This past weekend was a busy one for me as I put in a lot of work at my vineyard. I assessed progress and identified the first potential mistake. Because of the heat, work can only be done in the mornings, so I spent Friday and Saturday morning at the site. Nevertheless, this is a learning experience through and through.
When we put in the vines, my father felt we could add one row – about 9 feet lower than I had initially planned. As it turns out, two of the vines in the lowest row now get some shade from the ficus tree just down-slope. Fruit producing plants need sun exposure to synthesize food and building blocks as well as ripen fruit. So much about planning a vineyard is about the details. It’s not just the climate and soils that matter. Row orientation and row and vine spacing are important. Lesson learned.
Ironically, these two are the most vigorously growing vines in the whole row. Go figure. Whether this proves to be a problem will be borne out in time. Hopefully, we can trim the tree to give these vines more sun.
One of our (my father’s and mine) fears was that the vines would not grow very vigorously – since we were planting so late in the season and we knew nothing about the soils other than the fact that some trees as well as weeds have done well there. Much to our relief, these vines are growing like they’re going to get paid. My father insists that grape vines are essentially weeds – they’ll grow anywhere as long as they get water. I am not sure how accurate that is, but time will only tell if his notion is correct.
On Friday, I watered and pulled back the straw as all vines have green, leafy shoots ranging from 6″ to 12″ in height. Now that they are not likely to bake in the heat, I want them to get as much sun as possible and grow. When the temperatures and leaves drop, I will prune the vines back to two buds.
On Saturday morning, we were lucky to have cloudy skies which made the next major vineyard development task that much easier. My father called one of his workers who brought a friend and, together, they put in walkways between rows and basins around each vine. They also cut some steps into the hillside – from the water spigot to the top of the block.
All this digging is hard work and with my bad knee and my father’s health issues, we could not have accomplished this task alone. Granted, this site is small, but it is very steep. Add to that the heat (and elevated humidity) and one can only wonder how huge farms and vineyards in California are maintained. Much of this state’s agriculture and building industry depends on very hardworking immigrants. Many of these people work for very low wages, performing dirty, and often back-breaking, tasks. I’m not trying to get political here, but it does remind me of the work that goes into the lettuce, artichokes, fruit and wine that I consume regularly.
Since I last wrote about the vineyard, I’ve had the chance to speak with several soil scientists. I’ve yet to decide to whom I will send my samples. One lab is closer to Los Angeles, so they may, conceivably, have a better understanding of my site and its soils. Another facility is located in Fresno and affiliated with Fresno State and seems to offer comprehensive analysis and farming (watering, fertilizing and soil supplementation) recommendations. A third source, also very reputable, says they specialize in helping those intent on producing premium wine match not only variety but rootstock to the site. I don’t have much choice or leeway with rootstock selection. I have ordered 50 Montepulciano benchgrafts for February. A minimum order at Novavine is 500 vines. So, I have to take what they have available – which is VCR clone 10 on 1103P rootstock.
A few words about rootstock are in order here (thanks, again, to Jeff Miller for much of the following). Phylloxera vitifoliae (an aphid-like vine louse native to North America and also called Phylloxera vastarix), is destructive and can wipe out entire vineyards of own-rooted vinifera as it feeds on the sap in the roots. It also causes damage to leaves.
American grape vine species are resistant to Phylloxera. Subsequently, a number of rootstocks were developed by crossing two or three American vitis species: berlandieri, rupestris, and riparia. Of these, berlandieri originates in arid areas, and is fairly well suited for hillsides. Riparia is found in moist soils, like those around creeks. Rupestris was found in moist but well-draining soils of the southwestern prairies. It is also a non-dominant species, which means that the characteristics of the other species with which it is crossed will be exhibited by the cross.
Rootstocks are created as crosses because, alone, they either don’t graft well with vinifera species (berlandieri, in particular) or they lack characteristics that the crosses possess,. Crossing allows the grower to obtain more optimal characteristics in the resulting rootstock which match well with more locations. 1103P (P is for Paulsen), to which my Aglianico is grafted, is a cross of berlandieri and rupestris. It combines the high vigor, moderate nematode (unsegmented roundworms) resistance, moderate tolerance of wet clay soils of rupestris with berlandieri‘s tolerance of arid soils of hillsides – which is not a strength of rupestris. It is also supposed to do best in loam or lime soils.
See the Herrick rootstock guide, here for a summary of rootstocks commonly used in today’s vineyards.
110R, also a berlandieri/rupestris cross, is said to be best for hillsides, but beggars can’t be choosers. My strategy will be to find ways to make the grafts work best in the soil types I have.
So, after putting in the walkways and basins, we collected three soil samples. The recommended way to collect soil samples is to use an auger soil sampler. Alternately, one can dig a three-foot deep hole with a shovel or post digger. Soil should be collected from three depths: the first, second and third foot. Those then need to be mixed well for a homogeneous sample. A pound to one and a quarter pounds is needed per location.
I chose three locations for my samples (see image – above, left): the bottom row of planted Aglainico (sample #1); just above the existing top row of planted Aglianico (sample #2) and at the top of the site – near the fence (sample #3). The last location is where I expected the soils to be most shallow. This location is just below the crest of the slope, where large pieces of sandstone jut out of the soils. Surprisingly, though the soils became increasingly sandy, we did not hit any bedrock at three feet.
The soils at location #2 were also sandy but variable and contained a good amount of gravel and what looks like calcareous shale. The sample from location #1 was easier to obtain. We had dug quite deep and hit considerably variable soils when planting. I made a composite sample from the soils that had been used to fill back the holes when we planted. It will take about a month to get results and recommendations. This should give me sufficient time to implement any soil amelioration regiments.
Finally, I wanted to return to the issue of potential mistakes. This second mistake was one of not accounting for the local wildlife. We encountered a large number of gopher holes as we put in the walkways and basins. We used rocks and soil to plug them up. My parents lost one tree to the gophers, so I am concerned about a potential pest problem. There are a lot of gophers on Mt. Washington, and I hear they like the taste of roots. I suspect there is no cat in the neighborhood intrepid enough to eradicate them.
Finally, because of a lack of time and planters, I only was able to put seven grafts into planters – as back ups. The remainder were kept in a bucket of water nearby (I guess I’m getting old and can’t bear the thought of throwing things away). On Friday morning, I found those grafts laying in a loose bunch on the ground cover near the bucket. The buds, shoots and leaves had wilted. It would seem the local raccoons did this so they could get to the water in the bucket. Crafty little suckers, they moisten their paws in order to get a better tactile sense of the foods they are handling. Out of curiosity, we put the grafts back in the bucket and covered them with a tomato cage to see if they recover. Stay tuned.