For real

Irigation supplies.

Irrigation supplies.

I remember when I got my first “real” electric guitar: a Korean-made Fender Squier Stratocaster. Until then I had been playing a half-sized “Strat copy” with a 1″-thick plywood body and two single-coil pickups. The used Strat sounded so much better than my Cort (as in: the furniture manufacturer). I had a real electric guitar now, and I would certainly soon achieve the virtuosity of my guitar-god heroes. The fact that I went to Medical School and not Music School is a clear illustration that this is not the way it goes.

This past weekend, I finally put in a real drip irrigation system in my vineyard. Now I feel like I have a real vineyard. My wine, no doubt, will rock the world…

Water pressure chnages with elevation.

Water pressure chnages with elevation.

In two and a half hours this past Saturday morning, my dad and I laid out the tubing, made all the connections and put in two emitters per vine. We started work at 7:15 am. By 9 am I was drenched in sweat. The sun can be merciless – even early in the day. Between the high humidity and the increasing smell of smoke form the Station Fire and the fact that I seem to be fighting some sort of virus, the work of putting the emitters into the tubing became more and more difficult.

Water pressure was a concern as we went into this stage of development. The image on the right shows a 20% pressure difference between the lowest sitting vine and the highest sitting vine in the existing block. Never mind that there is a 30% difference between the lowest sitting vine and the top of the area where I plan to put in Montepulciano in March. This, in turn, is over 46% less than the pressure at the faucet which feeds the whole irrigation system.

Our fear was that we would have to put in a pump to provide sufficient pressure to the whole system. Once we put in the irrigation lines on the Montepulciano, we just might end up having to do this. However, since drip irrigation systems generally require lower pressures, the opposite scenario may come about and I may end up needing a pressure regulator. I suspect the latter will be the case. On our first test, the pressure caused the shutoff valves to pop out of the lines. We had to use electrical ties on the connections to keep the system from coming apart under pressure.

The whole irrigation system consists of 1/2″ polyethylene irrigation tubing connected with compression couplings and shut-off valves in each arm. I ran a 3/4″ garden hose to the top of the future Montepulciano block and connected that to the irrigation tubing with a compression coupling adapter. All hosing and tubing is held down with 8″ wire hook steaks. On the recommendation of Brett Waterman (Pacific Ag Water in Santa Maria: (805) 922-6943) who was my source of all the irrigation equipment, I used Netafim pressure-compensating emitters. They deliver 2L/hr each regardless of the pressure put upon them. This is important in a steep site like mine – where the pressures vary with elevation. Brett was recommended by a Santa Maria winemaker and he’s been very responsive and helpful. He took the time to look at my situation and helped me design an irrigation system which suits my needs. Like all other professionals who have assisted me thus far, he’s been very patient while providing very intricate guidance.

Planning out an irrigation system.

Planning out an irrigation system.

This irrigation system is not permanent. Well, it is, but the current configuration is not. For the first year or so, my goal is to help these vines get established. For this reason, I have the emitters delivering water directly under the vine. In 18 to 24 months, I will shift each arm by about three feet to one side. This is to encourage the vines’ feeder roots to venture out. To accommodate for this, I looped about three feet of tubing at the origin of each arm. This will be let out when I am ready to shift the emitters (see image to the left).

There is considerable disagreement about how good or bad drip irrigation is for vines. Some claim that it limits root development because it keeps the roots in a ball near the point of irrigation while others dismiss this notion altogether. However, there are some soil scientists who assert that most of the nutrients in any soil are in the top 12 inches. According to this school of thought, one would do well to deliver the water between the vines so the nutrients leech into deeper soils. Whichever hypothesis is correct, I can do the least harm by implementing the system I designed.

That brings me back to soil analysis. I still have to decide who will conduct this. I already have received offers of custom fertilizer concoctions -though I still have to look into whether there is any problem with fertilizing blindly. Additionally, I am not sure how strong the nematode threat is at my site, or how much I need to worry about that. Stay tuned.

Putting in drip emitters.

Putting in drip emitters.

Back to irrigation: There is an optimal temperature for putting in emitters: very early in the morning when the tubing is cool from the night before. As the tubing gets warmer from being in the sun, it becomes softer and putting in emitters becomes difficult. As I was trying to push the emitters into the tubing, I probably stretched out the openings I had punched. After all emitters were in, we ran a test and on five emitters, we had dripping or spraying out of the emitter-tubing connection. This was going to cause uneven watering and water waste.

I sent an email to Brett Waterman to see what my options were. We had considered cutting the tubing, putting in some compression couplings and moving the emitters over a few inches. Another idea was to use some sort of adhesive to put in patches and then putting the emitters a few inches over. Option one introduces weak points into the system and option two proved to be a dead end as there are no good adhesives for polyethylene – not at Home Depot, at least.

Luckily, Brett told me about “goof plugs”. Although another use may come to mind based on the name, they are simply plastic plugs shaped like the connector on the back of the emitters. They are smaller on one end and bigger on the opposite end. You simply pull the emitter, put in a goof plug and punch a new hole a few inches over and insert the emitter.

I came back early the following morning, armed with goof plugs and a hole puncher. This worked beautifully in most spots, though in a few places I had to wrap some Teflon tape around the plug. In two spots the holes were to big for the goof plugs and Teflon, so I cut in and put in two couplings.

We turned on the water one more time. The tubing shifted and tensed up slightly as the pressure surged, the clamped ends whined and whistled in brief dissonance as air was pushed out by the water, and finally, the entire system came online with all emitters working properly.

All in all, this is not some sophisticated irrigation system: tubing, connectors, emitters. Actually the latter are the most technologically complex part of the whole set up. Not that they are all that complicated either: a flexible membrane inside acts as a pressure regulator. Proper tools and equipment, nonetheless, make a tremendous difference.

This project is looking more and more like a real vineyard. Still, there is much to do until I can make my first wine. There will be continued work, worry and vigilance and learning. After all, just because you own a Stradivarius or a Ferrari, does not mean you know how to use them properly or that you can obtain optimal results in their performance.



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.
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8 Responses to For real

  1. Beautiful job. Now you have only 3 years to wait for a crop ready for wine.

    You know of course that you could have easily moved to a place where it rains…

  2. Basia Lindberg says:

    Hey Artur, looking forward to reading more about your progress. Good luck, na zdrowie!

  3. Jim Caudill says:

    Very nice indeed. I’ve come to love goof plugs and wish there were existential versions that would allow \do-overs\ in life as well. Best of luck with this. I’ll look forward to a taste down the road as well….

  4. 1WineDude says:

    I love it – only a truly passionate geek would make the comparison to their first real instrument! Bravo!!!

  5. Dylan says:

    Awesome to see your progress. A word of caution regarding the sun. Take it from someone who worked in the field for an entire summer. We were drinking water with great frequency. Don’t cheat yourself and make sure to keep a big cooler nearby. You have to water yourself before the vines.

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    If I were starting out with my first drip installation I would buy my stuff and get my advice from that big drip irrigation outlet up in Humbolt County. They are used to dealing with lots of new and small growers, though the crop there is slightly different.

    Regarding limiting root development, nothing limits root growth more than bone dry soil.

    Regarding fertilizing, one word…… fertigate.

  7. David Roth says:

    Some of my favorite things first caused me to yell \oops!\

  8. SUAMW says:

    Thanks David,

    To my frustration, I found myself saying “Oops, I did id again” a few times… 😉

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