Grafting Pinot Noir

By Kate Riley June 14, 2012

A fascinating thing happened in our backyard last week – at least for us.  Matt and I have a hobby vineyard on our back hill that we’ve mentioned before – those 100 vines can produce up to 25 cases of wine.  We’ve experienced two unfortunate harvest years in a row so we decided to make a change to the varietal of wine that we grow.  Here’s why.

The sugar content of grapes determine their ripeness and it is the key component that influences the future wine.  Weather is the primary factor in growing grapes, we always hope for wet winters, hot summer days with cool evenings, and a dry fall before the grapes are harvested.  For the last two years, we’ve been unable to get the Petite Syrah’s sugar levels high enough to make wine because the varietal doesn’t ripen until late October.  We’ve also been savaged by critters who raid the fruit in October as a source of food, recalled by Matt’s woeful harvest story of 2010.

After consulting with local experts and winemakers, we came to the conclusion we’d be better off if those 100 vines were Pinot Noir grapes (most commonly grown in our terroir) and not the Petite Syrah we planted twelve years ago because they ripen an entire month earlier, and are also the most commonly grown grape within 25 miles.

So what’s a winemaker to do to solve this agricultural dilemma?  It’s a process called grafting, and it’s an old technique that allows us to change the variety of the grapes without the expense of replanting, and a loss of only one year’s crop.  Grafting only costs $1 per plant (plus labor) and at such an affordable rate, it was worth the process.  It takes someone with knowledge to do it, so we hired Miguel with his 12 years of grafting experience who came highly recommended.

The first step was hard to take, he cut down all our green grapevine leaves within an hour leaving big piles of beautiful branches down the rows and across the yard, and then cut the trunks down to 3’ tall, leaving the scene feeling rather naked, for lack of a better word.

trim all vines


The next step was the actual grafting process which requires what’s called “scion” wood, that comes from the mother Pinot Noir canes that are collected for this purpose the season before.  We’ve been planning this transformation since our disappointing lack of a harvest last fall, so we planned ahead with a winemaker we consult with every year during the crush, and secured some healthy Pinot Noir stems which were kept in cold storage for many months in anticipation of grafting.

Scion canes are dormant branches that are kept in cold refrigeration after they’re cut in winter.  Each piece of scion wood provides several buds for grafting, here’s a look at one used by Miguel – he looks for the buds that will successfully become new branches.

pinot noir scion cane


All canes are kept moist in a carpenter’s box as the grafter moves from vine to vine grafting the new variety.

keep vines moist in carpenter box


Here is how this is done up close.  First he trims back the bark in the section where the vine will be grafted.

strip bark


Next, he makes several small incisions at the base of the vine to allow it to “bleed” so that the sap or water inside drains out from the bottom and to avoid any pressure to push the graft out.  Miguel then makes a face cut on the vine, opening up access the raw part (called the “cambium”) underneath.

open trunk for grafting


From the mother Pinot Noir plant, a dormant bud is cut, and then inserted into the cambium.

new pinot bud


A new bud is wedged inside to become part of the old plant, and this process is repeated on the other side so that two parallel vines shoot out from each side and can be secured to the established vineyard trellis.

wedge new bud


Miguel uses a special 1″ wide grafting tape to carefully tape the graft into place which will stay in place for several months as the new Pinot Noir plant becomes part of the old vine.

grafting tape


It’s kind of a sad sight to look at when just days before it was a healthy vineyard growing happily in the sun, and now cut down to nothing!

grafted grapevine


What will happen as a result of this process of grafting is we will have a two-variety grapevine where the original Petite Syrah keeps growing as the root system and lower trunk and we will trim the suckers as they grow, while up above the Pinot Noir becomes the fruiting portion of the vine that we will train and prune and allow to become grapes for future wine production.

By fall we will have leaves like this again which at least will be aesthetically nice to look at, but no fruit this year.

grapevine leaves

But the good news is by next September, we should be looking at these again . . .

sonoma grapes

. . . and they are definitely worth waiting for !



  1. As a wine enthusiast and someone who dreams of having a little experimental vineyard on a hill in my backyard (maybe when we retire out your way), this post is completely and totally awesome. Very cool. Can I put in a reservation for a bottle of 2013 Centsational Estate Pinot Noir? I have a feeling it will be an excellent year.

