Pavle Prunes the Vines -- and Keeps an Eye out for Rattlesnakes

In this occasional series, Pavle Milic will spill about his current mission to learn how wine is made -- literally from the Southern Arizona ground up. Today: pruning and weeding. The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. I jounce out of bed in fear of pressing snooze to enjoy the proverbial "five more minutes" that can possibly turn into "oh my god I overslept minutes." Everyone is asleep for the exception of Lucy and Luna (our pound doggies) following me around the house wondering what's going on.

Today's itinerary:

Depart for Sonoita by 5:30 am; arrive at Pronghorn Vineyard by 7:45 am to see the pruning process (more on that later); conclude the tutorial by noon and head back to the Dos Cabezas tasting room and winery to pick up wine to bring back to Phoenix; before leaving, I have to stop and say hi to Tina, who owns a little Taco Truck called "K & A Mexican Food," to get me a Pollo Asado Burrito for the drive back; upon arriving in Phoenix around 3 pm I text (FnB chef) Charleen to ask her if we have any menu changes so I can print the evening's menu; put on the apron to get into character to wait tables at FnB; conclude dinner service around 11; wait for the dishwasher to finish while I finally look at Charleen and ask: "So, how was your day?"

I met Todd Bostock ten years ago while working at Cowboy Ciao. I blind tasted him on an Argentine wine made from the Torrontes grape (a hybrid of Moscato de Alexandria and a native Criollo grape). He guessed Moscato.

Fast-forward to 2009. While I was performing research and development in preparation for the Arizona Wine list at FnB, Todd stopped by to taste me on his wines. I was very impressed by the wine and knew I had to include his offerings. (By the way, if you ever meet Todd, ask him about the "fly me to the moon" Chardonnay.)

Two and a half years later and I'm still pouring his wines at FnB.

Now I get to spend time with him through the whole cycle of wine making. Right now Todd is concentrating his efforts with his vineyard team pruning the Pronghorn Vineyard. This vineyard is located on Elgin road--same road where two of my favorites, Callaghan Vineyards and Canelo Hills Vineyards are located. Bostock's 15-acre vineyard is composed of Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Graciano, Roussane, Viognier, Petite Sirah, Aglianico, and Picpoul Blanc. One hundred percent of the yield from this vineyard goes into the "El Campo" (Spanish for countryside) red wine blend. In my humble opinion, one of the most distinctive wines Arizona has to offer.

Basically, pruning is selectively removing last year's growth and leaving wood to produce this years fruit. One cane will produce the shoots that will bear this year's harvest and a renewal spur is left to produce canes for next year's harvest.

When I asked Todd why he insists on still going out there to prune vs. letting the Alba family do all the work, he said:

"It is important to know what is going on in the vineyard by being there, learning about the place. They do most of the pruning now -however, I like to keep them on their toes by constantly changing the game plan."

Because of the extreme weather of high elevation desert, some of the vines are bruised by hail and frost. Every single vine tells a different story and you have to assess its condition and prune accordingly. I will say this, you can read all about pruning and training the vine, but nothing will be more effective and educational than doing it yourself.

If my memory serves my right, I followed Todd for a good hour before I touched any of his vines. A novice's lack of acumen can lead to cutting a cane that already has bud break--I only made that mistake once. Ouch. It will take more than one pruning session for me to assist Todd confidently and understand the anatomy of the vine.

I was also helping with weeding. "Oh, before I forget, when pulling a weed that is a bit overgrown be careful, that's where snakes like to rest, under plants where is cooler." In this case Todd was talking about snakes like the Mohave Rattlesnake which happens to produce what is considered the most toxic venom in the New World. An untreated bite can lead to a fatality. That snake also happens to be one of the residents in the Elgin desert.

"So what do I do if I see one?" I asked, my voice sounding like I was going through puberty all over again. Todd stoically responded, "The snake should give you plenty of notice with its rattle; get it to come out by tapping it with a shovel and chop off its head."

Not only did this sound draconian for a city slicker like myself, but it sent chills up my spine. I predict my initial reaction if I ever see one, is to run like hell and look for Todd. Speedy Gonzales who?

We spent four hours going up and down the vineyard rows. A meditative quality pervades this place. Elgin's landcape is majestic. The sky is immense, marked by stunning mountains. It's windy and you can't really hear anything other than your own thoughts. It's a contemplative task, indeed. I'm still bewildered and perplexed with the vines. These vines look like dead wood trunks and in a few weeks they will be full of green leaves and little grape clusters.

In the following weeks, Todd will continue to focus on training and managing the vines. Before harvest Todd is going to show me how he blends wines. Currently we're talking about the blend that will go into our "un-named wine" collaboration.

Until next time, I pray for no snake bites.

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Pavle Milic
Contact: Pavle Milic