Grape growing is both simple and confounding. While it is simple to keep a vine alive (most climes in the US will keep a vine alive and sprawling with little effort), it is one of agriculture’s great feats to grow grapes of ample quality to produce a fine wine. Sure there are challenges in growing broccoli or tomatoes or artichokes — but it is a rare sight to see a tomato grower lifting a salted slice of beefsteak at midnight in a euphoric toast to life and joy. Winegrowers have a clear advantage — we grow perhaps the most celebrated crop in Western Civilization — one that can completely change our mood and elevate our consciousness from the mundane to the transcendent. Even though we are simple farmers and backyard vine warriors, the growers of the winegrape are heroes. We love how eyebrows raise when we tell strangers at a dinner party that we grow grapes for wine. For those that are uninitiated, it seems a miracle — a fascination that someone could turn the dirt in their backyard into a tasty barrel. With patience and hard work we can do the impossible: turn water into wine. So our work in the backyard vineyard comes down to this simple proposition: do we want to ‘just’ allow the vines to grow and hope the grapes are of ample quality to be worth making into wine, or do we want to read, study and strive to manicure the vineyard into a well-oiled machine that trumps weather challenges and produces a wine not only drinkable, but delicious. The purpose of this article is to steer you towards the latter method of growing grapes. Let’s take a look at some pro tricks of the winegrowing trade and see how they can translate into better wine in your backyard.
For each of the main concepts in this top 10 list, I have also included the “Big Pro Tip” to keep you thinking and moving towards a professional ethic for your own backyard vineyard.
10. Know the Cycle of Vine Growth
It’s hard to play music without knowing notes and scales. The structure of your viticultural plan is based on the “notes and scales” inherent in the cycle of vine growth. If you don’t know what to expect from the rhythm of the season, it’s impossible to accurately choose management strategies.
There’s really two ways of understanding the cycle. One is a study strategy — read textbooks and online guides concerning how grapes grow. The other is experience-based: working and observing a living vineyard system for many years and having an intuitive cognition of the rhythm of the entire system. When should you expect root growth? When should the vines flower? What months do the vines require moisture at root level? At what sugar level (measured in °Brix) is fruit immune to mildew? There’s a thousand questions to be answered, and the more you know the better chance you have of making a decision that maximizes your impact on the vineyard.
The main categories of vine growth are: bud burst, flowering, veraison, ripeness and leaf fall. Shoot growth is generally finished by veraison — a fact that you should consider if your shoots don’t stop growing after your fruit is softened. If you didn’t understand that shoots are supposed to harden and stop growing at veraison, you would not be able to determine a management strategy for stopping cane growth so the vine focuses more on ripening than vegetative growth.
It is also worth noting that active and vigorous root growth occurs between flowering and veraison, which means you want to have a watering and fertilization strategy that addresses the vines’ needs at this critical period. Knowing that the vines are generally working overtime between June and late July (growing shoots, producing flowering fruit and expanding their root system) lets you know when they are most in need of water and nutrients. That isn’t to say that we should dump unlimited water and fertilizer during these months — but we should be especially wary of any observations that hint that the vines are thirsty or need some added nutrient to achieve normal vigor.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, though. Without a good overall understanding of the entire cycle of vine growth, a viticulturist might address one issue while ignoring another. For instance, you may study the foliar symptoms of potassium deficiency (faded or curling leaves), and think your vines are potassium-starved early in the season. You should know, however, that false potassium deficiency (FPD) occurs commonly, especially if the soil is cold and reluctant to exchange potassium. FPD usually disappears by bloom without adding any potassium (the “K” in NPK) fertilizer.
The vineyard management strategy is a puzzle that requires a full and rounded knowledge of the entire growth cycle of the vine. When you pull one lever or push a button, add fertilizer or water, remove crop or manage the canopy, the entire system shifts. Seeing the whole picture is going to take a combination of study and experience.
