The Ever-Learning Life of a Master Grape Grower

Understanding the interactive relationship of everything that lies beneath the soil, in terms of plant health and fruit expression, is my current obsession.
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Phil Davis of Damiani Wine Cellars. Photo by Heather Ainsworth

by Phil Davis

I’ve been walking the land where my “home farm” vineyards are for over 60 years. The farm has seen numerous iterations and I am sure it will continue to evolve. Under my father’s stewardship we initially were a diverse entity with orchards as well as vineyards. As the call grew for more grapes to feed the box wines of the Hammondsport mega wineries, the orchard presence diminished, to be replaced by more vineyards. This ill-fated transition continued until ill fate prevailed via the abandonment of local sources of fruit by said mega wineries.

Which, skipping the egregious particulars, leads us to today.

I started the conversion of these native and hybrid grape varietals to the vinifera that we desired for the Damiani Wine Cellars wine program. The initial plantings in 1997 followed the business maxim “Plant what you like to drink”—thus Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We have since widened our vineyard repertoire, and our palates, as the winery has gained its foothold.

Agriculturally, the challenge of growing grapes for making fine wine has been, and continues to be, a huge unlearning and relearning experience. Early on, intuitively, I realized that much of my formative growing experience needed to be revised. Before, we were growing big plants for high volume per plant; growing for intensity and finesse in wine requires just the opposite.

Learning how to modify growth and the resulting crop loads has been a challenge, but rewarding when accomplished. Training plants to take advantage of the limited sun and seasonal aspects of the Finger Lakes region has been another evolution contributing to wine quality and disease control.

Understanding the interactive relationship of everything that lies beneath the soil, in terms of plant health and fruit expression, is my current obsession. Conferring with other growers and winemakers for input, along with observation and reading, are my resources. A group of growers and winery owners are now meeting regularly to share information in this vein and to challenge ourselves to evolve in this direction.

So much to learn at my age, stimulating and daunting. What more could I ask for?

Phil Davis is the co-founder and vineyard manager of Damiani Wine Cellars on Seneca Lake.

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