Ten Signs of a Healthy Vineyard

A healthy backyard vineyard is a treasure. It can produce delicious wine, serve as a wonderful setting from which to appreciate the miracles of nature and offer a leafy refuge from the pressures and stresses of modern life. Whether it’s a dozen vines up against a fence in Los Angeles or two acres on a small hillside in Virginia, vineyards remind us that while nature is always firmly in charge we can guide her hand through the seasons like a helmsman in a squall — and at the end of the storm we have something nice to drink.

With the Golden Age of wine upon us, it’s amazingly simple to travel the world in a glass for less money than ever before. Argentina, Australia, Austria and Alsace can all be tasted for less than a $20 bill — and that’s just the A’s! So with all that wine available out there, why do we go through the labor, worry and cost of growing our own vineyards?

To me it comes down to that old anonymous Latin adage: In Vino Veritas. Literally translated, that phrase means “in wine there is truth,” and my definition would be closer to “the more wine we drink, the more we understand what is truly important.” In the beginning of an agricultural renaissance that began tens of thousands of years ago between the Caspian and Black Seas (modern day Azerbaijan), grapevines were brought to the villages from the forests where they parasitized trees. Before the first bronze-age vineyards were established, wine was made by collecting less-than-ripe fruit from the boughs of trees and large bushes. It was a race to get the berries before the critters — so nothing much has changed for some of us. The wine was likely low in alcohol and high in acid, and may well have been mixed with water when drunk. Bringing the production out of the trees and into the village (trellising with crude tee-pee shaped structures much like tomato cages, but a lot taller) the villagers found keeping the vines in the sun increased sugar and made better wine. The result was the first viticultural revolution — western culture would never be the same after wine became commonplace in Europe. And where Europeans went, wine followed. Now we have entered the 21st Century and we have been blessed to live at a time when more advances in winegrape growing have emerged than in any other period of history.

So how does this impact my home vineyard? I mention the history because home winegrowers remind me of these first intrepid bronze-age vineyardists. We take vines out of the commercial vineyards to see what we can do with them. Fortunately the same resources and research are available to home growers as the pros, so let’s celebrate the tenth anniversary of WineMaker with my top ten signs of a healthy backyard vineyard!

The list has been ordered by my own view of importance. I started with twenty five aspects of vineyard management, whittled the list down to ten, and then ranked them personally: #1 being most important.

10. Organized vineyard floor

A well manicured vineyard starts from the ground up. The quickest way to let your vineyard go rank is to allow the vineyard floor to become unkempt. If your vineyard is in a frost-prone area take it down to bare soil. Frost moves like water down hills, and you want nothing to get in its way. A clean vineyard floor will protect your vines from cold air accumulating and reaching your young shoots. You should also keep the vine row absolutely clean in young vineyards, say 1–3 years old. At this age the weeds and grasses will compete for nutrients with the young vine. This becomes less of a problem when the vineyard is mature and has deeper roots.

In mature vineyards you have more choices. A little weed growth in the vine row doesn’t bother me at all in a producing vineyard at least 3–5 years old. The top few feet of soil mean little to the vines, and as long as no weeds are intruding into the growing parts of the vine, you should be OK.

If weeds touch your growing shoots or get into the fruiting zone, you can see problems develop quickly. Not only will frost accumulate faster, but so will mildew and rot that jump back and forth. Weeds of this size will restrict air flow which is vital to keeping your fruit clean. Keeping weeds a few feet lower than your fruiting wire is the key.

What about cover crop? If erosion and vigor are not a problem, there’s no reason to plant or drill a specific cover crop. Cover crops are seeded in areas that have erosion potential and in vineyards that need some more green manure to increase fertility. Annual grasses like rye, barley and brome are commonly used to stop erosion and legumes, vetches and clovers can add vital nutrients to the soil. But if the vineyard isn’t eroding and the vines are making good fruit without fertilizer, my suggestion is to allow the local ground cover to flourish and keep it mowed and tidy in between the rows.

9. Petiole angles and tendril position

Observation to a viticulturist is as vital —the trick is learning how to evaluate a vine’s status with just a glance. Leaf coloration, shoot length and cluster shape are a few instant tools available to the venerable vineyardist. There are also two instant methods of determining vine water status.

A petiole is a leaf stem on a grapevine — what attaches the leaf blade to the shoot. Vines that have plenty of water available to them generally have a nearly 90 degree angle because the pressure of the fluids within the petiole creates firmness or turgidity. When water status starts to become deficient (the vine is drying out), turgidity is lost, the leaf blade begins to droop and the angle shrinks.