The Big Pro Tip: Keep a diary of important dates from each vintage: Budbreak, 6 in. (15 cm) cane growth, first flowers, last flowers, bunch closure, first veraison, last veraison, 20 °Brix, harvest dates, etc. and after five or ten years of growing, make a chart that shows the average for each event so you know what to expect.
9. Study the Main Diseases , Pests and Weeds in Your Corner of the World
Here’s a good New Years’ resolution: Resolve to spend your down time this dormancy studying up on the local pests, weeds and diseases that affect grapevines in your locale. Being able to identify problems in the vineyard starts with being able to identify and distinguish between species, symptoms and signs of infection. Even though the publication is fairly California-centric, I do recommend that every winegrower should have a copy of “the Bible” handy: University of California’s Grape Pest Management. (It’s available at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/IPMPROJECT/ADS/manual_grapes.html.) It costs about $70, but has pictures of most grapevine diseases. Add to that a vigorous study of local issues — check your local University’s Web site for information. Try Googling “grapevine growing Kentucky” (or “weeds in southern Virginia”) if you are growing grapes in Kentucky (or weeding in Virginia), and you will get some very relevant results to consider in your home state. If your initial search fails to turn up local information, you may need to visit or call some local growers and see where they get their information on local pests, weeds and diseases.
Start by making a list of resources that you can use. Include local growers, nurseries, colleges and universities and local experts that don’t mind being contacted. Under each of these resources, note what can be learned from each. Work down the list carefully and methodically to gain a full understanding of your local winegrowing conditions and challenges.
There will be some universal concerns for grapevines: chilling requirement in winter, water and nutrient needs, heat summation for certain varieties to ripen, mildew and rot, bird predation, burrowing rodents, insects, etc. But even these concerns have local flavor. Are there just a few songbirds to worry about or can you expect a thousand starlings to attack your vineyard? Do local growers lose vines to hard winters? Are you too close to the ocean to get full dormancy? What are the weeds to worry about in the vineyard and when can they be removed before they go to seed? Are some of the plants you consider weeds actually beneficial to the vineyard? There are native plants that fix nutrients in the soil, reduce weed growth or attract beneficial insects. That’s a great question for a local nurseryman. These concerns should always be researched and understood before a vineyard is put into the ground. Once you have a good idea about the major concerns, the vineyard can be laid out, but I do really want to stress that the more homework you do preplant, the easier your farming will be, and wine quality will be enhanced.
The Big Pro Tip: If you have a workshop where you keep your vineyard equipment you may want to print out some ‘guides’ with pictures of local weeds, insects, disease symptoms, etc. Surround yourself with information, pictures and data and it will become a permanent part of your brain.
8. Poke Around in Local and Distant Vineyards and Wineries
When I do my initial consultation for a family or individual who wants to plant a vineyard, I always ask the same question, “Why do you want to plant a vineyard?” In my less-than-humble opinion, there is only one answer that justifies the time and effort it takes to plan, plant and keep a vineyard, “My love of wine has reached a level where I have tasted wines from every major global wine region, I have traveled the world of wine, visited vineyards in other countries, and now I have no other choice: I must plant a vineyard or I’m going to go crazy.” That’s the type of commitment it takes to do a vineyard site justice. If you wonder whether you should plant a vineyard, you shouldn’t. It’s like being insane. An insane person never questions their sanity, and a committed viticulturist never asks, “should I?”
So what does someone crazy enough to plant a vineyard do in their free time? The answer is simple: become a regular at all the local vineyards that are producing delicious wine. Vineyard managers love free labor — we can’t say no. Trade some hard work for some know how. First become a customer — a good customer, for a few vintages; go to wine events and the wine club parties and strike up a social relationship with the owner, the winemaker and the vineyard manager. If it’s a backyard vineyard, get to know the proprietor at a winegrower’s club meeting, or even call them, drop a few nice compliments and ask if you can pick his or her brain over a lunch on your dime. Bring some very nice wines to show them you’re serious about the juice. The more you have to offer their vineyard, the more often they will allow you to participate and glean their secrets. And once you have exhausted your local viticultural resources, plan a trip around visiting another region. Call in advance and make appointments, check internet bulletin boards for suggestions on personalities that are amenable to curious visitors. If you are still in the pre-planting stage you can even visit during harvest and volunteer for a day of picking and crushing.
