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Sunbreak Cellars - Thinking Of The Fruit Of The Vine (2001)

What next? To summarize, over the previous eight years, we had reclaimed the yard from wilderness, expanded our patio and added a deck for entertaining, rebuilt stairs and trails so that we could safely scale the hill, enlarged the play space, and planted a small nursery worth of shrubs around most of the yard. As we considered our options for future improvements one evening while out on the deck sipping wine, I had a sudden thought.

What if, I asked myself, what if we built up the very small rock walls another couple of feet to make some small terraces on which we could plant some grapevines? Grapevines have been planted in terraced configurations through large parts of the world already. Why not in Seattle? That part of our yard could really use some plants that would spread really deep root systems that could stabilize the hill. Grapevines can have extensive root systems throughout the ground. Moreover, my wife and I enjoy drinking wine and what better way to appreciate the skill it takes to make drinkable wine than to attempt to make our own. Even if we only made wines that were worth pouring down the drain, it was the journey that made it interesting and the leaves on the vines themselves would add color to the hill. At least, so I reasoned.

I had found myself a project – a significant project that I had to research properly and implement reasonably well or else I would have to answer to my folly. At that time, it was the summer of 2001 and I figured that I wouldn’t be ready to plant vines until at least 2003. I had eighteen months to prepare the ground for planting. Those vines wouldn’t bear any fruit until 2006, realistically. I had four or five years to learn something about making wine. It was probably going to be barely enough time. I had a lot of questions:

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What kinds of grapes would grow well in the Seattle climate?

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What did I need to do to prepare our site?

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What kind of soil modifications or improvements did I need to make?

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Would I need special irrigation to make it through the dry Seattle summers?

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How many vines would I need to make 5-10 gallons per year?

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What materials would I need to actually make wine?

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Was our basement a good place to make wine?

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How bad could the wine actually be? Stated another way, how embarrassing could this project be?

It was time to start getting educated. I started by reading a book called From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine. This book was written to the home hobbyist grapegrower and winemaker. It provided a good overview of all of the basics including grape selection, planting, vine training and growing techniques, and basic wine-making techniques for both red and white wines.

Through the creation of our vineyard, we relied on three books: From Vines to Wines gave us the incentive and basic information; The Grape Grower is a great book on planting as well as pest management and fertilizers; and Oregon Viticulture offers the most in-depth knowledge of managing the vineyard.

Based on that one book, I knew that I had a site with at least a few positive things going for it. The particular spot that I was thinking of for the grapevines faced southeast. In the heart of the summer, based on experience, it would get sun from dawn until about 5:00pm. It was on a steep hill so, at the warmest part of the day, all of the vines would have direct exposure to the sun. Moreover, it was already partially terraced with basalt rock that could retain heat from the warmth of the day and help with the ripening of the grapes. There was no shade and wouldn’t be any until the katsura trees to the south, that our neighbors had just planted, grew really high.

However, this site was not without some potential problems. Because of the way that the hill sloped and given where our house was located, the vines would be in shade from about 5:00pm onwards. According to the experts, in the relatively cool Seattle climate, losing any sun during the summer would put ripening the grapes at risk. We also had a large holly tree that we still had to remove in order to remove the last bit of shade and give us the space for some of the fines.

There were also still some intangibles such as soil quality and selection of the specific grape varietals. However, I now knew that I had a fighting chance. I wasn’t done with books yet; I would read another ten to fifteen books before I was done. However, I needed to tap some local wisdom in order to answer the most important question of all: what grape varietal would we be most likely to have enough success with to make wine that just might be worth drinking? From Vines to Wines, I had already written off Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and most other traditional red varieties that needed a warmer climate to ripen properly.

It took me a few days of browsing through various sources and then I chanced up on a website that gave me some ideas. Unbeknownst to me, I was actually located in the middle of the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area or AVA. This was exciting because an AVA is generally defined as an area that shares a common climate, soil, and grape growing potential and, a Puget Sound AVA meant that this was a recognized area where grapes could be grown. Well-known AVAs include Napa Valley, Sonoma, Russian River, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla Valley, and so on. In the Puget Sound AVA at the time, there were probably 10-15 wineries that made wines from locally-grown grapes – the best known are Bainbridge Island Winery and Whidbey Island Winery. There are many other wineries located in Puget Sound that make wine from grapes shipped across the mountains from Eastern Washington but those cannot be included in the Puget Sound AVA.

Not only was there a Puget Sound AVA but there was also a Puget Sound Winegrower’s Association. This was a fairly small organization that had started as a way for the local wineries to share information on grape selection and vineyard management, winemaking techniques, climate issues, and so on. One topic that was, and continues to be, of interest to many of the wineries in the Puget Sound AVA was to add to the understanding of which grape varieties were well-suited for the area.

