I’ve made some recommendations in the past about making the most out of a tight space when one wants to put in a home vineyard.
But, if the reader is lucky enough to own some land and has a hankering for the vigneron lifestyle, a producing vineyard is just three years away.
After four years of owning a home vineyard, I wanted to address the process in more detail. My hope is to offer a useful resource for those contemplating starting a home vineyard.
There are some absolute, essentials that need to be in place from the get-go:
- Access to water – unless the site receives sufficient natural rain fall to make irrigation unnecessary. Even then, the newly-planted vines will need some irrigation in the first year.
- An understanding of the local soils and climate. WeatherUnderground is a great tool for the latter.
- Time – and, by extension, patience.
- A state of health sufficient enough and a lifestyle flexible enough to allow for the work necessary, when necessary. Some of the work required is time sensitive, but working a vineyard of more than 20 vines can allow one to cancel the gym membership.
- Money, but more on that later.
- Also, I recommend Wes Hagen’s small book about starting and running a home vineyard (it’s a compilation of his articles in Wine Maker Magazine). It costs only $7 and is a must-read before any further steps are taken. It’s a good, easily understandable introductory read, giving basics and identifying subjects which require further reading.
If the reader remains undeterred by the above requisites and resolute in their desire to produce world-class wines, they may read on.
A plan for the next three years years should be drawn up. Careful consideration should be given to choice of variety and rootstock, as well as type of local pests (insects, birds, gophers, other rodents, deer, raccoons, wild pigs, turkeys, skunks, baboons and any other exotic creature with an affinity for grapes), disease pressures (mold and mildew, phylloxera, nematodes and Pierce’s disease, etc) prevalent in the area, training/trellising style (another resource, here) as well as how much, and where the wine will be made.
Some very general rules about how much wine can be produced per vine do exist. However, these are subject to significant variation. Endless permutations of the variables of site, soil, climate, season, water, training style and cultivar make it impossible to predict numbers reliably.
Vines will produce more fruit as they mature than in their first crop. Then, after a few decades of fairly consistent production, their yields will wane. A fairly safe assumption for most home vineyards is that a healthy, mature vine will produce about one to three liters (four 750 mL bottles) of finished wine. This depends on vine size, productivity and cluster size. Using this proportion, one can plan the size of a vineyard according to the amount of wine they wish to make.
On a related note: It is always a good idea to aim to produce more fruit than is needed. Yields vary from year-to-year. A resourceful home grower and winemaker will always find a use for the extra fruit.
The First Year:
With a well-thought out plan in place, the site needs to be cleared and rows measured and marked out, remembering that trees throw shadows and shadows are not good for grapes. The importance of row orientation varies with location. Many renown vineyards break the north-south rule. Additionally, some canopy management approaches can ameliorate a less-than-ideal situation.
Basic site clearing and planting equipment consists of:
- basic gardening tools:
- sometimes: pick axes, crowbars, etc
Saws (manual and/or powered) may be necessary to remove bushes, shrubs and trees. Some municipalities may penalize property owners for removing trees from the private land they own and on which they pay taxes. Ignorance of the law (no matter how ridiculous) is never accepted as an excuse. On the bright side, some cities may be willing to trade a removed tree in the desired vineyard spot for a new one planted in another part of the property. Due diligence is strongly advised.
Before planting, the vineyard must be marked out. Clear understanding and diligent observance of property lines will save a lot of heartache down the line. A large roll of line, a 100-foot measuring tape, small stakes or drop chalk are good tools to have on hand.
Vines (benchgrafts from nurseries) should be ordered at least a year in advance. It is recommended to start talking with the nursery well in advance. Additionally, a few back up vines (to be kept in 2-gallon pots) are strongly recommended as some vines may fail or be damaged.
Planting can be done any time of the year (snowy winter excluded), but spring is best, to avoid a very real risk of buds being burned by the heat.
The essential tools for planting are:
- post digger
- a post driver
- hammer (for breaking up large rocks)
In addition to the vines themselves, the other big ticket purchases in the first year are:
- T-posts or other stakes
- irrigation: tubing, drippers, connectors, a timer valve, hole puncher and goof plugs and other miscellanea.
- Chicken wire for gopher baskets.