The Big Pro Tip: When you contact the vineyards and wineries you like to visit, be friendly, firm but not insistent. Let them know you are a wine collector and an enthusiast. Those two words usually pique my interest, as they usually denote buyers who take home cases, not bottles. Buying a few hundred dollars worth of wine will be cheaper than hiring a consultant, and if the wine is good, the money will be doubly well spent.
7. Be a Voracious Reader, Browser and Attendee
Besides traveling to regions to glean the winegrowing secrets of the world, you can learn an amazing amount without ever leaving your house. This is the Age of the Internet, and there’s a wealth of knowledge out there for the taking. However, you need to be careful. The internet is fraught with misinformation, so my suggestion is that you stick to scholarly websites that are supported by a university or a college. A few of my favorites are the wineserver.ucdavis.edu site, cornell.edu is great for the Eastern US focus, asev.org has some great research papers online. If you are interested in learning the details of Integrated Pest Management, don’t miss out on http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/selectnewpest.grapes.html. Also make sure to check online to see if there’s listings for local hobbyist winegrowing or winemaking clubs in your area. Hanging out with other growers is a fantastic way to learn and improve your vines and wines.
Printed matter tends to be more accurate than the average website, so buying a few good books may give your vineyard a running start. A few that I like to have around are Richard Smart’s classic Sunlight Into Wine and David Jackson’s Production of Grapes and Wine in Cool Climates. (The UC Davis online bookstore has these books; check their prices versus other stores before you buy.) The more books you can read and digest on grape growing, the better equipped you will be to tackle the challenges of a backyard vineyard. Ask vineyard managers and winemakers for their suggestions on books, and keep a running list. And of course, WineMaker magazine is the only magazine dedicated to the hobbyist winemaker and grape grower. These magazines will also keep you alerted to conferences, competitions and seminars in your area of the world and in areas you may want to visit.
The Big Pro Tip: Some book stores and libraries allow you to read materials online, and if you are careful with the sites you visit, there is an unlimited wealth of information, guidance and data on the internet to make grape growing less challenging. It is highly recommended you find at least one trustworthy weather site that allows you to check weather as it applies to your exact location (detailed point forecast), one site that allows you to ask questions of other home vineyardists (boards at www.winepress.us are a good starting point), and perhaps a nearby university or college site that you can bookmark and visit for research.
6. Record Observations and Practices
This is so easy that you really have no excuse not to start this process right now. Somewhere in the house you have a blank legal pad, notebook or journal. Go get it. Right now. I’m not kidding, I’ll wait.
OK, on the cover write something clever, like Vineyard Notebook. One of my favorite winemakers in California taught me this valuable lesson without ever suggesting it. I worked in the same winery with him, and I noticed he would stay an additional 30 minutes at the winery after all of his work was finished making detailed notes of all he did, added, cleaned, etc. It was his dedication to precision that enticed me to start doing the same kind of note-taking in the vineyard and in the winery. A short journal-type entry is all you need to do — two or three minutes after your vineyard work. It can be as simple as “June 13, 2008: Removed 20–30% of all leaves from the east side of the fruiting zone. Left a maximum of one leaf layer. I plan to watch for any signs of sunburn this season, and if the fruit stays pristine maybe go to 30–40% next year.”
Besides your practices, observations are important to include in the journal. I have been known to tape a weird-looking leaf or a funky bug right into the journal so I can look it up later. Sure the journal may get a little lumpy and hard to file on a bookshelf, but it sure will be much more interesting to go through in years to come. As mentioned in tip number 10, record all the dates of important milestones in the vintage and date everything.
