So You Want to Grow Grapes?

Why Do I Grow Grapes:

Gimp Boy - Working in the Vineyard can be Dangerous - Fall in the vineyard and ruptured patella tendon

Son of a general, ex-F4 Backseater, B-52 Bombardier, Water Resources Structural Engineer, Navy Public Works Engineer, and Army Corps of Engineers’ Field Engineer, Field Engineering Project Manager, Chief of Construction Project Management Branch, Program Manager for the Total Environmental Restoration Contracts, and Chief of the Environmental Project Management Branch, this is where I have been.  I still make my living organizing other people’s messes.  But when I retired from the Corps of Engineers, I felt like I had not really accomplished anything important.  When you look back at life there are only really two important things, the people you have touched, and did you create anything beautiful (actually one and the same).  Did you make the world just a little better place?

So I was up here on my 23 acres of mountaintop and my good friend Ron Mansfield of Goldbud Farms thought my hillside would be a wonderful site for Rhones.  I had cultivated a taste for quality wine and food.  I loved the beauty and the artistry of the creations, and I loved what good food and wine can do to people to bring them closer together, sharing this wonderful gift.  Babette’s Feast comes to mind.  I also found that I really liked these people who try to create wonderful wine and food.  Their passion is contagious.

So I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to just maybe create something beautiful.  I was no fool and although I have a fairly good palate, learning how to make great wine for me would be a 20 or 30 year adventure that I neither had the time or the money to embark on.  But the other side of the coin, providing grapes that are distinctive in their quality was something I thought I might be able to do.  I certainly had the setting for it.   Without the profit motive driving my train, I could plan and develop my little 3 acres to produce quality.  There would be good years and not so good years because I am growing right at the limit of where these grapes will flourish.  Quality in my mind is not chasing the latest trend in wine making, but producing a wine that starts big, but doesn’t overwhelm, has an interesting understated complexity, and a finish that stays with you and does not let you down.  Most important to me is complexity and subtleness.  This is a convergence of quality grapes, a good wine maker, and the style of wine making that fit your grapes.  I thought for sure I could be part of that equation.

Why did I think that not knowing anything about growing grapes?  First and foremost I cared and hard work does not scare me.  It invigorates me.  I am intellectually voracious and could learn the basics quickly.  Second I was working under the tutelage of Ron who has the passion and the gift, not to mention the education and experience.  If you do not get a passion for wonderful fruits and grapes, not to mention wine and the food that goes with hanging around Ron, then you really are a lost soul.

After 5 days of rain, no snow. Welcome to California winters

What I have learned is nothing is a recipe.  You have to learn your own terroir and adjust to what your grapes tell you about the soil, the weather, the moisture, and any unpleasant visitors in the vineyard.  I am just getting to know my grapes and my terroir after 5 harvests now.  In another 10 years we might be closer friends and have more intimate knowledge of each other. Like a marriage, it matures slowly.

But I do know this:  A fine wine is the result of so many people working with nature.  When I watch someone enjoy a great wine, are they thinking about just the taste, or is it the terroir, the vintage year, or the wine maker, or the grower, or the most under appreciated of this equation, los hombres who work so hard in the vineyard.  I know what a good wine is. I know what it takes to make a good wine.  I have been part of a couple.  I know it is the magical confluence of all those factors I just listed.  And it is the most meaningful thing I have ever been apart of, to create a momentary glimpse of perfection and beauty in this world.  That is why I do it.  Maybe someday I might even be good at it.

From Randall Graham of Bonny Doon who captured it nicely:

“The winemaking I can do in my sleep, but being present in the vineyard, walking, looking, observing, being in tune with its real subtleties. That’s something I don’t have yet, and may never have.”

“I love pruning, it’s my favorite thing in the whole world, apart from crossword puzzles. They are one and two, and I couldn’t even say which is one and which is two,” he adds. “When I planted the first vineyard in Bonny Doon and put up the fences, pounded the fence posts, strung the barbed wire, hoed the whole thing with a hoe, that was amazing.”

“That was the best experience in my life, and I lost it. I don’t have the physical endurance I had 25 years ago to do all those things, but for me that was connecting, that was a great presence for me. I may not be able to duplicate it, but I want to try.”

