Anatomy of a Micro Vineyard

Since childhood, I had always been under the impression that there is no such thing as a good bottle of homemade wine. This was mostly due to the fact that every time I tried a glass, it tasted like salad dressing.

I nurtured this opinion into adulthood. Then one day, my brother-in-law handed me a glass of red wine he had made from a kit. I had very low expectations, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. After helping him bottle his next batch, I became even more intrigued. The concept of fermenting my own grape must into bottles of good-tasting red wine evoked romantic images in my mind. Soon after that I bought my first wine kit.

I made the kit in a corner of my unfinished basement. A single carboy on a cold cement floor surrounded by ugly unfinished walls. Not quite the romantic winemaking atmosphere I had fantasized. And it occurred to me that if I wanted the romance of winemaking, I should do something about my environment.

Not knowing what a winery should look like, I began to browse books, hoping to get some kind of an idea. I found images of stately chateaux amidst the vineyards of Bordeaux, the Medoc, St. Emilion and Graves. Medieval villages. Old French peasants working between the rows. Dungeons of oak barrels. A cellar master with his wine thief, swirling a glass of Cabernet against the yellow light of a flickering candle. A thousand years of culture and ten generations of family life tied to the land.

And me and my tiny rented townhouse with one carboy of red wine, bubbling away in an ugly unfinished basement.

It became clear to me that making wine is an art. And that the actual making of wine is only 15 percent of the art. The other 85 percent of the art is in growing the grapes. In France, they don’t believe that anyone makes wine. You grow wine. And making wine from a kit — as pleasant as it can be — is not really wine growing. A wine grower has a relationship with the land. He speaks to it, and it speaks to him.

Alas. My single carboy of bubbling juice in the middle of my ugly basement would no longer do. I do not have generations of family life tied to the land (although my grandmother had some chickens). In fact, I don’t have land, period. And I don’t want to move to France. I just want to enjoy the art of making wine in its entirety, right here. And I want to do it without having to give up my day job.

I made my first wine kit just over three years ago. Since then I have planted a small vineyard in my patio. This is how I did it.

The Problem: I Have No Land

I live in a rented townhouse in Ottawa, Ontario. It’s a cute place, but it has no backyard. We have a small patio and a four-by-sixteen foot bed of questionable soil, made mostly of clay-ish backfill, designated as a garden. This is hardly a place for a vineyard. Grapevines enjoy greater root space.

At first glance, what I have is too small and too temporary. A chateau it ain’t. And as much as we like our rented house, it’s not permanent. A vineyard is not something most people pop into the U-Haul when they move. Add these details to the skepticism of friends, who insist that if vinifera grapes could be grown in such a small place then someone would have done it already.

Not satisfied with their well-meaning negativity, I began to do research to see if someone had. I thought, if I can’t increase the size of my land, I will decrease the size of my vineyard. I spent hours at the library and local bookstore searching for information on how to grow grapes in a small area.

After exhausting every resource, I finally ran across a book with images of a grapevine growing in a pot on a large dining-room table. Apparently, in the late 1800s in England, it was a status symbol of the wealthy to have their resident gardener plant a grapevine in a dining-room pot so that guests could pluck a bunch after dinner. I was elated. Not long after that, I discovered another photo of a fruit-bearing vinifera vine growing out of a half-barrel in a restaurant patio in Paris, circa 1998. So. . .containing a grape root system is not impossible at all. And that was all I needed to know. My obstacle of space had been solved. I could now begin planning my micro vineyard.

The Concept of Terroir, in Miniature

In researching how to grow grapes, I learned that all of the combined environmental elements that determine the success or failure of a grapevine can be summed up in one word: terroir.

Terroir is a French word. It describes the natural environment that influences the biological structure of the vine and its grapes. Terroir is a word that constitutes the climate, the soil and the landscape of the vineyard. There are hundreds of factors involved. Day and night temperatures, rainfall, hours of sunlight, soil drainage and more. Each of these elements responds with the others to become greater than the sum of its parts. Put them all together and the French call it terroir. There is no other word in any other language to describe this concept.

After reading a lot about terroir, I realized that there is much more to growing grapevines than just finding a place to shove them in the ground. Although I had solved the problem of space, I had to still consider a number of other factors.

Here is a description of some of the elements I had to consider for the terroir of my micro vineyard.

Picking the Right Grape

First I had to choose my vines. The easiest choice would have been Concord. They are the labrusca variety and grow easily around here. They make good table grapes. Excellent jam. But I wanted wine grapes. In the words of author Jancis Robinson, “Labrusca grapes tend to ooze the musky smell of a wet and rather cheap fur coat.” Enough said.

I researched the hybrids, and more hardy vinifera like Gewürztraminer, but I am partial to reds. So I considered the big reds. Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot, Pinot Noir and even Gamay. Eventually I chose Cabernet Franc, because of their tendency to be a bit more hardy than the other big reds. Its wine has a nice fruity character.

After a little more research, I found a nursery in Niagara-On-the-Lake, a gorgeous little town in the heart of one of Canada’s prime wine-growing regions. At the base of the Niagara escarpment and in close proximity to Lake Ontario, this region has a microclimate similar to that of the Bordeaux area of France. If you live in Canada and wish to avoid the customs complications of bringing vines across the border from the United States, this is a great place to buy vines. It’s a two-hour drive from Toronto and a seven-hour drive from Ottawa, but it’s well worth the trip.

