable ways to increase or maintain quality and still give the consumer a great wine at a reasonable price. That’s the challenge,” he added.

A pioneer continues to innovate
Karl Giguiere helped pioneer wine grape growing in what is now the Dunnigan Hills American Viticultural Area in Yolo County. He began planting grapes in 1981, prior to starting R.H. Phillips Vineyards in 1984 with his brother, John, and John’s wife, Lane. R.H. Phillips, which introduced the Toasted Head brand, grew to become one of California’s largest production wineries prior to its sale to Vincor International of Canada in 2000. Vincor later became part of Constellation Wines.

The Giguieres started Crew Wine Co. in 2005, not far from the original R. H. Phillips site. They also own sister company JK Vineyards. The two operations occupy about 2,100 acres, with about 1,350 acres of vineyards and additional acreage under development. Vineyards are mechanically harvested, and operations are mechanized as much as possible. Karl said about 20% of JK Vineyards’ current production supplies grapes for Crew Wine, and the remainder is sold to three primary winery clients: Constellation Wines, E. & J. Gallo and Bogle Vineyards. JK also farms olives for olive oil production.

Giguiere admitted there are still unknowns with the hanging curtain trellis, but he believes it could be retrained to a more conventional system if it doesn’t work out.

A 110-acre experiment is a large trial by any standard, but Giguiere has always been an innovator and a student of viticulture. He has experimented with numerous trellis systems, irrigation regimes, grape varieties and the mechanization of vineyard operations.

Giguiere heard about the hanging curtain concept from a viticulturist who visited R.H. Phillips. With some adaptation, Giguiere planted some acreage with the hanging curtain at R.H. Phillips before he left the company in 2005. Current owner Constellation Wines continues to use the trellis and is producing wines from grapes grown with the system. Commenting on his new, larger experiment, Giguiere said, “We could learn some things along the way.”

Another early source of information was international vineyard consultant and researcher Dr. Richard Smart of Smart Viticulture, based in Australia. Remembering some advice from Smart, Giguiere said, “He used to say, ‘A grower ought to devote 10% of their acreage to experimental vineyard projects.’ Of course, he wasn’t the one who had to pay the bills.”

Crew Wine expands production and facility
Crew Wine recently expanded production facilities at the winery near Zamora, Calif., in Yolo County with additional barrel storage, tank fermentation capacity and a new vineyard equipment and maintenance shop. A tasting room and office facility is under construction, with plans to open the tasting room in mid-2014. Crew co-owner Lane Giguiere said wine production has grown to about 90,000 cases annually, and the 2013 vintage could total 100,000 cases.

Crew Wine’s f our brands and primary varietals are:
Matchbook: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah and Malbec produced from estate vineyards;

Sawbuck: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec produced from Yolo and Mendocino County grapes;

Mossback: Russian River Valley appellation Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and Chalk Hill appellation Cabernet Sauvignon;

Chasing Venus: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris from New Zealand. The wines are distributed in 39 states, Canada and China.

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