He also writes, contributing to World of Fine Wine and Noble Rot magazines, and is the author of the award-winning Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne. Most recently he’s translated an obscure but highly influential French treatise on vine pruning: René Lafon’s Changes to be Made to Vine Pruning (In Order to Minimise Wood Disease and Decline).
I decided to translate Changes to be Made to Vine Pruning asLafon’s book has inspired a number of influential French wine growers that I know, and it did the same for myself and Rémi Jacquemain, manager at Place of Changing Winds. But the original work was only in French, and out of print, and I got sick of telling people about it. So the crazy idea of translating the work into English began to seduce me. Rémi was a great help and took on the role of technical editor. I thought it would be a fairly straightforward task, but I was wrong. It turned out to be a massive project. Much of the terminology in the original text was outdated, which in turn made the translation far more complicated. There were also countless ambiguities that needed clearing up, and I ended up producing 120 footnotes, as well as an extensive introduction, in order to give the reader more context and to bring the manuscript up to date. All of the images also needed careful reworking, and there were a few other twists and turns. In the end, a project that I thought might take a few months ended up taking close to three years. Anyway, I’m really happy with the result. It’s a beautiful hard cover of an important historical work that previously wasn’t available to most wine people.
The pitch to the publisher was…in a nutshell, this book solves one of the great mysteries of vine growing: unveiling the cause of wood disease and vine decline in modern vineyards. Even more striking, it reveals that our pruning techniques are at the heart of the problem and it tells us how we can change our practice in order to avoid the issue. So, it actually solves a monumental dilemma that vignerons and wine science have been grappling with for eons. Significantly, the solution that the book proposes is diametrically opposed to what scientists have been telling us for the last 50 years. That’s one of the reasons why this is such an important text, and why it’s important that it’s now available in both English and French.
The main thing I learned writing and translating this book was translating is damn hard! Especially when it’s a technical work and especially when it was written so long ago. The French language has changed so much and so many of the words Lafon used have either disappeared from common usage or have changed meaning. But we got there in the end.
If you take one thing from this book, it should be…The number one lesson of this text is that history still has much to teach us. Number two is that if you work with a perennial plant, like a vine or a tree, then pruning without a deep knowledge of the plant’s physiology, and a genuine understanding of how it responds to being cut, will invariably be disastrous. In short, the way you prune a vine, or a tree, can quickly destroy the plant, or it can help it flourish. The vine is such a fascinating organism capable of living and producing fruit and wine for centuries. But we need to work closely with nature, with humility and with openness to learning, if we are to get this result.
But I’d also love it if you concluded that there’s obviously a more general lesson on offer here, regarding all of our interactions with nature. If we engage with nature mechanically, blindly, without knowledge, without carefully observing the consequences of our actions over the long term, simply because someone tells us that that’s how we should do it, then we’re bound to run into problems. Direct, long-term experience on the ground, is much more important than theory. To this end, Lafon’s text is much more than a pruning book; it’s a work that speaks to us from another era. It was published in 1921, when farming was still the result of centuries of trial and error in the field. This was also an era when viticultural scientists viewed their role with more humility and open mindedness. They deferred to the best growers, going out into the vineyard to try to reconcile the best practice (those practices that led to the healthiest vines, and the best wines) with the latest scientific knowledge. They used academic science to help explain what they learnt from the best growers. This is pretty much the opposite of what we have today where scientists typically make their conclusions based on laboratory research or theory, often with next to no engagement with what happens on the ground. They then instruct farmers on what to practice. Consultants support this process, even though most of them have no direct experience growing grapes. Certainly not for fine wine. This is why almost all of our vineyards now look the same. People are just doing what they’re told with very little adaptation to place. Recipe viticulture I call it. The grower has been made subservient. That’s why a book from 1921 can still have so much to teach us.
When I’m weighing up buying a book about wine or winemaking for myself, I ask, where did this information come from? The lab, or the field? Does it rely exclusively on theory, or is it supported by direct experience over a long period of time? Also, what does this information tell me about the health of the vine, and the quality of wine that might result? How does it match up with the physiology of the vine? And how could I adapt this to my place, and to my experience of that place.
The books I refer to most often on the subject are… For the reasons I’ve outlined, in recent years I’ve found myself drawn more and more to historical works on viticulture. Of course, I have a keen interest in modern science and its literature as well. But it’s in these historical works, typically from the second half of the 19th century, up to WW2, where we can find a different kind of knowledge, a knowledge that benefited from the cumulative experience of centuries of manual labour in the field. Back then, farmers in different regions often came up with different solutions to the same problems, and scientists and agronomical writers tried to explain why some practices seemed to worked better than others. It’s surprising to realise that so much agronomical science was already understood at this time – a lot of the great names of wine science come from this era. The scientific writers of this period were not only much more open-minded, they weren’t scared of being creative. And they didn’t expect chemicals to fix all of our problems. That’s why I find books from this era can make for inspiring reading.
When you’ve finished reading Changes to be Made to Vine Pruning, I hope you’ll feel closer to your vines, think very differently about vine pruning, and feel inspired by viticultural history.