Plan Your First Vineyard

Planning a vineyard is a lot like deciding to have a baby. It’s easy to see a cute kid and feel that covetous pang. You think, “Hey, I could do that.” But when confronted with all the responsibilities and tasks associated with parenthood — or vineyard ownership — you might feel suddenly overwhelmed.

So what does it take to be a successful vineyard “parent”? You have to be dedicated. You have to learn some new things and ask advice from people who have done it before. You have to have some extra money. You have to know where to shop. You have to be willing to give up some of your leisure time. Even a small vineyard will require weekly maintenance during the growing season and pruning in the winter. The fruit you grow will reflect your effort, and your success or failure as a viticulturist will dictate the quality of your homegrown wine. The decision to start a vineyard is a serious one, requiring study, planning, financial resources, dedication and a willingness to get muddy and sulfur-soaked.

In planning your vineyard, there are lots of considerations. You will need to select your site and exposure, prepare the soil, decide if you plan to irrigate, plan a trellising system and then choose a row and vine spacing scheme that works for you. The purpose of this article is to introduce these issues, teach you some basic vocabulary and concepts, and then turn you loose to do your own research.

It’s vital you network with other grape growers, preferably in your area, to benefit from their mistakes and successes. Local wine growers can point you toward vineyard hardware suppliers and good nursery materials, can help you choose your vineyard plot, your grape varieties and root stock, and might even help with the labor if you bring them enough wine. Start a grape-growing club or join an existing one. Help each other farm, harvest and crush. Asking for help is absolutely vital to the success of your future vineyard. Most viticulturists I’ve interviewed have been very forthcoming about their first planting experiences — they admit that they would have planned and planted differently if they would have taken more time to read, network and plan. Once the vines are in the ground, there’s little you can do to change the basic layout of the field. With that understood, let’s start planning your vineyard.

One: Select your site

Hillside versus flat:

Hillsides, especially southwest-facing hillsides in the northern hemisphere, have always been the preferred location for growing quality winegrapes. It has been suggested by many wine writers that this was originally done out of necessity — that infertile hillsides were planted to grapes because other agricultural crops failed to grow there. Rocky, infertile soil produced small vines with less vigor than vines grown on deep, alluvial soil. Smaller vines meant smaller clusters and crop-load, and the wines showed unusual concentration and intensity. Hillside sites are generally well-drained and have less frost issues in spring, as long as the cold air has space to flow down and away.

Consider the difficulties in farming on a hillside, though. Tractors and equipment take a beating. One has limited choices concerning row direction and row spacing — the slope, exposure and the topography will dictate where you can fit the vineyard. Terracing might be necessary, which can add thousands of dollars per acre to the establishment cost. Our vineyard is mostly hillside, and I deal with erosion and equipment difficulties constantly. We have one small section of vineyard that is relatively flat, and I have to admit I love working in it. The spraying is easy, the picking is easy, the pruning is easy. But …. there are few sights as inspiring to the wine lover as a hillside vineyard. That said, in my experience, putting a vineyard on a slope will nearly double the effort required to maintain the vineyard, and will significantly increase the investment needed to establish it. Quality fruit can be grown on flat ground; it just tends to be a little more vigorous and might require some more vine-pruning to keep the vines from getting too wild and woolly, which isn’t good for the grapes.

Sun and Wind Exposure:

It is imperative to know what sections of your property get the most sunshine, wind, and shade throughout the growing season — roughly March to October. Sun exposure on the fruit is key to getting good flavor out of your grapes, so planting a vineyard among shade trees or in the shadow of a canyon is not advisable. An open, sunny, southwest-facing slope is perfect. Finding the spot on your property that gets early morning sunlight, and keeps that exposure until late into the afternoon, will ensure that the vines get all the sun they need to grow, stay healthy and make sugar in the grapes. Some wind will protect the grapes against mold and mildew. Too much wind will shut the stomata (the tiny entranceways that let C02 into and 02 out of the leaf) and cause the vine to stop respiring temporarily. Again, the key is moderation. The fruit needs sun exposure, but not so much that it is burned. The canopy should have air flow, but not so much that the vines are being beat up and shut down.

Two: Prep the soil

There are basically five steps to preparing the soil for a vineyard.

