Under the Skin

“I don’t see us ever gaining organic status,” says Jason Kesner, manager of Lee Hudson Vineyards. “Our economic viability on a year-to-year basis can be seriously threatened by a pest.” Then he adds a familiar refrain: “It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red.”
The adage seems odd coming from Napa Valley native Kesner. He and owner Lee Hudson are in an enviable position with their long-term contracts with wineries. And Hudson’s composting has built soil so deep some blocks can be dry-farmed.
But enviable doesn’t mean easy. Kesner, relaxed with people, is a perfectionist in his work. Accompanied by his German Shepherd, Topper, he ceaselessly walks the fields, eyes sharp for pests and disease.
“Before World War II, everything was organic,” he says. “Then came the fertilizer industry, then the herbicides. People sprayed prophylactically — every six days they were out there spraying. Now we look at the pest pressures, and we use as little material as we can. I want the least toxic approach. I live here, I care about the families who work here.“
Still, Kesner must bow to business realities. “Our number-one problem is weed control,” he explains. “We have to care about the aesthetic.” Winemakers coming to check on the progress of their grapes may see “unkempt” fields as evidence of careless management. “The herbicide issue is one of the biggest challenges we wrestle with.”
Educating buyers is a continuing process, as is experimenting with green manures, alternate-row cropping, and 100 percent cover-cropping. Careful records are kept block to block and even row to row.
Lee Hudson can afford to retain workers as permanent employees. Kesner has experimented with assigning blocks of vines to workers who care for them year-round. The men get to know the cold spots, wind zones, even individual vines.
Besides keeping detailed records that support the use of composting and cover crops, workers monitor the vines to determine when the pest pressure becomes high enough to warrant spraying, which greatly reduces pesticide use.
Pruning takes place in January, then again in late March, when well-positioned shoots are selected and the rest pruned out. Vertical trellising in May and June gives good light penetration and leaf exposure; then a machine comes through and tops the vines, slowing them down.
Later a crew pulls leaves to expose the fruit, as soon as possible after set to accustom the tiny berries to the sun. This results in fewer fungal diseases and adds character only the sun can give. Then it’s time to thin again. Whole clusters go; smaller fruit gets to stay. “We want greater skin-to-juice ratio,” Kesner says. “That gives you more intense wines.”
Finally it’s time to pick, first the pinot gris, then the chardonnay. “We pick under lights. Ninety percent of our chardonnay is picked at night. It’s easier on the workers — even if it’s only 80 degrees, picking in the sun is brutal — and it’s better for the wineries, which need to cool the grapes. We’ll be at the winery at 5AM, waiting for them to open.”
In December, Kesner’s workers drive home to Mexico in vehicles filled with presents. “It’s a month of fiesta,“ Kesner explains. “They come back heavier and ready to work.”

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