Some additional supplies for the first year include:
- pliers and wire cutter
- 2 sizes of scissors
- twine (I am no longer a fan of the elastic garden tape, but it can do the job)
- grow tubes may be necessary to keep pests from damaging new buds
- assorted small gardening tools:
- small hand spade/trowel
- hand hoe/cultivator
- weed popper and/or other hand weeding tools
- Work/protective clothes:
- a pair of good boots
- knee pads
- a few changes of dirty work clothes (thin and light for hot, sunny days and thicker clothes for cooler weather)
- protective goggles (dry canes have a knack for getting around regular glasses)
- sunscreen and a hat are must-haves from the first year on
The Second Year:
Starting with the second year, assuming all planted vines have survived, the home vineyardist will start settling into an annual routine. And there is no better way to do that than by purchasing more supplies:
- tool belt -to keep basic tools on hand
- irrigation supplies:
- extra tubing
- goof plugs
- extra drippers
- wire and clips
- buckets – for larger tools and supplies
- pump sprayer – Small vineyards can get by with a 2-gallon capacity sprayer. I usually fill up my 4-gal backpack sprayer 3 times for each sulfur application to my vineyard [1/10 acre, 87 vines. Some may want a separate sprayer for sulfur and other treatments like kaolin, caligreen, CuOH and another for insecticides (imidacloprid, carbaryl), and a third for herbicides (Roundup, at least in first year, can help reign in thick, invasive, vegetation. Pre-emergents may be necessary in some sites).
- jumpsuit/coverall (for sprays and other wet, messy jobs)
- a rain suit - nobody wants to work in a vineyard in a dowpour, but when there is an emergency during a storm, this can be very handy
- antifungal oils
- Copper hydroxide (aka cupric hydroxide - CuOH)
- fertilizer soil amendments. - Some may want to start this in the first year, particularly if their soil analysis shows deficits or imbalances. I keep it simple: Epsom salts and Lilly Miller 10-10-10 fertilizer.
- pruning shears
- strong lopper - even second-leaf vines can have thick cane growth
- weed whacker - If the site is large and has vigorous early spring growth. Some municipalities require larger lots to be cleared of growth before fire season. Grapevines are, of course, exempt.
- tiller -if the desire and funds are present
Since most growers start spraying for mildew and possibly insect pests in the second year, additional protective gear is recommended:
- face guard or goggles and a balaclava
- some may want a charcoal filter respirator.
It's important to pause here for a frank discussion about some pragmatic concerns, as my mention of pesticides and herbicides, above, may stir some feelings of unease.
There is a lot of talk in the wine world (and beyond) about doing things in harmony with nature and in a sustainable manner. Certainly, that is ideal. However, there are plenty of commercial growers who do not pursue organic or sustainable certification because they do not want to paint themselves into a corner and end up with their hands tied behind their backs should their vineyard be affected by an aggressive weed or a serious pest or disease which can only be countered with substances the use of which would strip them of their certification.
Nature is not an animated Disney feature-length movie. It can be unfair and sometimes brutal. One can accept that their balance with nature will be like that of the Navajo and Hopi - who planted extra crops: some for birds, some for mice, etc. This approach will result in 10% losses one year and 90% in another. The Navajo and Hopi did not have tonnage contracts or mortgages to pay.
Of course, one wants to tread lightly and not use a cannon to kill a fly. Nor does one want to poison their neighborhood. So, it is up to the individual home vineyardist to choose or devise a regimen of managing cover crop and weeds which includes the balance of mechanical and chemical measures with which they are comfortable. The same applies to insect and animal pests.
The Third Year:
In the third year, if all goes well, the home vineyardist will have their work rewarded with the first crop of some size and quality.
This is also the first year when a regular, repeating vineyard schedule will be followed.
The major investment in the third year is bird netting. A previous post about storing and applying netting is found here. Other pest management and deterrent methods may be necessary.
- barriers and deterrents to keep mammals away from the fruit
- bird tape (also called flash tape)
Finally, the home grower will need clean buckets dedicated for harvesting fruit. A 5 gallon bucket holds about 22 lbs. That represents 5-10 vine’s worth. Yields, of course, depend on cultivar, vine age, training, cluster size and the other factors discussed at the beginning of this post.
The other third-year expense not mentioned here is wine making equipment. Aspiring home vineyardists are strongly advised to try making wine before growing the fruit. Not only is this good practice, but it is INFINITELY CHEAPER – regardless if one uses kits or buys large amounts of fruit from commercial growers.
And, so, a final consideration to finish this post: the The cost. The bottom line.
“…analyzes a hypothetical 200-acre farm owned and operated by the grower. Sixty acres of vines being replanted are the basis of this study; the farm also has 135 acres of mature vineyards in production. Roads, irrigation systems, fencing and farmstead occupy 5 acres of the property. Land in this area costs $11,000-$30,000 per acre. Establishing a vineyard The new vineyard is being planted on land that had an existing vineyard, and then was left fallow or planted with alternative crops for a couple of years.
The new vineyard is being planted on land that had an existing vineyard, and then was left fallow or planted with alternative crops for a couple of years. Costs for the first year include charges for a contractor to remove old grapevines the previous fall. The grower may add soil amendments.”
The major differences in costs between commercial and home/hobby vineyards are due to labor and contractor costs. nevertheless, a superficial review of costs of my project, there is very little difference when one scales down.
Luckily, I’ve written about some ways to save money in the past.
All readers who have found creative cost shortcuts and ways to re-purpose supplies and tools to lower costs of their project are encouraged to share their tips in the comments below.