If the petiole method leaves you a bit confused you can check the relationship between the vines growing tip and the tendrils that emerge from the base of the growing tip. A vine that has plenty of water will stretch its tendrils out to grab on to trellis wires (in a vineyard) or higher branches (in nature) in preparation of a vegetative growth spurt. If the tendrils are out in front of the growing tip, that tells you two things: the vine has ample water to continue vegetative growth and the vine has not yet committed its full resources to ripen the fruit. The tendrils should pull back or wither around or shortly after veraison when veggie growth is finished and ripening starts in earnest. So if you see tendrils pulling even with the growing tip during the early growing season, you should probably give them a nice deep drink (see photos at left).

8. Diversity in the vineyard habitat

A vineyard is safest in a diverse habitat. If the only thing growing in your backyard is grapevines, what are the bugs and critters going to attack? The easiest way to explain vineyard diversity is this: if there are enough bugs and critters busy eating each other, they have no time to threaten your vines. To encourage diversity at Clos Pepe we build hawk/falcon perches, allow insect-eating swallows to take over our barn in spring (and collect hundreds of pounds of their droppings for our compost), use low-impact sprays that do not kill beneficial insect populations, forego herbicide to promote soil microbial health and drill lots of diverse seed into our cover crop to provide habitat for tons of different insects, etc. The birds eat the insects, the hawks eat the birds and the gophers, our retired greyhounds chase the bunnies and the squirrels and threaten the deer, pigs and coyotes. The vineyard is a healthy ecosystem of violent nature that keeps any single pest from living long enough to take over.

7. Leaf to cluster ratio

This goes along with #4: Balance. One way to measure balance in the vineyard is to go through each section of your home vineyard (either by varietal or by block) and count every leaf and every cluster on each vine. Make an average (we use 100 vines, but that may be overkill), and find your average ratio of leaves to clusters. Your target is 12–15 leaves for every cluster, and the closer each vine gets to the same ratio, the more uniform your ripening will be. The goal is to harvest every cluster in your vineyard within 0–2 degrees Brix of all the other clusters. What if it’s too many leaves? You can hedge the vines above the trellising to remove some leaf area. What if there are too few leaves? You may have to drop a few clusters on the ground at veraison to bring the ratio into balance. Always drop the clusters that are the last to color up and soften.

6. Informed pruning

A really wise (and really drunk) French viticulturist once told me that a year in the vineyard and winery is like a pyramid. The foundation of the vintage is the pruning. Most things can be fixed on the fly, but sound pruning is the exception. Pruning is not a skill you can master by reading about it. There’s really only one way to learn: volunteer for a day at a local vineyard and learn on their vines instead of your own (not my vines, though!). Choose a facility that produces your favorite local wines and has a crew chief that has expertise and speaks tolerable English. You can also bribe a vineyard manager over to your place with dinner and a few choice bottles and have him prune a few vines with you and give you the concepts. The big choices? Spur, cane or head pruned systems; how many buds to leave per plant; how to match pruning style to anticipated vigor and desired crop yield.

5. Efficient canopy management

With so many different trellising styles now being used in home vineyards, it’s difficult to give a definitive reckoning of how to manage your canopy. Let’s look at some basic concepts that will apply to all vineyards and most trellising styles.

10% sun flecking is the absolute minimum amount of sun your fruit needs. If your canopy is so dense that less than 10% of the sunlight hits the fruit, you can expect vegetative flavors in your wine (olive, bell pepper, asparagus, etc.). The general rule is to continue experimenting to see how much leaf plucking you can utilize without compromising the fruit.

Try removing a few more leaves on the morning side (east) and a few less on the afternoon (west) side. This will protect the fruit from hot, summer afternoon sun.

Having the ability to direct growing shoots up (vertically, as in a vertical shoot positioned trellis system) keeps the shoots and canes from sprawling back down and shading your fruit. Quadrilateral trellis systems encourage sun exposure through the middle of the two curtains of growth while increasing yield.

A canopy that has been safely open to wind and sun will have less disease (rot, mildew) pressure, will have better coverage when you spray, and may be too exposed for birds or insects to nest and breed in the fruiting zone. Finding a bird’s next in your fruiting area is a good indication that it needs to be opened up a bit.

4. Balance

I struggled with the fact that I placed balance this high up in the list. Lots of viticulturists would tell you that balance is the single most important factor for vineyard health and productivity. Realize, then, how important the top three signs of a healthy backyard vineyard are! Balance relates to how the vineyard is reacting to the soil and environment it lives in and how your choice of cultural practices helps the vines grow uniformly and produce an ample crop. Here are a few key factors for determining whether your home vineyard is in balance:

12–15 leaves per cluster, (see #7).