1: Evaluate the soil through test pits, soil samples and laboratory soil analysis. Get a soil map from the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and learn what “soil series” you will be planting on, and learn how that soil series impacts agriculture. Dig a deep hole (a backhoe is useful for this) in the center of your vineyard site and take soil from the top 12 inches, from a depth of 12 to 24 inches, and a depth of 24 to 36 inches. These are the depths where the vine will establish itself and grow most of its root structure. Put a few pounds of soil from each depth in large Ziploc bags and carefully label each bag by location and depth. (I chip the soil into the bag from the wall of the test pit to make sure it accurately represents the section). Send the bags off to a good soil laboratory, and when you get the results back, the aspects of the soil should be described in context of “norms” for winegrape production. If the norms aren’t listed on the evaluation you can call and yell at the lab, or hit the Internet or library to find the normal ranges of nutrients for winegrape production. You may also want to find out if there are nematode worms or phylloxera in your soil. These are vine pests that can cause havoc if you don’t plant a vine rootstock that can resist them. Most soil labs can test for these pests.

2: Amend the soil with lime, nitrogen, compost or other additives to make it pH balanced and to add any necessary nutrients. Teach yourself a thing or two about what nutrients a vine needs, and then check your soil samples to see what needs to be added or amended. Take your soil samples to a respected company that sells amendments, and they will help you determine how many pounds or tons per acre of any given amendment your vineyard may need.

3: If you can afford it and can get the equipment into your property, rip the soil to a three foot depth to help the vines establish strong, deep root systems (local farmers or agriculture experts can help you determine if your soil needs ripping). Do this after you have spread your amendments so they will be spread through the soil evenly. After ripping, disk the soil so it is uniform and relatively smooth. In most areas there are folks with tractor equipment that can rip or disk for a daily or per-acre rate.

4: Call a local farm supply company and let them know you need to grow some cover crop to keep your new ripped, disked vineyard site from eroding. A good cover crop (grasses, vetch, clover or whatever is appropriate for your soil and locale) will help slow the pace of erosion, will add nutrients to the soil, will attract beneficial insects, and if timed right may even choke out potential weed growth.

5: Ask local winegrowers whether or not they use irrigation, or if the rainfall in your area is adequate to bring in a healthy crop year in and year out. Irrigation can be the most costly aspect of vineyard development. If you don’t need it, save the money. If it turns out you do need supplemental irrigation for your new vineyard, make sure to install it after disking but before planting cover crop, and install a system that takes elevation, gravity and water pressure into account. Most backyard vineyards are on flat ground. In this situation, and if the vineyard contains fewer than 100 vines, you can hand water the vines with a hose, giving them enough water every week or so to grow. If you want a more elaborate drip system, this is yet another opportunity to bring a local grape grower a few bottles of wine. Ask how many gallons of water they apply per week in an average  season, and how they apply it. You may need to invest in a pump to keep pressure adequate, and if you are on a hillside you will need “pressure compensating drip emitters” (I love the Netafim brand) that release around 0.5 to 1 gallon per hour. Without “drippers” the vines at the bottom of the hill will get lots of water, and the vines at the top will get none due to increased gravity and pressure at the bottom of the system. Go check out some vineyards in your area, take notes on the measurements of the irrigation system (both in the ground, out of the ground and the trellising), and ask who installed it and how it was installed.

Three: Consider Your Trellising and Vine Spacing

Choosing trellising is a complicated process, and one that cannot be explained in a few short paragraphs. If I learned anything at U.C. Davis, it’s that viticulture is site-specific in the extreme. What works here in Lompoc, California will not be an efficient trellising system in Virginia. First we need to understand how to decide on row and vine spacing, then we can discuss trellising options a bit.

Vineyard spacing is a hot topic in wine-farming circles. The debate — deciding how much distance to put between individual vines and between vineyard rows — has become a high-interest issue with home viticulturists across the country. There was a time when anything tighter than twelve feet (four meters) between rows and six feet (two meters) between plants was considered a “high density” planting. Indeed, many of the greatest vineyards in Napa Valley are still planted on this kind of “wide” spacing. But in the last five to ten years, high-density plantings (spacing as close as 1 meter by 1 meter) have become widespread, extreme examples of land-use efficiency. Even though squeezing thousands of vines into a one-acre planting seems a perfect strategy for a backyard vineyardist, there is plenty of evidence that high-density vineyards can be problematic on most soil types.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know about vine spacing. Viticulturists often express vine spacing with two measurements, such as “twelve-by-six,” “eight-by-four” or “three-by-three.” The first number represents the space between rows. This means that there might be twelve feet in between the end-posts. This first measurement dictates what kind of equipment is appropriate for the vineyard. Twelve-foot row spacing will allow almost any kind of tractor or full-sized pickup truck to traverse the rows. Six- to eight-foot row spacing is generally the tightest that allows narrow tractors to work in the vineyard. One might be able to squeeze an ATV down four-foot rows, but take the rows to three feet (one meter) and get prepared to do all cultural practices (weed control, spraying, fertilization, compost application, leaf removal, shoot positioning and harvest) by hand or with prohibitively expensive “over the row” French tractors that can actually straddle tight rows, with the operator riding in a compartment above the vines. The second number expressed (for example, eight by four) represents the distance between vine trunks. This number (along with row spacing) will dictate vine density per acre, will impact both yield per plant and yield per acre, and will also impact how the vines compete with each other for available water and nutrients.