Recording your observations is very important for another reason: the process requires that you be in the vineyard as much as possible to work and observe. Being in the vineyard is vital, catching issues before they become problems is a great way to save time and unnecessary expense. If you are observant enough to see that a spray that is labeled for 7–10 day intervals gives your vineyard 14 days, you’ve just halved your fungicide bill. On the other hand you may find that mildew is appearing at a 7 day spray interval and you may have to go to 6 days, 5 days, or maybe just buy a better spray rig. Observation and recording is the way vineyard time becomes better wine.
The Big Pro Tip: Part of recording observations and practices demands pinpointing areas of the vineyard to watch for mildew, disease, insects, pests, etc. To be able to find areas in the vineyard quickly and easily, you need to mark your vineyard. Each endpost needs to be marked with a number, so if you write, “Gopher pressure high between rows 4–8,” you’ll know to dig some extra traps there next spring before budbreak. You can always describe long rows with further descriptors like, “east side of row 11,” or “half way down row 27.” Besides marking rows, I suggest buying some brightly colored marking flags (available from a Home Depot-type store), and use specific colors to denote specific problems. Bright green can be a gopher hole, pink can be a virused vine, orange may be a dead vine. If you attach them to the top of a vine stake they stick up out of the vineyard very visibly and are an excellent reminder to accomplish some task in the vineyard. When the issue in the marked area is resolved (dead vine replanted, gopher caught and tortured, etc.) remove the flag and save them for future marking.
5. Fine Tune your Canopy Management
One of the most glaring differences between a good vineyard and a vineyard that fails to live up to its potential is the detail work in canopy management. A regimented canopy management program is probably the single greatest parameter for quality winegrowing. If the site is suited for the varietal, the vineyard is well laid out, the water is clean and sprays are applied to keep mildew and rot away, the final piece of the puzzle is a perfectly managed canopy. When I drive by a vineyard, I assess the quality of vineyard management in an instant — an instant of looking at how the vines are manicured. In my part of the wine world, we like north-south oriented, vertically shoot positioned trellising with every shoot woven and tucked into sets of trellis wires, all making perfect vertical solar panels to catch morning sun on the east side and afternoon sun on the west. We pull about 60% of the leaves from the east side and leave most leaves on the west side to shelter the fruit from the heat of the afternoon. If there is more than one leaf in between the fruit and the sunlight on the west side we try to reduce that down to 1 leaf layer. The fruit is very obvious from the east side and there’s usually 15% canopy caps on the west side — that looks like solid canopy management in my head and in my notebook. This is not a template for other regions. The same leaf-pulling would cook fruit to useless raisins in a hot region. But on the sandy loam soils of a 30 million year old Miocene seabed in a coastal throat dominated by cool, windy, foggy weather, that’s the ticket for full flavor and ripeness.
These decisions have been honed by 13 seasons of managing Steve and Catherine Pepe’s 29-acre vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, California. We used to pull 100% of leaves — leaving the clusters totally exposed. We found that the wines were a bit too bold and extracted. We wanted a little more Pinot Noir varietal character that extreme leaf pulling was obscuring. We are the rare vineyard and winery who would rather have wines that perform deftly at table than impress a critic with overt concentration. So we began pulling back five or ten percent per side in each vintage, and after 10 years we’re very happy with the results of our current protocol. Use this equation in developing your own perfect canopy — observe, record, taste, adapt, rinse and repeat.
The Big Pro Tip: Use Dr. Richard Smart’s Canopy Management opus, Sunlight Into Wine to measure canopy gaps and leaf layer in your home vineyard. The book describes measurement techniques that can be used in any vineyard to precisely measure your canopy and the sun being allowed into the fruit zone. Once you have a precise measurement tool, data can be recorded and used to fine tune in subsequent vintages.
