Defining root death in studies of root dynamics is problematic because cell death occurs gradually and the resulting effects on root function are not well understood. In this study, metabolic activity of grape roots of different ages was assessed by excised root respiration and tetrazolium chloride reduction. We investigated changes in metabolic activity and patterns of cell death occurring with root age and changes in root pigmentation. Tetrazolium chloride reduction of roots of different ages was strongly correlated to respiration (R2 = 0.786). As roots aged, respiration and tetrazolium chloride reduction declined similarly, with minimum metabolic activity reached at six weeks. Tetrazolium chloride reduction indicated that the onset of root browning corresponded to a 77% reduction in metabolic activity (P < 0.001). Anatomical examination of roots at each pigmentation stage showed that even though some cells in brown roots were still alive, these roots were functionally dead. The effect of using different definitions of root death in relation to root survivorship was determined in a study of ‘Concord’ grapes with two pruning treatments, using three criteria for root death: browning, blackening or shriveling, and disappearance. There was no effect of vine pruning on root life span when life span was defined as the time from first appearance to the onset of browning. However, if death was judged as the point when roots either became black or shriveled or disappeared, vine pruning decreased root life span by 34% and 40%, respectively (P < 0.001), and also increased the decay constant for root decomposition by about 45% (P < 0.001). We conclude that the discrepancy among determinations of root life span assessed with different definitions of death might be partly caused by the latter evaluations of root life span incorporating a portion of root decomposition in definitions of root death.