Based on the previous five summers, it looked as though Sea-Tac airport measured roughly an average of just under 1900 growing degree days per year. Pinot Noir was said to require roughly 1,950 growing degree days. However, being located in the city of Seattle would actually be a little warmer than at the airport simply because we're another two miles away from Puget Sound. Plus, the city gets a bit warmer than surrounding areas -- all in all, I figured that I'd get an extra 100 growing degree days/year which would translate into 2,000 growing degree days for my site.

Anyway, in September 2000, I asked my first question to the moderators of the list:

I'm completely new to this although I am dangerously armed with a few books. Nonetheless, I have a 'growing' interest in seeing what I can do. My wife and I are definitely more into red wine. With the removal of a holly tree, I figure I can fit in between 15-25 vines -- 5-8 on the top terrace, 10-13 on the second, and maybe 5-6 more vines if I can add one more terrace. Some site particulars:

  1. The particular site wraps around a hill and our patio and generally faces to the southeast.
  2. This site is just under the top of the hill so we have pretty good sun from about dawn. It will get at least some sun until close to 5pm when our house will provide pretty much solid shade.
  3. The soil is fairly sandy, I think. Today, it grows wild grass quite effectively. We have had success with some small shrubs as long as they are watered for the first year or so and once or twice during the really, really hot weeks.

I fully realize that this is not a short-term project so I don't expect any near-term results. I don't think we'd even be in position to plant until a year from now given some other work that we have to do that would impact this site. Given 2-3 years for the vines to grow enough to actually deliver some fruit and I'll have at least that long to practice to see if I can buy grapes and turn out anything worthwhile. Moreover, if I didn't get good fruit every year, it wouldn't break my heart. Two out of three years would probably suffice as long as I can always buy grapes other years. If nothing else, we will have something interesting to talk about, some root systems to stabilize the soil in our hill, the foliage will be nice to look at, and the birds will be well-fed!!!

After a few days with a bit of back and forth and a few additional explanation of some of the particulars of our site, I received the following email response:

Not to try to talk you out of it, but if there's any shade at all, you may have trouble ripening wine grapes. The reason they do well here in the Pacific Northwest is the long hours of sunlight -- until 8 or 9pm in the summer. Your house blocking sunlight from 5:00pm may be reducing your growing hours by as much as 25%.. No need to even consider reds. I'd bet Siegerebbe is the only chance you'd have of getting sufficient sugar to make wine. (Go for it, I love this wine -- try Whidbey Island Winery or Bainbridge Island Winery if you haven't tasted it before.)

Needless to say, this was a bit discouraging. Fortunately, the second response from someone else on the list was much more encouraging:

That's more than adequate sun for Pinot Noir to ripen. I get much less in my backyard and it's doing fine. Not much color, but it ripens. Get Jancis Robinson's Guide to Winegrapes. It has hundreds of varieties listed. Here is an expanded list of grape possibilities (all vinifera) in our climate.

White Grapes

bullet Madeleine Sylvaner - earliest vinifera white to ripen. Neutral flavor.
bulletSieggerebe - a Gewurztraminer cousin. Similar flavor to Gewurz, ripens mid-September. Can make a powerful dessert wine if left on the vine until mid-October.
bulletMadeleine Angevine - A Sauvignon Blanc type grape. Crisp, refreshing. Heavy cropper. Ripens mid-late September.
bulletMuller Thurgau - A Riesling Cousin. Ripens 1st week in Oct. Neutral Flavor. Heavy crops.
bulletChardonnay - In our climate will make a Chablis style wine if proper clone and rootstock are selected. We are just starting to experiment with these here. The newer Dijon clones (76, 95, 96) are the ones we want.
bulletPinot Gris - Related to Pinot Noir. Called Rulander in Germany. Ripens mid-October if the rains don't get it.

Red Grapes

bulletPinot Noir - Right now this is the only vinifera red that we have good data on. Gerard at Bainbridge has gotten a crop from his for 20 straight years, but his site is really good for this area. He has not planted on rootstock and he is using the Pommard clone. In my research, both using a good rootstock (101-14 and 3309 are best for here) and some of the new Dijon clones (113, 115, 667) we can advance ripen by almost 2 weeks, thereby beating the October rains.
bulletZweigelt - A red grape from Austria. Can make darker, denser wines than Pinot Noir. Purported to ripen a week before Pinot Noir. Commercial examples that we've had have been excellent.
bulletPinot Meunier - Similar to Pinot Noir. Ripens a good week before it. Principal grape of Champagne. It can make a really good red still wine. (Willakenzie in Oregon does this) Looks like a good option for our climate. We have it growing at our vineyard, but one more year until 1st harvest.
bulletGamay Noir a jus Blanc - Is supposed to ripen with Pinot Noir. We have a short row of this at our vineyard. Next year is first crop.
bulletPinot St. Laurent - Another Austrian grape that is supposed to be very similar to Pinot Noir and it ripens 1+ weeks earlier. It has thicker skins to ward off rot. Commercial examples have been very good.
bulletRegent - A new variety from Germany. Is supposed to ripen two weeks earlier than Pinot Noir and have a similar flavor.
bulletAgria - An old variety from Hungary that is supposed to ripen 1+ weeks earlier than Pinot Noir. It makes a dense, dark, oak worthy wine. If they can ripen it, we can. Gerard at Bainbridge has a few vines and says it's ripe now. He is fairly excited about it. We also have this, but next year is first crop.

