John Piña, Jr. launched his Piña Vineyard Management Co. in 1960 in California’s Napa Valley with a pickup truck and a single telephone in the kitchen. Now almost 50 years later, the company has made great strides thanks to advanced technology — managing 750 acres of premium wine grapes with 200 employees.

A decade ago the Piña family joined forces with Australian Soil Physicist Alfred Cass who moved to California with a vision. Cass’ plan was to adapt a wing tine implement developed by British farmers for the ripping or preparation of vineyard soils for planting to work with the specific soils found in California vineyards.

Cass and the Piñas built California’s first wing tine prototype in a Piña workshop. “We cobbled together various bits and pieces of metal, tested it out, and it worked pretty well,” Cass says.

Today the wing tine is widely used for ripping clay or loamy soils, replacing the century-old standard shank to rip ground in wine grape vineyards throughout California.

The Pina’s decision to take the technological plunge with Cass was simple. “We’re a stickler for planting the best vineyard possible,” says Davie Piña, co-owner and general manager. “You have one chance to get it right when you pull out a vineyard.”

The wing tine is a shank with an added large piece of triangular steel at the foot of the shank placed at a 20 degree angle; it’s like two wings coming out at right angles from the shank, Cass said.

“The wing tine shank reminds me of a wing from a Delta Airlines plane,” Piña says. The wings move the force from the shank laterally outward to fracture a larger volume of soil as the tine is drawn through the ground, Cass says. “The entire root zone required for perennial woody crops is fractured in a single pass. The wing tine method allows vines and other deciduous fruit to establish faster, plus grow better fruit.”

Cass has consulted with hundreds of wine grape growers across California. The wing tine is appealing to vineyard developers who now build wing tines in their own workshops.

The wing tine is a valuable addition to the tools that California wine grape growers need to grow premium-quality wine grapes for premium-quality wine, Cass noted.

The most fundamental effort in producing the very best quality grape or wine is to prepare the soil correctly and match it up with the variety grown and the best rootstock, he said.

“The wing tine is fundamentally suited to achieve a root system that creates a perfectly harmonious and balanced vine,” Cass says.

“Ripping soil with the wing tine at the correct soil moisture for vineyard establishment is very important for the long-term success of the vineyard.”

Cass operates Alfred Cass and Associates in Calistoga in the Napa Valley and consults with growers across California on premium wine grape production.

The Piñas remain avid users of the wing tine for vineyard establishment. Based in Rutherford along the Silverado Trail roadway, Piña Vineyard Management oversees about 50 vineyards mostly in the Napa Valley, plus two vineyards in Sonoma County. The company prepares vineyards for about 70 clients.

Another technological advancement the company uses improves water measurement. John Derr, Piña viticulturist, uses phytogram permanent electrochemical sensors implanted in the extra cellular region of the petiole and berry tissue to measure water content and proton concentration changes. The sensors are manufactured by the Agricultural Electronics Corp., Tucson, Ariz.

“The phytogram sensors assist us in making more accurate initial water decisions,” Derr says. “We also draw on the field experience of our vineyard foremen, some who have been with Piña for over 30 years, and check the next week’s temperature forecast to determine upcoming water needs.”

About 90 percent of the vineyards managed by Piña are grown conventionally while about 10 percent are organic. The company manages a registered organic vineyard for Emilio’s Terrace in Oakville, plus has several vineyards grown organically, but not registered as such for Johnson Family Vineyards, St. Helena.

“The one element that keeps us from organic status on all wine grapes is the use of Roundup for strip sprays,” Piña says. “Spraying weeds is the biggest issue in moving to a complete organic program.”

The 15 varietals grown for Piña’s clients include the reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Primitivo, Sangiovese, and Petit Verdot; plus the whites Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier.

Among the vineyard estates Piña manages are Cafaro, Dina (Cimarossa Vineyards), Emilio’s Terrace, Gemstone, Howell At the Moon, Hughes, Johnson (Bisou), Kapcsandy, O’Brien Family Winery, Pahlmeyer, Roy Estate, Sawyer, Showket, Vogt Vineyards, and Winston Hill (Frank Family Vineyards).

The Piña family grows 25 acres of its own Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes in five vineyards including 10 clone selections. They operate their own winery creating Piña Napa Valley wines.

Piña prefers 6 to 7 foot row spacing with vine distance 3 to 4 feet apart.

“More vines per acre results in higher quality fruit,” Piña notes. “Once below the 6-foot spacing, equipment won’t fit between the rows and extensive hand labor is not cost effective in some vineyards.”

The company uses vertical positioned canopy trellising with a V or 12-inch cross arm.

Good control efforts minimize powdery mildew, which is California’s No. 1 grape disease. It causes stunted berries, scarring, and ultimately poor wine flavor.

email: cblake@farmpress.com