So You Want to Plant a Vineyard?

Many of those who have gone before have stated, "that it takes a lot of money, to make a little money in the wine business." The road to 'profitability' is an important consideration, as this is not a venture for the weak of heart.

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote — 'The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are stronger at the broken places." If the proposed venture, building a vineyard from the ground up, you'll need to prepare yourself mentally for the likely possibility that you will fall flat on your face. But if you succeed, despite encountering many obstacles, which you've bravely overcome, then as Hemingway wrote, you'll be stronger in those broken places.

That said, there are many design factors to take into account before getting started. But just before I begin to list those steps as outlined in Hellman, Oregon Viticulture let me as a novice, in this pursuit, give you some of the sage advice I've gleaned from others far more learned than I on the subject. That recommendation or straightforward advice, take some viticultural classes like those offered at SOWI or other Viticultural Schools. These types, of courses, will help to explain the basic concepts; this allows you to network with other students and instructors who've possibly already leaped into vineyard management and avoid common pitfalls associated with going it alone.

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First Step: Consider your available resources, as stated earlier, a vineyard is an expensive endeavor. Spacing and trellising will have a substantial impact on that investment. Significant costs beyond the simple vineyard development will be the purchase of quality plant and trellis material. Failure to adequately research proper plant material can put a real hurt on the initial investment, if somehow you are forced to replant, a few years later. You have then lost not only significant capital but also more importantly time.

Step Two: Think about the site and vine capacity issues you'll need to confront with an open mind. Site aspect is one of the considerations you'll need to make; this factor will impact the size expectations of your vineyard. You'll want to prepare the operation to be as efficient as possible to manage; this will help defer the need for external labor.

In regards to vine capacity, which is directly affected by site capacity; you'll need to choose the appropriate clones and rootstock for the site where you'll be planting. Studies of the soils will need to complete (fully prepared for planting) in advance, that is before ordering any plant material. Other factors like whether the site is high vigor or not will need to be determined, to understand the need for appropriate trellising decisions. Vine capacity is highly dependent on-site capacity, but rootstock and clone selection, as well as irrigation and fertilization, can help mitigate high vigor soil. However my recommendation gleaned from hours of reading, and the prosperous vineyards I've seen, would be to plant on low vigor, nutrient deficient soils with south facing or south-east facing aspects.

Step Three: The choice of balance is a crucial component of any well-established vineyard. To do that each vine must have the room to "express its capacity, with an adequate number of medium-sized shoots, and room on the trellis to capture sunshine on the leaves. In other words, you need to orient your proposed vineyard to take advantage of the most sunlight as possible throughout the day. You need to make a photosynthesis factory. And lastly "smaller vines that are allowed to grow too many shoots will be out of balance." Hellman Chapter 7, Oregon Viticulture.

Step Four: Marketing, being able to bring a successful crop to the market. The value of marketing cannot be overstated and is every bit as important as choosing the right clone and nursery. The type of (wine bearing) grapes you plant and where you decide to plant them in today's wine economy will either make or break a new brand. You first must determine who your potential customer will be; will the grapes you plant be prepared to play in the generic bulk wine market or will you be going after the premium niche wine market.

These are the choices you will have to confront, even after receiving all the data back on what you should plant, the bank may have a better idea regardless of the data of what you better plant if you want their continued financial backing for your new endeavor. Best bet, avoid the flashy new trends, stick with the blue-chip commodity grapes if you're going to keep the lights on. According to Hellman, in Chap. 7, Oregon Viticulture "balanced, well-managed vines have the best chance of producing high-quality balanced wines." The kind of wines which are written about favorably celebrated and will possibly reach what I would call a demand level.

Other Considerations: Finally, determine the overall site capacity, will you go for 800 vines per acre or 3000 thousand an acre as many successful vineyards sites do in Burgundy. Pay close attention to soil type and understand what these soils mean for the long-term health of the proposed vineyard.

Canopy management is another thing to keep in mind as the vines begin to mature, pay attention to hedging and trellising concerns. Think about whether the grapes you plan to plant are early ripeners or late ripeners.  Pay close attention to standard spacing and the training system you plan to use. Not all grapes will react the same to all training systems, some are better than others, and some will be easier to harvest and still, others will determine crop load on high capacity sites.

Finally deciding row spacing and vine-spacing is also an important consideration, mainly because these factors will determine the type of equipment you own, that you'd like to be able to drag down the crop rows. You also want to take into consideration, of not planting too close to a neighbor’s property line, or you could run afoul of over-spray on their property and vice versa.

Less I forget to mention, Degree days, also need to be an essential part of the initial planting equation, if not you risk the possibility of the type of grape not having enough time to fully ripen. An excellent example of this is in Germany, where mostly Riesling varietal is the predominantly grown grape, but a small percentage is Pinot Noir, grown in some of their warmer mesoclimate sites.

This advice is gleaned from various books, like Oregon Viticulture via Hellman which I cited above many times and others, but also many articles I've read on the subject. But again, I've never taken on this pursuit, so the caveat take my advice is to take this advice with a grain of salt. What I offer above is a starting point, a subtle reminder of the perils of such endeavors and the possible (likely) difficulties of attempting to take shortcuts.


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