And this probably just scratches the surface of what we can grow here. Apparently, there is a lot of stuff coming out of Russia right now that looks promising for our climate. I am starting the process of writing a Puget Sound winegrowers handbook for the pswg.org website in my (little) spare time...

This was contradictory but I liked the second answer. I decided to try a commercial nursery, Sonoma Grapevines, to see if they had any practical experience.

Pinot Noir seems to be the number one choice of vinifera grapes in many parts in Washington. The main reason is that this variety will mature in the colder climates better than other varieties. Limberger seems to do fine, also You may want to consider Merlot, although this variety will mature about 2-3 weeks later than Pinot Noir. Washington State University has been doing extensive research as to what is the best varieties and clones for your area. You may want to check with them.

Whew!!! Pinot Noir and maybe some of the other varieties looked possible. Now, it was time for a different kind of research – specifically, which of these wines did we actually like? As we had noted in our initial request, we were more interested in the red varietals and chose to focus our research in that direction. We naturally tilted to Pinot Noir but it was worth doing a taste-test. Two clicks of the mouse and we were off to one of our favorite virtual wine shop to find and taste some typical samples to determine what we liked. Here’s what we tried:

bulletPinot Noir: We knew that Pinot Noir was very successful in Oregon. We’re two hundred miles further north and wanted to check some local samples. The wines that we tasted from Puget Sound and Canadian wineries were a bit lighter in style than most of those from Oregon, California, and Burgundy. These probably weren’t going to be great age-worthy wines but would be nice for summer evenings.
bulletSt. Laurent: This was one of the varietals that several people believe could be successful in the Puget Sound area. The only commercial wineries today that make this in North America are in eastern Canada. So, we tried several varieties from Austria. The wines from Austria were bigger and more intense. Probably a good choice for us.
bulletZweigelt: I’m not sure this is grown anywhere in North America. Again, we found several wines from Austria. We generally liked this wine.
bulletLemberger/Blaufrankisch: We tried one from eastern Washington but we felt it was fruitier and, somehow, simpler than we liked..
bulletMarechal Foch: We took a weekend trip to the Okonagan Valley in BC and found several French-American hybrid red wines. These were generally simpler wines than the others.

So, we ended up with three real choices: Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt. Although St. Laurent and Zweigelt were possible, there were virtually no sources for locally-grown vines. This is necessary in order to avoid agricultural quarantine from Washington State. Moreover, even though the local vineyardists felt that there was potential, there wasn’t much practical experience in the local community. Maybe in 5-10 years, they would be good choices.

We decided to go with the Pinot Noir. There were several local sources for the vines and there was practical experience with several Pinot Noir clones. Plus, there was a certain cachet that goes along with the noble red grape of Burgundy. Now, we had to find a way to live up to expectations and get our site ready.

 

Read about the rest of the background behind our vineyard. This description will be updated as we achieve each next level. (The current chapter is listed in red.)

bulletIntroduction - The Vineyard Next Door. Our goals and objectives for our backyard vineyard.
bulletLe Goűt du Terroir. Our terroir -- the available land we plan to use.
bulletShifting The Landscape. Six years before we even thought about a vineyard, our backyard started to evolve.
bullet Thinking of the Fruit of the Vine. From the germ of idea to our first research into our options, here's what we learned about possibilities for a home vineyard in Seattle.
bulletPlanning, Planning, Not Yet Planting. As we continued our planning, we sunk much deeper into the details of planning.
bulletTime For Planting. We got the vines! Read about our planting and first year of growing. We are currently still in the middle of this year and will be updating this section periodically.
bulletThe First Year. After planting, things got a bit hectic as we (and our neighbors) all watched the vines grow, struggle, and grow yet again.
bulletThe Second Year. The vines made it through the first summer and winter. This year, we're watching for solid growth as the vines continue to establish their roots.
bulletReferences. Here are the resources that we relied on for research.

 

 

 

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