Sunbreak Cellars - Planning, Planning But Not Yet Planting
In 2002, with one year to go before planting, our choice of the grape to plant was merely the first of several decisions. We still had plenty of time before we actually broke ground but we needed to get answers to a bunch of other questions in order to maximize our chances for success. Some of the more important questions that we needed to get answers for included:
By this time, I had joined the email distribution list for the Puget Sound Winegrower’s Association and was following along with efforts made by local wineries during the spring planting and growing season in 2002. It sounded as if they had started to develop some ‘best practices’ around some of the growing techniques and, in the interest of continuing to improve their yields and results, their experiments were ongoing. Still, I was looking for something that would help me catch up.
How many grapevines would we need?
The Oregon Winegrape Growers’ Guide (updated and republished as Oregon Viticulture edited by Edward W. Hellman) gave me a jumpstart. This book combines the expertise and experience of professional grape growers and winemakers with that of university researchers. This book was incredibly useful. Oregon is well known for pinot noir and that made many of the references more relevant to our choice. Moreover, although Oregon has a somewhat warmer climate, it’s not so far away that they don’t have some of the same climactic conditions. This book emphasizes the importance of understanding the characteristics of a vineyard site, matching grape varieties to the site, and selecting the most appropriate management practices for each unique site. The structure and physiology of grapevines is concisely summarized, and viticulture principles are introduced throughout the book.
In order to answer the questions we had on making some of these initial planting decisions, we had to unravel a puzzle with several variables. One of the first questions that I thought we could answer was how many grapevines we needed. According to some of the guidelines that I could interpolate, a single pinot noir grapevine can yield up to somewhere between 2-3 pounds if not over-cropped.
The Oregon Winegrape Growers Guide recommends that typical commercial vineyards are planted with a 3-4 foot spacing between vines and 8 foot spacing between rows. That translates into roughly 1,500 vines per acre. Once in full production, a vineyard could expect to grow approximately 3-4 tons of grapes per acre which translates to 2-3 pounds of grapes per vine. A gallon of wine weighs about eight pounds so production of 5-10 gallons means that we need somewhere between 40-80 pounds. If we assume that about half the weight of a grape is lost during winemaking (due to evaporation or due to solids such as skins, stems, and seeds), then we need between 80-160 pounds. Splitting the difference to 120 pounds of grapes and dividing 2-3 pounds per vine, translates to 40-60 grapevines.
How should we lay out the rows, vines and trellis structures?
I paced off the paths where we could plant vines and I came up with about eighty feet where we could plant; at three feet between vines, this meant that we could only plant just under thirty vines at most. Moreover, the hill is very steep; not only would it be hard to walk around, but it would be difficult to water without encouraging erosion – which was part of the reason we were planting vines. We puzzled over our dilemma and realized that we needed one more round of landscaping in order to increase the size of our planting area.
Specifically, we were going to Italy in the fall and noticed that some of the locations that we were planning to visit had terraced their hillsides. Our planting area had some short stone walls about two feet high that helped outline the paths that led along the face of the hill. Terracing would decrease the slope along the planting areas and help retain water. Plus, we could add one or two additional terraces that would give us an additional forty linear feet and increase our planting area to 120 linear feet or the equivalent of about forty vines. Our vineyard, while still completely conceptual, was starting to take shape!
Where do we get the grapevines?
It’s fairly common for the vineyardists in the Puget Sound area to swap grapevine cuttings – cuttings are small sections of vines that were pruned in the winter and prepared for planting in the following spring. I had come to know a co-worker at Microsoft who was getting his hands dirty working at Maury Island Vineyards which is a small five acre vineyard in Puget Sound. I asked him for advice and he told me not to worry – that he’d make sure that I got some pinot noir cuttings from their vineyard come the spring of 2003.
This was really helpful but I still wanted to improve my odds for success. If we were going to attempt to grow pinot noir grapes, then we wanted to get a clone that would offer us some reasonable chance of getting ripe in the Seattle climate. I decided to get some input from one fairly outspoken person on the list who seemed to have a laser-like focus on improving his odds for successfully growing grapes in Puget Sound.
Separately, my friend at Microsoft said:
So, we seemed to have a general consensus on the clones that would work – now it was time to wait and see what became available. In early December, I got a note from Maury Island Vineyards saying that they were ready to start their winter pruning from which they would generate vine cuttings. They had estimated the cuttings that they would have available for each of the varietals and clones that they were growing.
This was it. Ideally, I would be able to get vines that were on rootstock rather than being self-rooted. In our climate, the right rootstock can help the grapes mature more quickly. It would also help against phyloxera which probably won't be a problem for us. Anyway, I ordered one dozen of the 115 clones, one dozen of the 667 clones, and two dozen of the Pommard clones. I asked for them to be calloused and I would pick them up the next spring when they were ready.
Do we need to make soil improvements?
This was all becoming real – we were going to plant in 2003. This meant that we needed to start moving forward on the ground preparation and the actual terracing. One of the big questions I had was whether we needed to do anything to improve the soil. Again, it was time to ping some of the people in the Puget Sound Winegrowers group to see if they had any ideas. The response that made the most sense was:
This sounded very similar to our project and was generally parallel to some of the thinking that I had been working on – a reassuring point. We were ready to prepare the ground. In February of 2003, we called in the landscapers and they terraced the rock walls to just about four feet tall – about double the original size. We asked to use a dark basalt rock as we had read on the newsgroup that retaining heat in the vineyard would help the grapes get a little bit of extra help and we figured that darker rocks might help soak up a little bit of extra heat in the spring and summer. They carried in about ten tons of rocks to rebuild the walls.
If we were a commercial winery, we would have taken soil samples and tested for a number of attributes. Behind the rock walls, we added ‘winter soil’ – a fairly sandy topsoil mix – and; when possible, we tried to mix up the top foot of our sandy soil with the new topsoil so that there wouldn’t be too sharp a divergence in the quality of the soil. In any case, we reasoned that the nutrients from the good topsoil that we added to the top would gradually filter their way to the sandy, natural soil on the hill and that it would help the grape vines a bit. We also asked the landscapers to sink the poles for the trellis – we used eight-foot poles and sunk them three feet deep into the ground in order to minimize any shifting.
In April, I made a business trip to Portland. Coincidentally, I had an extra couple of hours and found myself in McMinnville at Oregon Vineyard Supply. After a short while, I had: 500+ feet of 12 gauge wire; a small assortment of hardware that I would use to build the trellis; and thirty minutes of practical advice on how to initially set up the trellis, how high to set the first wire, and other thoughts to consider.
Coincidentally, we asked the landscapers for a “while you’re here” favor. Along a rockery on the front of our house, we had an aging photinia hedge where some of the plants had died and it was starting to look ratty. We asked our landscapers to pull out the hedge and fill in the area with dirt. This would prove essential to our plans although we didn’t know it at the time.
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.)