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Can bud grafting help vintners stand their ground with climate change?

A plant surgeon of sorts, Marcelo Robledo cuts into a vine with precision. After adding a pinot noir bud to fill the incision, he bandages it up for its metamorphosis. The medical procedure by this Latino third-generation bud grafter will transform the rootstock that previously produced chardonnay into one that will produce pinot noir grapes next year.

“Bud grafting is becoming a lost art,” said Robledo, 42. “Only about 100 people in Sonoma County are doing it. Younger people seem more interested in technology.”

But plant doctors like Robledo can help vintners stand their ground with climate change; they can transform vineyards with drought-resistant rootstocks and varietals that can withstand higher temperatures.

“I love nature, but the fires have hit us hard,” Robledo said. “I believe we’ll make it through, but we’ll have to make changes.”

In 2020, half of Robledo’s clients pivoted with new varietals to adapt to climate change.

“More people are changing from merlot to cabernet sauvignon because cab is more resistant to high temperatures,” Robledo said. “In the future, I also see more people changing to varietals that use less water.”

Varietals that require less water, Robledo said, include zinfandel, grenache, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.

Robledo and his wife, Daisy, founded Sonoma’s Grape Land Vineyard Management (grapelvm.com) in 2015. But Robledo got his start at his family’s Robledo Winery, which began making commercial wine from its estate in 1997.

Today Robledo’s vineyard management company has 20 full-time employees and has developed a pool of 60 clients, including Sonoma County’s Korbel Winery, J. Rochioli Vineyard & Winery and Henry David Vineyards. Robledo also travels to Oregon and Washington to graft vines.

The family tradition of bud grafting began with Robledo’s late grandfather, Luis Robledo, who learned the craft from the Sonoma County Italians he worked for in the 1940s. Robledo’s late father, Everardo Robledo, later learned how to graft vines when he came to work in Sonoma County vineyards from Michoacan, Mexico, in the 1950s through the Bracero program.

In what grew out of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States, the Bracero program allowed millions of Mexican men to come to America on short-term, primarily labor contracts from 1942 to 1964.

Robledo, the youngest of 13 children, and his siblings left Michoacan, Mexico, in 1987 and came to America with green cards. The Robledos siblings grew up working in the vineyard.

“I learned how to graft vines from my oldest brother Reynaldo, and now I’m teaching my 22-year-old son, Marcelo Jr., how to do it,” Robledo said. “I’m motivated to do bud grafting because of our family tradition of doing it. That’s why we’re teaching Marcelo Jr. to do it, so he can follow the tradition.”

Is dry farming the antidote to the drought?

With the drought making water a less reliable resource, Robledo suggests dry farming to many of his California clients. He advises them to choose rootstocks that are compatible with dry farming and rootstocks that work well with varietals that can withstand higher temperatures.

Dry farming simply means growing grapes without relying on irrigation for additional water. While there many rootstocks are compatible with dry farming, Robledo is particularly fond of the St. George and 110R varieties.

When using drought-resistant rootstocks, Robledo said, you give them plenty of water the first year and then train the roots of the vines to “hunt” for water by cutting down the supply in the second year.

“I see more people opting for dry farming because of a lack of water,” Robledo explained. “The key is planting the right rootstock for dry farming.”

The puzzle of bud grafting

“Bud grafting takes time and experience,” Robledo said. “If you overcut it, it can kill the vine. If you undercut it, the vine might not take the bud. It’s like a puzzle. The bud has to be roughly the same size as the cut.”

Robledo said bud grafting is also an art.

“I once worked on a ranch in Santa Cruz and the vintner wanted me to graft chardonnay on one arm of the vine and pinot noir on the other, so I made it happen. The vintner wanted to do it as an experiment and then as an art.”

With pruning sheers in a holster around his waist, Robledo said he enjoys the craft of grafting. He carries a toolbox with his grafting apparatus: tape, his knife and sandpaper and stone to sharpen it.

“I grew up doing this since I was 8 years old,” Robledo said. “What I like most about it is coming back the next year and seeing that all the vines are growing and that the grafting was successful.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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