Now that you know how to express vine row spacing, the obvious question remains: how does an amateur viticulturist best match a potential home-vineyard site to a specific spacing arrangement? The answer is not necessarily complicated, but does require thought, practice and planning. First let’s look at how vine spacing affects vineyard issues and wine quality, and then we’ll answer some questions to help you decide what spacing would be well-suited to your backyard or small vineyard planting.

If you remember anything from this article, remember this: Vineyards should be efficient to farm, and vine spacing should be based on the anticipated vigor of the vineyard. What does this mean to you? The amount of work you will have to put into your vineyard is dictated by how well you match vine vigor (as expressed by soil fertility and climate) to a trellising and spacing arrangement that harnesses that vigor into an appropriate “system.” Let me give you an example. I have a professional acquaintance that asked me to consult on a vineyard project gone wrong. This was the worst kind of consulting job — one where the decisions had all been made and implemented — in a completely incorrect fashion. The vineyard owner had gone to Burgundy, France and saw beautiful, stunted little Pinot Noir vines all arranged in meter-by-meter fashion and decided that he wanted the same type of vineyard on a small one-acre slope in his home in the Santa Ynez Valley. Mistake number one: Don’t let aesthetics drive a plant-ing project, and never base your vineyard design on the vigor and climate of a site 6,000 miles away.

The soil of the Santa Ynez site was highly vigorous, nutrient rich and deep. The vines sprawled out with canes eight feet and longer, and the more the owner tried to hedge the vines, the more lateral shoots appeared and clogged up the fruiting zone. Those beautiful three-foot rows became an impenetrable jungle of shoots and foliage — you couldn’t work the vines without a machete, and you might imagine how difficult it was to get sun exposure on the fruit, let alone find the clusters when harvest time arrived. This vineyardist assumed that high-density planting reduces vigor significantly. Competition does exist between vines, but not at a rate that will turn a high-vigor site into an appropriate location for a meter-by-meter system. Bottom line — high-density planting is only appropriate on low to medium-low vigor sites where shoots rarely grow more than four to six feet per season. Sites that are appropriate for low-vigor trellising, such as a system that uses vertical shoot positioning wires to direct all growth up and out of the way of the fruiting zone, is usually appropriate for high-density planting. Medium- to high-vigor vineyard sites are much more efficient to farm with at least eight feet between rows (to allow a few feet for shoots sprawling and draping), and six feet between plants, to give each vine ample space to spread it’s foliage and ripen a crop.

So what are the specific considerations for determining an appropriate vine-row spacing arrangement for a small vineyard?

1. Cultivar: Some grape varieties are more vigorous than others. Pinot Noir is generally less vigorous than Syrah or Grenache, so Pinot Noir is generally a better candidate for high density planting, and Rhone varietals are better suited on a wide-spacing arrangement, unless the site is extremely low vigor. Nine out of ten successful high-density plantings I’ve visited have been Pinot Noir.

2. Rootstock: Check with your grapevine nursery to see if they have rootstocks that can moderate (or increase) vigor to a level that will allow you to “tweak” your vine spacing to a specification that pleases you. Don’t expect miracles with rootstock, either. They won’t guarantee low vigor, though they do have a small but measurable effect on vine growth. There are high, medium and low vigor rootstocks, and choosing the right combination can save you lots of hedging (for overly vigorous vines) or fertilizing (low vigor) later on. Careful research and pestering vine-growing neighbors about their spacing and rootstock combinations will likely steer you in the right direction. Rootstock will also help protect your vines against soil-borne pests such as phylloxera and nematodes — so knowing if you have these pests will certainly influence your decision on which rootstock to choose, or whether you can plant own-rooted grapevines.