  2. Hope the grafting works. So cool to see a peek at how this is done. We’re looking to buy a new house and one of the ones I’m scheduled to see tomorrow has about 100 vines. Who knows? Might soon be my new hobby as well.

  3. As someone who routinely unintentionally murders her houseplants, this is super fascinating. I love that you guys do that! Wow. Stamina + talent for sure. And those grapes look super yummy! ;}

  4. Isn’t science and Mother Nature combined just such a cool thing? I wonder about the first person to think this up and try it heard from the nay-sayers along the way! And then (s)he succeeded!!!! I think this post is great and eye-opening!

  5. Wow. what a cool hobby! I had no idea that you could do that with grapevines. mother nature is crazy awesome!

  6. Fascinating indeed. Thanks for sharing the story of your vineyard. It is very interesting. Even though it was part of the plan, stemming from the research with your expert friends, it must have been quite the moment to see all the greenery cut away.

  7. That is so fascinating! I recently started reading a book about wine in a self-improvement effort to learn something new (keeps me busy while my husband’s deployed), so this post is incredibly timely. You’re so fortunate you live in an area where you can grow Pinot Noir grapes! All you can seem to find (for the most part) in NC is muscadine. Disgusting. Maybe one day, when we’re allowed to settle down and choose where we live, we’ll be able to try this.

    What a relief that you don’t have to replant after 12 years! Will you have to wait a few years before the new grapes are viable enough to produce decent wine?

    • Hi Katie, we should be right back where we were next year *fingers crossed* and making more wine! We won some amateur gold medal awards a few years back, we need to do it again sometime soon!

  8. Let’s all hope that next year you can enjoy beautiful fruits in anticipation of your perfect glass of wine. I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures and explanation. I now have looked into the remarkable world of grafting. I suddenly have the urge for a glass of wine. Cheers!

  9. Thanks for sharing. This was so interesting to read. I had no idea this could be done. Pinot Noir is so good also.

  10. This is the most interesting blog post I’ve read in ages! I knew about grafting, but have never had it so clearly described before, and with photos too! Amazing. I hope your vines behave themselves and give you a fantastic harvest.

  11. So interesting. Thanks for sharing and love the detailed photos. I live in Michigan and dream of retiring in wine country in about 10 years. We currently visit Sonoma County at least once a year. I’m wondering how big your lot is.

    • Hi Sue, our lot is about 1/3 of an acre, not too big, but just large enough to plant a few vines!

  12. Nice to start the morning out with such an interesting blog. Can’t wait for my son to read. He’s decided he wants to study viticulture. He’ll love this and I’m sure it’ll just heighten his passion for the field.

    Buona fortuna!

  13. okay i did have to giggle when i came to your post. i’m a big fan and a long time follower. i’m always truly amazed at what you get accomplished. but now growing grapes to make your own wine? honestly is there nothing you can’t do? very cool. hope you have a bountiful harvest by the fall! i’m going to get back to painting my chair- lol

  14. This post was such a treat to read! I used to live in the wine lands in South Africa and my favorite past time was to go wine tasting. I’ve dreamed of making my own wine but the risk is so great if you do it professionally. But you’ve inspired me to grow my own grapes simply as a hobby! How wonderful it is to be subscribed to a blog that covers two of my favorite topics… Home decor and wine. :)

  15. WOW!!! I just got back to Virginia from Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford and Napa! And a drive through Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay and then down the coast (lunch in Olema!) to San Fran for our flight home. Sooooo, where do you live out there?? I could’ve stopped by! We stayed at the Solage in Calistoga and went to several vineyards and a chateau…and I drank more wine that I ever have and even sorta learned about wine….I’m not that into it but I do drink Pinot Gris and Prosecco. I was fascinated and had 8 million questions, some of which got answered…so I will definitely follow your wine posts with interest!

  16. What a great post–thank you for sharing. I took a class at the Home Orchard Society near Portland, Oregon, and I learned how to graft fruit trees, and it is quite a process. I successfully grafted 8 mini-dwarf apple and pear trees that I trained into an espaliered Belgian Fence! I’ve never grown wine grapes, but I also grow one tasty red seedless table grape–‘Einset’, and it is growing from it’s own root and covering a wonderful pergola that my husband built. It is a project to prune it, especially as a novice at cane pruning, but I did okay with it this year, and it’s loaded with baby grape clusters. True grape growers like Miguel would likely laugh at my method, I am sure, but for a beginner like me, it did work and helped me learn how to prune from scratch.

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