Lightner Vineyards is a small, 3-acre vineyard near Camino (Apple Hill) California where I grow Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, and Counoise and produce about 5 tons of grapes each year. It is at an elevation of 3000′ taking advantage of a longer growing season and cooler nights.  I sell my grapes to Holly’s Hill and Donkey and Goat, both producers of Rhones in a style that I think is approaching exceptional.  Long live Syrah.

Early Decisions:

It usually starts with a fantasy.  Picture the tanned, well dressed, handsome man standing next to a beautiful woman, both with wine glass in hand looking lovingly at each other, on a deck overlooking a beautiful vineyard.  Now picture a guy all sweaty, very tired, in very dirty jeans, beer in hand, and wife glaring at him, warning him not to track that dirt into her beautiful home.  You can guess which is the real picture.

It is just fun, fun, fun

Okay, the reality is somewhere in between.   So if you have decided to be a farmer, here are some tips on the way forward.  Note that I do not make wine (see above) and if that is your intent, get a good line of credit or be wealthy. 95% of being successful as a wine maker is marketing, but I will leave that discussion for another day.  I always dreamed of being a gentleman farmer with labor to do as I bid, but the reality of finances says you will do most of the work.  The workers I do use call me “El Patron who works”, but I just like to think of my self as “El Hefe”.  I have an active fantasy life.

So you have decided to grow grapes.  The first thing you have to do is match the varietal to your chosen location.  Probably the biggest mistake small growers make is to fall in love with a varietal and not carefully evaluate if it will grow well on the chosen location.  Pinot does not grow well in hot climates.  Syrah does not like shade or north slopes.  If it is a varietal you are focused on, then you must find a location that suits it.  If you already have a piece of property, you are going to have to evaluate if it is conducive to grape growing and then what varietals.  This involves evaluation of the soil type, and terroir.  My advice is hire a consultant who knows varietals, clones, and rootstock that grows well in your particular micro-climate.  One other minor little consideration one should consider is whether there is a market for what you are growing.  Oh, the details.

Okay, a little sidebar on varietals, clones, and rootstock:  We all know what varietals are, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.  Note my preference for reds.  Generally they are propagated by cloning, and that is you take a cutting from the varietal and graft it to a rootstock (will get to that in a minute). Technically speaking it is an exact copy of the varietal the cutting was taken from.  But even with this method of propagation there are mutations over time that make some, say pinots, a little different from other pinots.  Growers over time have found which clones grow and produce the best wines for their specific terroir. So that is one choice you have to make.

Finally comes rootstock.  Rarely are grape vines allowed to grow on their own roots because they are susceptible to disease.  Vinus Vinifera, which are the European grapes we love to make wine out of, were almost completely wiped out by Phylloxera, an infestation of the roots.  It was saved by grafting the prized European varietals to American grape roots (Vinus Lambrusca), that had a natural resistance to the bug, but make poor wine (Welch’s grape juice).  As rootstocks proliferated, they are selected based upon how they affect growth, susceptible to other diseases, water needs, grow in your terroir, etc.  So selection of rootstock is another one of those problems that requires talking to someone who is experienced with your type of soil, and the terroir.

Okay, you have your piece of property and you know what to order from the nursery.  The next step is the construction process of the vineyard.

Constructing a Vineyard

So on to what it takes to establish a vineyard.  Now you have your piece of property and you know your varietal or varietals, clone

Cover Crop in the Spring, Rows Sprayed Out

or clones, and rootstock.  You should also know your trellis system choice.  This will be based upon your varietal selection and what your area and years of experience tells you what is best for that varietal.  That will impact your construction costs since wire trellis systems (and there are many) are more expensive than simple head training (simple stake). The whole idea of a trellis system is to give the plant the optimal exposure for growing grapes.

There is one more choice you need to make before you start construction and that is your irrigation system.  There are really only two choices, overhead sprinklers, and drip.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is more complicated than just picking the most economical system.  Some growers think that sprinklers are better than drip because it gives a larger water pattern and allows better root formation.  They also use overhead water for year round cover crop (grasses between the rows) and frost protection.  The decision about all of this is based upon what you want to accomplish in the field and your budget.  I think sprinklers are grossly wasteful, require expensive water delivery pressure systems, and drip works fine for root development.  I live in California where it rains all the winter and is dry in the summer so I plant an annual cover crop and only have to mow twice a year.  It dies out in the summer and reseeds itself for next fall when the rains come back.