There are several vine-supplying nurseries in this area, you can check WineMaker magazine’s Backyard Vineyard Directory for reputable suppliers. I used Mori Vine — they are the primary supplier of grape vines for this region. They cater to large vineyards, but will deal with little guys, like me. When I purchased my Cab Franc vines in 1997, they happened to have 14,000 in stock. Then sold them in bundles of 25 for about $125 Canadian ($75 U.S.). A note: Certain varietals are in demand, and you may need to order several months, or even a year, in advance. But if it’s available, they’ll find it.

And the Proper Number of Vines

I had no idea how many grapes I would need to produce a decent quantity of wine. The ideal would be to harvest enough grapes in one season to produce at least one five-gallon carboy of wine. How many grapes would I need for that?

Knowing nothing about viticulture, I picked up a few excellent books. From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox is my viticultural bible. I found that I would need no less than 64 pounds of grapes.

How much grapes can one vine yield? Depending on the variety, between eight and 12 pounds. Assuming that my vines will produce eight pounds in a normal environment, I would need at least eight vines to harvest 64 pounds. Considering that my root and vine size will be scrunched into a patio-sized area, I would assume a smaller yield. To be safe I decided to plant 14 vines. This was the most my garden space would allow.

Prepping and Sinking the Patio Pots

I bought fourteen 129-liter (34-gallon) plastic garbage cans. Each can has 25 one-quarter-inch holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. I dug fourteen holes in the four-by-sixteen-foot garden space and sunk each pot right into the ground, flush with the top of the earth (if you decide to try this close to your house, be sure and locate buried utility lines before digging — I’m glad I did). Knowing one day we may leave this house, I fitted a harness around each pot before sinking it, so that the entire potted vine can be lifted out of the ground with a block and tackle and reinserted into the ground somewhere else.

Mixing the Soil

I researched soil conditions of Bordeaux and Loire, where Cabernet Franc are grown, and tried to duplicate the soil as closely as possible. Because my soil is contained in pots, I found it easy to design my own soil. The advantage of potted grapes is that you can ignore the poor soil conditions of your land and control the soil in the pot. The potted soil I mixed is 60 percent sandy loam and 40 percent fossilized limestone gravel for drainage, and slightly alkaline. This is good grape soil. It required driving around in my VW Golf looking for deposits of limestone gravel.

I found limestone on the side of the local freeway. They had to blast through a layer of limestone to build the highway, leaving deposits of gravel on the side of the road. Several trips to the highway with a shovel and very large container solved the problem, and also tested the rear shocks on my car (it’s amazing what you find out about your car in situations like this).

Planting My Vines

In December 1997 I picked up 25 own-rooted, one-year-old Cabernet Franc vines from Niagara-On-The-Lake. Then I let them go dormant in the kitchen fridge.

I planted 14 of them on May 23, 1998. Just a bunch of sticks with some roots dangling from one end. Following the advice of From Vines to Wines (with the Cox book in one hand and pruning shears in the other), I soaked and trimmed the roots and my wife planted the stick. We are training the vines in the “mini J” system. The trunk curves up like a J to about a foot and a half, and is headed. Two lateral canes run from the head like the cross in a J.

Protecting the Vines from Canada’s Cold

Most grape vines in cool climates need to be protected from spring frosts. To protect the vines from frost, I designed and constructed a collapsible greenhouse (my budget doesn’t support the use of helicopters for moving huge volumes of air in large vineyards).  Several 10-foot lengths of flexible half-inch PVC piping provide the framework. Simple wood screws hold it together in the shape of a Quonset hut. The greenhouse frame remains erected all year. The cover is a large sheet of clear plastic fitted with 50 grommet holes around the edges. The plastic can be thrown over the frame and held down with the grommet holes at a moment’s notice. In spring and fall, 100-watt bulbs keep the interior above-freezing during the night.

A Patio Success Story

My vines are two seasons old and growing vigorously. My new trunks have lost their greenness and become woody. In autumn 2000, I will harvest my first crop of fruit and ferment it into wine.

In the meantime, I have learned that the art of wine-growing lies in training the vines. As my viticultural experience grows, I have become more aware of how much space grape canes can demand. Some of my canes grew ten feet this summer. I’ve had to overlap two and three canes on one trellis because of their unexpected vigor. Several space-saving alternatives come to mind, which I would like to explore, such as heading the trunk at six inches to train the canes in a vertical spiral. The possibilities for micro-trellising are endless.

In three years I have grown from a skeptic to a micro-vineyard owner, complete with web page. Now, I am the peasant who crouches between the rows, tying the vines.

Regardless how big my future backyard may be, my micro vineyard will come with me. I might even pass it on to my children. It’s something you can fit into a corner of your yard . . . and still have room for the dog.

Growing the Grape at Home

Experts may say that grapevines don’t grow well in pots, but it worked for author Jeff Chorniak!  If you want to experiment, you need to select a vine that grows well in your region, and then order it from a nearby nursery or other grapevine supplier.

A must-have resource for any home winemaker is From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox (Storey Books, 1999). In it, you’ll find valuable information on selecting the vine, growing the grape and making the wine. It also offers a handy list of selected mail-order suppliers across North America. Here are a few examples from the Cox book and our own research. Happy planting!