Cultivating the Vines

“Wine is a living liquid containing no preservatives. Its life cycle comprises youth, maturity, old age, and death. When not treated with reasonable respect it will sicken and die.”
– Julia Child

Viticulture, the art of cultivating grapes for wine, was first widely practiced in Mesopotamia 6000 years ago. Contributions from many of the world’s cultures have expanded and improved this specialized field of agriculture ever since: the development of new methods of pruning and training vines for increased yields, improvements in irrigation and fertilization techniques, the ability to counter disease and insects, improved harvesting techniques, the classification of varieties, and improved understanding of the roles that soil, landscape, microclimates, and microscopic organisms play in the process of grape maturation and quality. These innovations have enhanced the quality and availability of wine through the ages. But they also attempt to control by science a process which is partly an art, dependent upon the vagaries of climate and chance.

Nelson Shaulis, E. S. Shepardson, and T.D. Jordan. The Geneva Double Curtain For Vigorous Grapevines: Vine Training and Trellis Construction. Bulletin 811. Geneva, NY: New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, 1967.

Dr. Nelson Shaulis, a professor of viticulture at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, made revolutionary contributions to vineyard practices. Regarded as the “Father of Canopy Management,” Dr. Shaulis developed the Geneva Double Curtain technique, which trains the vine wood and vegetation over wires, supported by cross arms four feet apart and five or six feet above the ground. This trellising system allowed for maximum photosynthesis, improving the rates of vine maturation and grape yield.

Mechanical harvester. Photograph, ca. 1950s-1960s.

Dr. Shaulis also developed a mechanical harvester to work in conjunction with his Geneva Double Curtain trellis technique. As this photograph shows, the harvester rides above the curtains while arms attack the vines with a beating and stripping motion, causing grapes to fall onto the catcher on the bottom of the harvester. The development of the harvester saved labor at harvest time, reducing costs.

Archibald F. Barron. Vines and Vine Culture: Being a Treatise on the Cultivation of the Grape Vine; With Descriptions of the Principal Varieties. London: Journal of Horticulture Office, 1883.

Phylloxera vastatrix, as depicted in all stages of development, was responsible for attacking the roots of the European Vitis vinifera, decimating European and later California vineyards. Once it was determined that Phylloxera was to blame, viticulturists began using Phylloxera resistant rootstocks to develop hardier plants and vineyards.

Anonymous. Grafting technique, [18--?].

Thomas Munson, a horticulturist from Dennison, Texas, is credited with the original idea to graft European Vinifera vines onto native American rootstocks. This grafting technique attempted to preserve the qualities of the Vinifera, while adding the benefits of greater disease resistance seen in native rootstocks. This illustrated guide shows techniques for grafting grapevines to rootstocks.

Le Mildiou de la Vigne. Paris, France: Institut Technique du Vin, 1961.

When American rootstocks were sent to Europe in the 1860s, Downy mildew, a fungal disease common in American grapevines, traveled with them. This fungal disease, in combination with the Phylloxera pest, triggered several decades of crisis for European vineyards. To combat the disease, a liquid fungicide, Bordeaux Mixture, was sprayed onto the leaves of the grapes. Downy mildew remains a problem to this day, wherever grapes are grown in warm, moist conditions.

This chart traces the movement and development of the mildew spores through the seasons, as they attack grape vines and leaves.


The hydrometer is a calibrated flotation device that, when placed in a grape juice mixture, measures its specific gravity. Specific gravity, or SG, indicates how much sugar is in the liquid, thus determining the optimum harvest time for the best yield. The hydrometer is one of the most commonly used devices in wineries around the world.

On loan from the Frank A. Lee Library, Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, N.Y.

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