Let the construction begin. Over the last winter is when you were deciding on the varietal, you were also laying out your vineyard.  This means deciding how the rows will run, spacing of the rows, spacing of the plants, designing the zones for watering, and deciding where you will have to terrace in the steep areas.  Once again you need an expert.  Row spacing and clearance at the end of the rows is based upon clearance for your equipment to operate (tractor, forklift, spray equipment, mowing equipment). Don’t kid yourself.  You will at least have a tractor and forklift in the vineyard at harvest. A ton of greats does weigh a ton.  Spacing of the plants is based upon what has been learned in your area about what that optimum is for your varietal in your terroir.  It’s a guess.  Qualitatively what you are looking for is a spacing that stresses the plant to produce quality grapes, but not so close as to weaken the plant through over competition.  But through an advisor or your own wild ass guess, you have a layout plan.

You are going to construct all summer.  First you must clear the property of trees shrubs brush, everything.  In my case that was to clear-cut a forest, use a big Caterpillar to push out the stumps and rough grade the area, ship the logs, and burn the slash.  The last part of this is that once the land is cleared you are going to rip it at least down to 3’.  That means plowing up and turning over 3’ of the topsoil.  Then you will spend endless fun hours moving rocks out of the vineyard or saving them to put in the rows later.

Next is the final grading and contouring, cutting terraces where necessary.  Then a survey crew will come out and layout the rows marking the position of every plant (usually with a plastic straw pushed into the ground).  Once the rows are laid out you can then dig and install your main irrigation piping to supply each row and zone.  Last is to install your deer fence and plant a cover crop to control erosion over the winter.  Then you let the land rest till next year.  In the fall you order your plants because they will be grafted and grown over the winter so they are ready next year.  Having fun yet?  You should have seen the dust clouds.

Pruning - A Spring Ritual

Okay, year two is when the fun does begin because you will eventually plant real grape plants.  Your cover crop is out of control and you will have to mow and spray out the lines where the plants are to be planted. Now you will install your trellis/stake system. Some growers wait until the plants are in to install their trellis, but I prefer to have everything done so when the plants go in, there are no further disturbances in the vineyard. Once the trellis system is in, you can run all the support wires and string your irrigation lines and install the drips.  Now it is really starting to look like a vineyard, just sans the grape plants.

Finally the great day arrives when the nursery tells you your plants are ready.  This usually happens in early July, when the plants are delivered, inspected by the county, and planted with some fertilizers by a large crew of guys so they can all go in together.  Then you do nothing but water and watch your little bushes grow, until the fall arrives, the plants become dormant, and winter sets in.  By the way this cost between $15,000 to $20,000 and acre.  Are you still there?

Managing the Vineyard

So the Spring is springing and you are starting year three, there are grape plants in the field, you have sprayed around the plants during the winter to push the cover crop back from competing with your young plants, and you may have mowed the grass once.  Things are just about to bud out when your adviser tells you to go cut your grape plant back to two buds.  This is a shaping year, so you go out and remove the milk cartons (I’ll get to that) cut them back, wonder if you finally killed them, and hope for the best.  The milk cartons are used to protect the plants from critters and it is way cheaper than the plastic tubes.

So the rest of this summer is fairly simple.  As the two buds push shoots up the stake, you finally pick the strongest one, and cut the other off, tie it to the stake, and when its gets about a foot taller than the stake, or the cordon wire on your trellis system, you cut it off and it starts pushing lateral shoots.  If any grapes actually form, you pick them off because you want the plant to focus on root and shoot development.  Seems simple enough except there are in my vineyard about 1500 plants so that is a lot of tying.  When they are sufficiently up the stake, you can cut off the milk cartons.  I found that about every tenth one had a big black widow spider nesting in there so I learned to use heavy gloves.

