Things I’ve learned after 11 months of growing grape vines

Bupkis.

Bupkis.

In August, it will be a year since I started my home vineyard project in Los Angeles. I had always wanted to make my own wine and grow the grapes for it, if possible. Besides being a hobby, the vineyard and subsequent winemaking are intended to be a learning experience for me and my readers.

The past 11 months have not been as full of revelations and new things learned as I had expected. While that might sound arrogant, in one way or another I already knew or had read or heard about the things I have seen and experienced in the past year.

Now, with my Aglianico in its second leaf and growing vigorously and the Montepulciano planted and growing, I can reflect on these lessons and share them with you:

1. Vineyard work is hard. Duh!!! Actually, it can be back breaking.  I have not had a harvest from my vines yet, but I have planted, trained, put in irrigation, weeded, pruned and have the tan and sore back to prove it.

There is a reason why vineyard work is best done in the early hours of the day and why vineyard workers die from heat stroke. But it’s great exercise and if you are doing it as a hobby with less than 100 vines it can be quite manageable.

2. It’s hard to grow vines from seeds. I tried. It did not work. I’m certain Randall Grahm will succeed in his endeavor, but my scant few seeds did not yield any plants. I may experiment with my existing scion to create own-rooted back up vines meant to replace those lost to gopher activity, but even that approach is prone to failure.

3. Gophers are relentless. And they are smart. You have to be out there almost daily to look for new, active burrows and tunnels. Then you have to set a trap, throw in a gas cartridge or poison pellets. But have a big rock ready to cover up the hole. I’ve seen a gopher kick out the pellets right after I threw them in.

I can understand the frustrations of Elmer Fudd now. The intensity of frustration (or hate for gophers) is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of vines you have.

3a. There is some concern about using strychnine-containing gopher pellets. Randy Pitts of Harvest Moon in the Russian River Valley spoke to me recently about some evidence that strychnine from gopher pellets (ingested or not) breaks down and can get into the finished wine. I’m not going to use strychnine pellets.

3b. The Rodenator looks effective (and “curiously satisfying“) if you can get your hands on it.

4. Residential water is expensive. The cost of agricultural water is far less than that of residential water. It’s almost free compared to residential costs. To point: the to irrigate my 87 vines (about one tenth of an acre) with two and a half gallons per week (which probably qualifies as deficit irrigation) for a month is about $6.00 – before taxes, sewage fees and surcharges. If a residential property exceeds its allotment of water, the rates increase. By way of comparison, to irrigate an acre (570 vines) in the Solano County Water District (Suisun Valley AVA) for one month, the cost is roughly $1.00. This is the cost with a much greater monthly per-vine water consumption than mine.

To reiterate: at my rates, it would cost about $60-$80 to deficit irrigate an acre of vines. In Suisun Valley, it costs a whopping $1.00.

Los Angeles DWP has dramatically raised water rates because of the recent droughts (and an insider tells me the increase is going to permanent). I have no developed well, rainwater or greywater collection system so, I am very concerned about being able to sustain my vines in hot weather. I just wish my almost-neighbor and Los Angeles Mayor would be as mindful of his water consumption while forcing a 37% increase in water fees on the rest of us

5. Starting up a new vineyard can be like being a new parent. You worry and fret. Every bite mark on a leaf, every bit of curling, anything that looks like powdery mildew and every cluster of eggs on the underside of a leaf will worry you.

Again, how much you worry is probably inversely proportional to the number of vines you have. Of course, one can take a hands-off approach and let the vines do their thing. I am of the mindset that a happy medium must be found between not paying the vines enough attention and pulling a Lennie Small and smothering them to death.

6. Vigor and productivity of a clone are as important as its distinct sensory characteristics. Why not? What good is clonal sensory typicity if you cannot produce enough fruit to make money? It makes sense to grow as much fruit as possible and then focus on bringing out a distinct sensory character. This truth had passed before me before but I suppose I had never really stopped and lingered on it long enough for it to take up permanent residence in my consciousness. Many growers will argue that they select clones for their distinct character, first and foremost. However, there is no guarantee that a particular clone will give typical fruit a specific location.

It would be helpful to have a guide of how clonal character changes with soil and climate. Unfortunately, trying to index those permutations of sensory characteristics expressed by each clone variant depending on site characteristics (soils and climate) is very difficult if not impossible. However, if accomplished, it would dramatically improve wine quality and reduce one element of gamble from the selection of vines for a new site. But I suppose that is the idealist in me talking.

Putting it to use.

Doing the work required to grow and maintain a vineyard has reminded me of how much of the process of production of wine happens in the vineyard. More than that, what happens in the vineyard carries through to the bottle. The consequences of those choices and events can be smelled and tasted in the glass. While skilled winemaking can do wonders with problematic juice, some issues just cannot be fixed.

It’s so easy to approach wine from a personal enjoyment hinged on the belief that enjoyment is the consumer’s only prerogative. That is not an invalid argument, but it is one-dimensional. Those who refuse to see consistent characteristics and that they can be, to a degree, predicted base their argument on the notion that there are many uncontrollable things that can go wrong in wine growing and wine production.

And this brings me to the notion that the finished wine comes about as a result of a combination of luck and skill. Skills can be acquired and polished. Luck is seemingly random but the range of possible outcomes can be narrowed down to some extent by carefully thinking out decisions and actions. In fact, decisions made daily in the vineyard and in the winery are intended to do just that.

Finally, this brings me to what I said at the beginning of this post: This is a learning experience which I intend to share with anyone willing to read. I’ve relied heavily on the generosity of a number of people in making decisions in my vineyard: nursery salesmen, viticulturists, soil scientists, enologists, irrigation suppliers and consultants, winemakers and wine growers. I turned to people with extensive experience in order to learn and make decisions which will significantly increase the chances of desired results in my project (by reducing the randomness and bad luck).

Ultimately, I try to find opportunities to learn in all I do. I seek deeper understanding, beyond the cursory, obvious and accepted explanations. There is so much to learn and to know about things which interest me that I will probably spend my whole life pursuing knowledge.

And that is not a bad life to live.

For more vineyard videos, visit my YouTube channel.

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About SUAMW

Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles. http://www.shutupandmakewine.com http://twitter.com/Dr_Arthur_P
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5 Responses to Things I’ve learned after 11 months of growing grape vines

  1. 1WineDude says:

    EXCELLENT!

    As for the gophers, I am imagining scenes from Caddyshack… :)

  2. SUAMW says:

    Thanks Joe!.
    It’s worse than Caddyshack. Much, much worse……

  3. David J says:

    So, not only does a ‘tree grow in Brooklyn’, but ‘A Vineyard Thrives in LA’!

  4. Thomas says:

    Arthur,

    With this, you said it all: “It’s so easy to approach wine from a personal enjoyment hinged on the belief that enjoyment is the consumer’s only prerogative. That is not an invalid argument, but it is one-dimensional.”

    Trouble is, it’s the argument that rules the conversation.

    Anyway, with all our technology, you’d think the U.S. would have developed an aerial drone to home in on gophers. Here in the Finger Lakes, they are the size and smarts of over-achieving children.

    Be glad that you don’t have downy and powdery to deal with in LA.

  5. Pingback: Good Reads Wednesday « Artisan Family of Wines

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