Most wine drinkers have probably never heard of Marco Simonit.

But if you were a vine, you very well might know him.

Simonit—a rangy Italian with a shock of white rumpled hair—showed up in our offices a few weeks back. His mission, he said, was to help vines live better.

It was a simple, but revolutionary, thing to say. But, the more he talked, the more we came to see that he’s done exactly that.

He’s done it by completely upending the way vines have been pruned for centuries. For Simonit, the ugly deep scars of pruning wounds tell the story of vines that have been abused—even, he says, “mutilated.” He gets emotional about it.

A word on pruning before we go further. Vines are woodland climbers. Left to their own devices, they’d crawl up anything, and in Nature, tend to climb up trees toward sunlight. Pruning a vine back every year (generally in late winter) keeps all that vegetative growth under control and “encourages” the vine to put its energy into its grape clusters rather than simply growing more shoots. Pruning, which radically lowers a vine’s yield, has always been considered an essential part of viticulture, although perhaps not the most glamorous part.

Enter Simonit who, in the mid-1990s, along with his partner Pierpaolo Sirch, had an epiphany. The two Italian friends began to saw vines in half. What they observed were deep bruises and cuts inside the vines’ trunks—cuts that had resulted in dry cones of dead tissue. Far from helping vines, pruning was slowly killing them from the inside out.

It would be an understatement to say that at first, Simonit and Sirch’s ideas were not widely embraced. Vintners thought they were crazy. But today the partners’ new gentle techniques for pruning are being used by more than 150 wine companies in 14 countries, including such renowned estates as châteaux Angélus, Pichon-Longueville, Lynch-Bages, and d’Yquem (Bordeaux), Domaine Leflaive (Burgundy), Louis Roederer (Champagne), Symington (Portugal), Biondi-Santi (Italy), and a score of estates in California including Corison, Chimney Rock, and Diamond Creek. Simonit and Sirch also now conduct collaborations with more than 10 wine research institutes and universities.

Marco Simonit goes further. Gentle pruning is not simply better for the vine (and results in better wine). He argues that gentle pruning is the only way a winemaker can achieve a true expression of terroir. Partly dead trunks, he says, do not give voice to their environments.

Plus, there’s climate chaos to consider. For Simonit, vintners must learn to build more sustainable, stronger, resilient vines that can live longer under difficult climatic scenarios.

“If you mutilate your vines and then have to pull them out and replant every 20 years, how do you ever make a great wine?” he challenges.

How indeed?

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