3. Training-trellising system: Low-vigor sites that are appropriate for vertical shoot positioning systems (which are basically a series of horizontal wires in which the growing shoots are tucked into to direct all the growth up into a “curtain” of vertical foliage) are usually more adaptable for higher density grapevines plantings. Head-trained vines, which means the vines have only a stake at their base and no wires, require even spacing that allows them to spread their shoots and not be crowded by their vine neighbors.

Simple backyard trellising made of posts and wire should always allow as much space between the rows as the height measurement of an average vine in full growth. For example, if your vines grow up to eight feet high they should have at least eight feet between the rows to keep shading at a minimum. If you use fancy split-canopy trellising (vines that have two cordons, and thereby grow two fruiting areas on two separate wires, spread horizontally), the rows have to give the vines room to grow and spread shoots to either side of the canopy. The closer the in-row vine spacing becomes, the less “wood” or buds should be retained at pruning for producing a crop the following year. The main concern for any vineyard should be designing a system that keeps canopy density at an optimal balance so there’s ample sun exposure on the fruit and in the “renewal zone,” the area where buds determine the following year’s crop as a function of sun accumulation.

Why do we care that fruit is not shaded? Not only does shaded fruit have more problems with disease, mildew and rot, but also accumulates less sugar, has higher pH, higher malic acid, less color and phenolic compounds, and shows increased vegetal and herbaceous character. That’s a pretty good list of what we don’t want in our wine, so choosing an appropriate spacing can do wonders for potential fruit and wine quality. The main concern in developing vineyard spacing is to keep the fruit zone open to sun and air, thus eliminating cluster-shading leaves, lateral shoots and over-cropped clusters that are jumbled together. Smaller vines with increased sun exposure on clusters are often sought after by high-end winemakers, and the “mythology” of the high-density European vineyards make this scenario even more attractive. Many winemakers admit that smaller vines with a light crop, in balance, produce high quality wine, and high density vineyard design, if used correctly, can increase vine competition and keep vine vigor slightly in check.

I won’t get too technical here, but deep, fertile soils with high macronutrient levels — measured in terms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — will usually translate into high-vigor vines that will require wider spacing (8 by 6 feet at least).  Low nitrogen levels in soil or soils that are rocky, shallow, have clay restrictive layers or are hillside oriented may have less vigor and may be more appropriate for tighter spacing (between 8-by-4 feet and 3-by-3 feet). Remember that as planting density increases the competition between vines will result in some measurable reduction of vigor. In an extremely infertile site, high-density planting might not be appropriate either. You may want to give vines some “breathing room” so they can spread their root system without having to compete with neighbors (8 by 4 feet seems appropriate). Competition between close vines is mainly for water. Many viticulturists note that irrigation is often required in high-density vineyards, especially near the end of the season when the soil is drying and the vines are fighting for the tiny amount of water beneath the ground. Remember that you can “tweak” the vigor of your site by judicious nitrogen applications to increase vigor, or by applying less water in the early season to decrease vigor.

Four: Assess Equipment

This is simple stuff. If your tractor is six feet wide, your rows should be at least 8 to 10 feet wide. If you have an ATV with a little sprayer on the back, it should be able to fit comfortably down the row without running over errant shoots. If you have no equipment, your options are unlimited and you may want to pack in some extra vines to increase your land-use efficiency.

First determine your potential vigor by planting a few vines near your house, then determine your optimal spacing and take into consideration what type of equipment you have or wish to purchase. Will you need to mow between rows? Can you use an ATV or wheelbarrow? Can you use a neighbor’s tractor three times a year to till, spray or harvest? Will you have to spray fungicide by hand? Carefully working through these issues now will save you untold hours of toil trying to fix problems that should have been solved by vine row spacing design.

Here are a few practical questions to ask yourself before deciding on a vine-row spacing layout:

How vigorous are grapevines in your specific soil, climate and area? In a highly vigorous vineyard with more than 10-12 feet of shoot growth per year, vines should be spaced a minimum of 6-8 feet apart, and have rows as wide as the vines are tall (seven feet between the rows should usually suffice for a home vineyard, unless the vines grow really tall). Medium vigor, with 6-10 feet of shoot growth a year, should have 4-6 feet between plants, and again the rows should be spaced as wide apart as the vines’ height. Medium-low vigor sites, where vine shoots grow 4-6 feet per year, may be appropriate for high density planting. Spacing between plants can easily be reduced to 3-4 feet, and row spacing is more easily based on equipment needs and height of vines in the peak of the growing season. Remember: High density vineyards are generally trained lower — the vines are kept shorter — so they can still have a one-to-one ratio of vine height to row spacing for shading considerations.