4. Use the Right Equipment
One reason commercial vineyards tend to get a better crop load of clean fruit at harvest is the fact that they use commercial grade equipment. You can’t expect a backpack sprayer and a push-mower to compete with a spray rig and a tractor. That’s not to say that every home vineyardist should have a big John Deere crammed in his garage. But there is a comfortable medium. If you’re farming an acre or more, you may be asking too much from your hand-powered equipment. My assessment from past articles still rings true — the most common problem I see in new home vineyards is improper fungicide application. The backpack or pump-up sprayers just don’t have the power or the coverage to keep the fruit clean. Many fungicides need to contact the fruit to be effective and hand sprayers generally don’t penetrate even a single leaf layer. Consider completing some cost and time analysis. If you have more money than time, a small ATV that can be attached to a tow-behind sprayer with an electric or gas-powered pump would be a great investment and time-saver.
On the other hand, if you have more time than funds to spend in the vineyard, you can increase the hand-labor and try to keep the equipment to a minimum. Removing all lateral shoots from the fruit zone and opening up the canopy with more hand labor can help a hand-sprayer do a more effective job for mildew and rot. A good rule of thumb is to use the most effective and commercial equipment you can afford, but make sure you know that the equipment you choose will be effective. Gas powered cultivators that may work well in a small garden are usually worthless for cultivating vine rows. I’ve never been impressed with disc cultivators that are pulled by an ATV. For anything $100 or more, you may ask the company for a demonstration or a reference to other home vineyards that are using their products.
In general, make sure you always have sturdy, sharp and rust free clippers, snips and trimmers. Bird netting will be useful if you have heavy pressure from starlings or other hungry birds. Equipment to keep the vine rows clear may be as simple as a mower and a hoe. What you want to avoid is cumbersome equipment that takes more time and money than it’s worth. There are a hundred companies that want your money and will try to convince you that your vineyard won’t function without their products. Be skeptical and, as always, communicate with your local home winegrowers to confirm what’s working for them before you buy.
The Big Pro Tip: For your home vineyard and home winemaking needs, you may be able to buy used commercial equipment that is listed for sale at www.winerysite.com (Wine Country Classifieds). You can sign up to have items for sale emailed directly to you when they become available, and you can choose the equipment and materials that you are interested in. This is a great way to find solid pro equipment, although most of the items for sale are on the West Coast, and you may have to be creative in the manner in which they are delivered to you. Visit the site weekly, or sign up for the email alerts, there are some deals available.
3. Hire a Consultant
From a hobbyist’s point of view, a viticultural consultant may seem expensive. They often charge between $50 to $100 an hour, and initial consultations may run upwards of $500. But if you are committed to improving the quality of your grapes and wine, having an expert give precise advice for your specific piece of vineyard property may be the best way to really understand what you are doing right and what can be significantly improved. I have a few suggestions on hiring a consultant.
Is it better to hire a young consultant, right out of school, or perhaps a grizzled veteran that charges a bit more? Both options have benefits: the young consultant will be up on modern research and new concepts in vineyards and will likely be a little more affordable. The veteran will likely charge a bit more but will be expert in the way he “sees” a vineyard. It’s difficult for someone new to the business to see the vineyard as a whole and come to a swift understanding of vine balance and what issues need to be addressed immediately. The key is to find a consultant that is passionate and knowledgeable — someone who has been responsible for producing grapes and wine that suit your own palate and growing philosophy. The key is to ask around at vineyards who is the local consultant that has made the biggest impact on their practices. The pro eye should be able to guide your practices towards a goal that your amateur eyes didn’t consider. Most consultations should include a vineyard walk-through and discussion, and then a write up with specific instructions for cultural practices, fertilization and watering.