Shoot tips are even with tendrils at or shortly before fruit softens and colors up.

Budbreak is even throughout the vineyard and uniform shoot growth are excellent indicators of a vineyard in balance.

Crop yields stay fairly even year to year.

Available nutrients, as measured at bloom from a petiole tissue analysis (www.fglinc.com) show ample nutrient status for winegrape production. Nutrient status is fairly level from vine to vine, block to block.

When viewed as a system there is consistent growth throughout the vineyard.

Diversity is encouraged by allowing the vineyard to serve as habitat for a wide variety of critters that are constantly eating one another.

When not to worry: You will always have a small area of a vineyard or a few vines that seem to always give you problems. Vines on the edges of your vineyard are often hit harder by insects, birds and disease. A part of our vineyard often gets a little mildew because it’s so close to a lawn we sprinkle-irrigate. A very wise (and sober) American viticulturist once told me, “Don’t freak out about the ten vines that won’t grow in a vineyard of 40,000 plants. That’s not a problem, that’s statistics.”

3. Correct match of varietal, rootstock and site

There is no other decision that will impact the final quality of your homegrown wine. Do as much research as humanly possible concerning what belongs in your backyard, not what you’d like to grow in your backyard. It’s a heck of a lot easier to buy and drink good wine than to grow it yourself. If you are going to take the time and effort to do it, you might as well do it right. This means tasting local wines, investigating soil types and rootstocks, talking to other home vineyardists and making the tough decisions: hybrids over vinifera, choosing varietals that may not be as familiar to you, tweaking your winemaking to best suit what belongs in your locale. Start with a vine variety that fits the bill. And if you just want landscaping, a vineyard is too much work. This file has some great info, including a chart of varietals by degree days on page 9: http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/eb2001/eb2001.pdf.
Info on cold hardiness is vital: http://winegrapes.wsu.edu/frigid.html

2. Grower in the field with a notebook

How can one man or woman in a vineyard be more important than balance and choosing a varietal? When ordering these signs of a healthy vineyard, I tried to imagine what I could see in a vineyard (driving by or visiting) that would lead me to believe the vineyard was healthy. Fighting for the #1 position was an owner in the field observing, walking, taking notes and laboring. Without someone to work it, a vineyard is just a chunk of dirt. Knowing what your vineyard needs and what it can produce is a function of experience and observation. There’s really no way to cheat. Get out there and let your vineyard teach you what it needs.

The most thorough home vineyardist I’ve met, Paul Hohe of Orcutt, California, is a great example of how observation can lead to fabulous wine. He took college classes at Alan Hancock, got to know his professors, hired my wife and I to come out and do a consultation, and keeps records, charts and notebooks concerning spray regimes, calendars, temperatures, winemaking, etc. so he can accurately correlate everything he did with his results in the cellar. He’s involved in home winemakers’ clubs and competitions and is a valuable asset to all home vintners on the Central Coast. His wines were even featured in the LA Times food section and he’s the guy to beat at the local shows.

1. Perfect fruit on harvest day

In the end, it’s all about the fruit. Planting, labor, testing and harvest all culminate with a container filled with fruit in your home winery. At this point everything else fades away and the vintage has been determined by the quality inherent in those clusters that are staring back at you. To get the most out of your harvest, here are a few suggestions for the big day:

Make sure you choose the best day for harvest by the flavor and chemistry of the fruit, not when Uncle Joe can make it out from Jersey City to help pick or when you can schedule a BBQ. You spent an entire year farming for that one day of harvest and crush, choose the best day for the wine, not for you.

Pick quick in the cool of morning. If you can’t pick it fast enough to keep it cool, rent some lights and pick it in the middle of the night. Bringing in cool fruit is key for making good wine and minimizing oxidation, volatile acidity production and eliminating spontaneous ferments.

Have your winery spotless, sanitized and ready to accept the fruit. You don’t want to spend all of your harvest day doing what should have done to prepare for crush. Fermenters should be sterile (you can shrink wrap the tops after this to keep them airtight and safe for weeks), crusher should be cleaned, gleaming and functioning. Press should be spotless and tested. Take at least a week of free time to organize and check that you have all the materials, yeast, chemicals, etc that you need. Crush is the wrong time to order yeast and SO2.

There is no substitute for hard work, study, observation and thoughtfulness throughout the growing season. Make a plan, follow through, and reap the perfect fruits of your harvest.

(A special note: Backyard Vines is now in its eighth vintage and I couldn’t have done it without the support of the editorial staff and the strong encouragement of the home winemakers I seem to meet wherever I go.)