How much time do you want to spend each week taking care of the vines? There is no doubt that high-density vineyards require more physical labor. At 12 by 8 foot spacing, you have 545 vines per acre to tend. At 4 by 4 that number jumps to 2,723 vines. You can compute vines per acre according to a simple formula:

43,560 (sq. ft. in an acre)
(feet between rows X feet between vines)

For example, for 3 by 3, take the product of those two numbers (9), and divide 43,560 by 9. I get 4,840 vines per acre, which will help you determine how many vines to order from the nursery. The more vines you have to prune, position, trellis, spray and tend, the more time-consuming your viticulture hobby will become. Carefully choose your vine-density to match vigor — but don’t lose sight of the responsibility that accompanies more vines per acre.

There is an interesting relationship between row and vine spacing. As row spacing decreases, so does yield per vine. As you might expect, smaller row spacing increases tons per acre, so even though each vine is producing slightly less due to competition, the yield is actually increased due to the fact that there’s more vines. In the 1980s and 1990s, this fact led many viticulturists around the world to rethink and reduce the amount of space each vine was afforded in a vineyard. In the correct climate and soil, high density planting can have a profoundly positive influence on vine balance, crop level and wine quality. Higher density can be viewed as one factor that has improved wine quality world-wide in the past twenty years. Home viticulturists should be warned, though. Trying to imitate high-density plantings in your backyard may lead to more problems and poor wine quality.

Choose a vine-spacing and trellising design that is perfectly suited for your own soil, vigor, varietal, rootstock, trellising and equipment and you will find that your careful planning will reduce future labor, provide higher quality fruit, and provide endless pleasure in the bottle and in the glass.

Five: Plant Your Vines!

After your trellising and irrigation are set up, tested and functioning perfectly, you should be ready to plant some grapevines. Planting usually occurs in late spring after the threat of frost has passed. I suggest using dormant grapevines and not “green-growing” vines. My rates of success with dormant vines have proven significantly higher than using green-growing vines. If you receive your dormant vines from refrigerated storage, let them acclimate outside in the shade for about a week. Keep the vines moist and in the material (usually moist wood chips) until the morning of planting. At that time fill a 5-gallon plastic bucket halfway with water, put the vines in root first, and carry the vines 20 to 40 at a time into the vineyard for planting.

Dig a hole eighteen to twenty inches deep in the soil. Do not compact the soil on the sides of the hole. I know of a few viticulturists that sprinkle broken shards of wine bottles in the hole before dropping the plant in, saying that the broken glass will keep gophers and burrowing pests from eating the roots (wear gloves and be careful). Some viticulturists also dip the roots in a solution of mycorrhizae fungus, which will increase the plant’s ability to uptake water and nutrients. Trim the root tips of the dormant vine and drop it in the hole, roots first. Make sure the graft union, which is the calloused bump where the rootstock meets the “scion” wood, is four to six inches above the final soil level. If you bury the graft union, the “scion” material will begin creating roots, and will take over the root system and make the rootstock useless. After the soil has been compacted and replaced, you need to dig up some extra, fluffy soil to mound over the exposed part of the vine. Pile the soft soil 1 to 2 inches over the part of the dormant vine sticking out of the ground. When you see substantial growth peeking out of the soil mound (some weeks later), gently remove the soil mound and allow the vine to grow as usual. Remove all the shoots but the strongest, and gently tie the growing shoot to the training stake with green vinyl “tie tape.” Go through the vineyard every week and add green vinyl ties every 4 inches of new growth.

Six: Enjoy Your Vineyard

If all went as planned, you should now have a thriving little vineyard in your back yard. The shoots are climbing a few inches a week, the green leaves are visible from your kitchen window, and in a few years, after you have produced vines with enough vigor to leave healthy, thick dormant wood on the trellis wires, you will start producing fruit.

The more you research each element I’ve outlined here, the more successful your vineyard will be. Every hour of planning and study that goes into vineyard establishment will save 100 hours of hard labor in future seasons. The culture of the vine has been practiced and venerated for thousands of years. Your efforts and study will help preserve the tradition of growing grapes and making fine wine. When you have learned what it takes to grow good fruit in your neighborhood, make sure to share your expertise with other aspiring viticulturists. Share your wine and share your enthusiasm.