The Big Pro Tip: It may be better to choose a local vineyard expert over a “flying vine consultant.” Vineyard consultants that travel the whole world are generally very expensive and lack the specific expertise to make suggestions for your exact location, climate and soil types. Some traveling consultants have an impressive ability to turn problem vineyards around, but to get the most bang for your buck, I’m suggesting looking for someone who makes their money and reputation locally. Not only will you be getting advice from someone whose reputation is based on what they’ve done in your region, but they will also be available (and responsible) to make a return visit easily to check up on how you’re following through on your homework.
It’s also a good idea to be very specific with the consultant concerning what you want out of the vineyard visit. Make them a checklist of problem areas and concerns. Do you want them to help with watering sets? Fungicide applications? Cover crop? Try to make a “cheat sheet” with a basic description of how you farm, water, fertilize, manage the canopy, etc. so the consultant can look at your information as they assess the vineyard. The less they have to coax information out of you, your billable hours will be reduced. Be specific in describing how you farm and what kind of advice you hope to receive.
2. Hire and Train Some Part Time Labor
Correctly managed, a vineyard is a heck of a lot of work. There’s suckers to be snapped off, weeds to remove, shoots to space and tuck into wires, lateral shoots to manage, leaves to pull, green crop to remove after veraison, nets to apply, irrigation to check, more weeds to remove, pests to observe and control and fruit to harvest — if we’re lucky.
There’s no rule that you have to do all the work yourself. There is also a tendency for life to throw challenges and extra stress at you at the exact moment your vineyard needs the most love and attention. If the vineyard is crying out for some work and you don’t have the time to attend to its needs, go ahead and look at these options to find some help.
If there is a local community college or University with a viticulture or horticulture program, contact the instructor and see if their students want to use your vineyard as a working lab. Make a weekly time that students can come and get some instruction on vineyard management, and then have each student responsible for a row of vines and check up on their work. You may even offer lemonade or a little vino if you’re feeling generous.
There are home vineyardists hungry for your experience and suggestions. Visit a home vineyard club meeting or start a home vineyard club. Rope in some newbies and let them know they can come and help out at your vineyard. You’ll provide some guidance and they can provide a little extra labor. There are also home vineyard clubs that pool their expertise and work. If your club has seven members, why not work as a team on Sundays to get the work done in each of the members’ vineyards in turn. A group of 6 workers can make quick work of a smaller vineyard. Don’t forget my favorite Chinese proverb, “Many hands make light work.”
If all else fails, put an ad or a flyer up looking for a mature high school or college kid who wants to make a few bucks working for you. If you can find a kid that has some interest in plants or wine that will go a long way. Young workers can be a bit inconsistent — they may quit after a few hours, or they may really take to the work, ask questions and do an excellent job.
The key to management is to be very involved in training and observation for the first hour or so of any operation. Make lots of suggestions and minute tweaks in their work until their labor goes on autopilot. There is usually a moment when the work “clicks” and becomes automatic to your desired outcome. Work with them, be communicative.
Equally important is to describe the viticultural concepts that are driving the practice you are working on. If you are pulling leaves, your workers should know why leaves are pulled and why you are pulling the amount of leaves you have decided upon. They should know sun exposure improves the quality of the wine and that grapes need at least 10% exposure of ambient sunlight to remove vegetal character from the future wine. They should know an open canopy increases the efficacy of the spray program and reduces mildew and rot pressure because of reduced humidity and an increase of wind flow.
A worker that understands the concepts behind the work will constantly rethink what they are doing and will find the work more educational and rewarding. If a worker seems, after a few hours, to fail in their attempts to understand the concepts or do the work to your specifications, don’t be afraid to send them home and look for someone else that “gets it.” It’s your money and wine, and you always want to be surrounded by people that measure their self-worth by the job they perform.
