Ask Wine Wizard

Vineyard Planning


Lars Tandrup — Santa Rosa, California asks,

I live in wine country and want to get started on a little 50-vine hobby vineyard. I Am currently reading Jeff Cox’s From Vines to Wines and the winemakermag.com articles on vineyard planning. Are there any other good resources that I should be looking at? Should I do soil testing, etc. this fall before we plan to plant in the early spring next year?


That is so great to hear that you’ll be planting a vineyard. Welcome to the great Sonoma County viticulture adventure! My company has vineyards in Sonoma too and I’ve been making wine from Alexander Valley and the Russian River, not to mention Carneros, AVAs for 15 years now. Hard to believe how time flies (and it will for you too on your viticultural journey).
Of course Winemakermag.com is a great resource and I’m especially a fan of the recurring “Backyard Vines” articles, authored by my friend Wes Hagen, who has done so many great viticulture articles over the years. There are some great books out there too, the one you chose, From Vines to Wines is considered a home growing-and-winemaking classic, and it’s now in its 5th updated edition.

Don’t neglect the homegrown resources in your own backyard. Because you live in one of the most famous and prestigious grape growing AVAs in the world, definitely look into the local education scene. Get to know your Sonoma County UC Cooperative Extension office and the seminars and resources they offer to the general public (http://cesonoma.ucanr.edu/). UC-Davis is close by as well (about an hour from where I live in Napa, just east of you), and they offer a rotating calendar of classes for folks just in your position (https://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/extension). Sonoma State has a burgeoning viticulture and enology program too. Here’s a link to a lot of grape growing, winemaking, and general agricultural resources they maintain — and you can check out books from the good, old-fashioned library as well. (https://library.sonoma.edu/research/guides/regional/agriculture). Now, because of COVID-19 there are no in-person classes being held right now, but be sure you check the schedule for Zoom, online, or recorded material you can take advantage of. Low-cost community colleges in the area, like Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) and Napa Valley College, sometimes offer viticulture classes as well. SRJC’s Shone Farm hosts hands-on classes like pruning (when there isn’t a pandemic going on). Sure, they are all online for now, but the resources are still awesome. And hopefully we’ll come out of this before too long.

Be sure to talk to your neighbors who have vineyards and see what they are successful with.

With regards to developing your vineyard, I would definitely do all of the legwork you can up front, so that you are armed with all of the information that you can. Learn, watch, listen, absorb . . . then you’ll be well poised to make the best decisions when it comes time to put in your own vineyard. As Wes Hagen would recommend, volunteer at a local winery for harvest to get an idea of what that may look like . . . and ask questions!

Vineyard spacing, row direction, irrigation set up, what you want to grow, and really, what you hope to achieve, are all important questions you have to ask. For your area you’re pretty flexible — if you were any farther north I’d so go with classic Bordeaux grapes, Cabernet/Merlot/Malbec, but you’re southerly enough you could probably even get away with some Burgundy varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, if you wanted. Zinfandel does best out west of town in the Dry Creek area where it gets enough heat. Be sure to talk to your neighbors who have vineyards and see what they are successful with.

Response by Alison Crowe.