Jumble that has to be thinned on each spur

Eventually for the head trained varietals, you are going to pick about 6 or 7 shoots evenly spaced around the plant for balance and remove everything else and this is going to be your base for new growth every year.  For the trellis plants, you are going to remove the lower shoots, pick two strong ones at or just below the cordon wire level (horizontal wire) and tie them off to form a “Y” with the tops of the Y running along the horizontal wire.  And of course, you tie, and tie, and tie.  If you are lucky and you have a hardy growing year, you will get everything shaped this year.  You may have to mow a couple of times until the grasses and clovers go to seed and die out, and of course water, but that is about it.  You just let them grow.  End year three.  Gee that wasn’t so bad….  Now I am one of boys, right?  Nah, not up here.  I would have had to become a Republican.

Removing Pruning Debris to Burn Down Below

Year four is a really important year because depending on how much growth you got the year before, this could be a crop year.  You could drop all your fruit and wait one more year to develop more root and plant structure, but I already had hardy growth so this was going to be a production year.  Again and every year you are going to have to control growth around the grape plant so the plant is not competing with your cover crop for nutrients.  I spray the rows when they are dormant, about a 2’ path right in the line of the plants, and then spot spray during the summer to control any re-growth.  The pruning this Spring is a big event and you want someone who knows what they are doing because this is going to shape your plants for all future growth.  I am not going to give you a course in pruning here, but just know that it takes time and experience and a crew of 6-8 guys will take several days to do my small 3 acres and pruning is not something that will wait.  They all have to be done at once when they are just getting ready to leaf out.

Now I am going to list the chores that have to be done each year and I’ll explain a little about them:

  1. Early spraying of the rows – Explained above
  2. First mowing to control growth of the cover crop – Explained above, and a second mowing when the grass has gone to seed and browned out.
  3. Pruning – Cutting last years shoots back to 2 buds, picked for best growth of new shoots, 6 spurs (last years shoots) well balanced on the head trained, 6 spurs each side of the “Y” on the cordons, well balanced and positioned for vertical growth (see pictures in the vineyard pictures page)
  4. Pruning debris removal and burning – Some use a flaying mower to cut up the debris.  I rake and remove to the burning area and then burn.  It takes a full two weeks of work
  5. Suckering the plants – Once the pruning is done, the buds will develop rapidly and those two nice neat buds you picked will push out all sorts of shoots along with ones in other unwanted places on the plant and you need to continually remove them.  You are going to want two strong shoots on each spur and you are going to get dozens so you must remove the unwanted or poorly placed growth.  Get used to walking through your vineyard and making decisions.  Not everything is going to be perfect.  Let’s see, 1500 plants time six to twelve spurs, each one getting individual attention.  Well you get the idea.
  6. Pushing the shoots up through the wires – Once things get really moving, the shoots can grow three or four inches a day.  For the trellis grape plants, as they reach the next wires up, you need to push them through the wires and be careful because they are green and will break off.  This is another chore that won’t wait.  If you wait too long, you are going to have a mess of growth that you will  damage  trying to push it up through the wires.  Don’t forget, suckering, suckering, suckering.
  7. It is now early June and you need to start three rounds of spraying for powdery mildew (different schedules in different micro climates).  It’s just sulfur, relax.  Note that for both the Roundup and the Sulphur you need to have a permit and take a test every three years on your knowledge of using these chemicals and their impact on you and your environment.  Another little chore and you have to report it every time you spray.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, late March, April, May, June, and early July are very busy months and you need to be there.  After early July, the tasks become a little less time dependent and can be spaced out over July and August.  These are cover (leaf) management, balancing the leaf density and providing morning sun to the grapes; fruit density, dropping fruit in early August to focus the intensity of flavors into the remaining grape clusters; and water management which gets simpler as the plants mature and require less and less water.  September is really the month you can sit on your deck, sip your wine, overlook your vineyard and think about buying new shirts, jeans, and socks because the ones you wore in the vineyard this year are permanently stained with red dirt and sweat.  Then it is October and harvest and the end of another year.

So there it is.  It is an amazing amount of very hard work.  I guess the satisfaction is trying to work and craft with nature to produce something special.  At three acres, I break even.  But I do know that I have created something beautiful and that is what makes it all worthwhile.  So now you know what it takes.  Do you really want to do this?

Okay maybe you do get to Enjoy your product with your best friend


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