The Big Pro Tip: Make sure your workers are given proper safety equipment to protect them against common vineyard injuries. Long sleeves, cotton or leather gloves, sturdy shoes and eye protection are a must. If they are pounding stakes or using tools, they may want wear a simple hard hat. Make sure to comply with all pesticide labels — do not allow workers into the vineyard until the proper re-entry interval has been observed. Fresh, cool water must be available at all times, and make sure they are offered proper breaks that comply with local labor laws. A one page “Injury and Illness Prevention Program” sheet can be drawn up with a list of safety rules and a list of proper safety equipment. Have the worker initial and sign the sheet to show that they have been trained.
Farming can be a dangerous business — so protect yourself and those that are kind enough to help you out.
1. Double Your Pre-Plant Homework
It was not an accident that pre-plant homework was listed as my number one trick of the trade in this article. When a potential vineyardist hires me to consult for them, I go through the same speech each time, “Don’t plant a vineyard for landscaping or because you think it will be ‘fun,’ only plant a vineyard if you are passionate and committed to growing great wine that will show off your hard work and deep interest in wine and growing grapes.” If they are still listening and willing to engage, the next step is to drive home a very important message: “Every hour of homework you put into the pre-plant decision-making process will save ten to a hundred hours of work after the vineyard is planted.”
This is really the case. I know home vineyards where over half the labor every year is wasted on trying to fix mistakes that should have been addressed during the pre-plant planning period.
The Big Pro Tips: Here’s a list of a few issues that need to be completely researched and considered: Soil testing for winegrape production suitability. Extra time should be spent studying how your soil will influence vine vigor. Will the vineyard be low, medium or high vigor, and how will that level influence your choices for a trellis system?
Water testing. If you will need to apply supplemental irrigation, have your water tested. Is there chlorine in the water? What other potential issues appear with the water? Is the water “hard,” and will that clog emitters? How will the water be applied and measured? If the vineyard is on a hill, consider pressure-compensating emitters to keep water application standard from vine to vine.
Planning the best layout for capturing sun in your backyard. I usually prefer laying the vineyard out with rows running north to south. Make sure to leave at least 20 feet (6 m, or as much room as needed to turn equipment between rows) between your rows and obstructions such as your house, your fence, your garage, your neighbor’s lawn gnomes, etc. If the site is on a steep hill, will you have to have it terraced? Think about the safety of working and harvesting on hillsides and make sure the design provides proper sun exposure, wind to keep mildew pressure down, and a level of comfort when working in the vineyard.
Planting a test vine. I usually suggest that home vineyardists stick a single vine in the center of where they want to grow a vineyard a year before they plan to plant. You don’t even need to trellis it, just water it when it needs a drink and watch it grow. There’s no tests or books that can help you better understand how a vine will grow in a specific location. If the vine produces up to 3 feet (0.9 m) of cane the first year it’s a relatively low-vigor site, 3 to 6 feet (0.9–1.8 m) of cane is a medium vigor site, and more than 6 feet (1.8 m) you can expect a high level of vigor. These are approximations, but watching the vine grow for a year should give you an idea of its water needs and how you might want to trellis the future vineyard.
Monitor temperature. Along with a test vine, knock a stake in the ground and put in a temperature monitor or at least a high-low thermometer. You may think taking daily temperature records will be easy and cheaper than buying something fancy and electronic, but the few hundred dollars you spend for an automatic temperature monitoring station will free you up to do other things while the logger does all the work. Every few months you need to upload the data onto a laptop and change a battery, but at the end of a year you will have all the hard data needed to match your vineyard site to the correct variety of winegrape.
The Right Varietal. Choose the right grape to plant, not the variety you prefer. I can’t stress this enough. Wanting to grow Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon is not a reason to put it into the ground. Planting a grape that doesn’t belong in your county and state is the easiest way to waste your money on a vineyard that will produce mediocre wine at best. I would much rather grow a rich and delicious Norton than a thin, weedy Merlot. After gathering all of your data and determining your degree day accumulation between spring (budbreak), and late fall (harvest), you can check charts and consult local winemakers for an exact match of vine, rootstock and trellising for your location. That’s the way a pro would do it!