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Sunbreak Cellars - The Second Year

Last year, we planted forty-six grape vines in our backyard. It seems quite remarkable but, in all the hustle and bustle of getting everything going, forty-three vines survived the first year of growth. Although some were more vigorous than others, we were remarkably pleased with the progress of our vines. This means, of course, that we had to now figure out what to do in the second year in order to help them mature into what will ultimately become healthy grape growing machines.

From everything that I have ever heard, all indications are that the grapevines root systems and trunks still need to mature before we can expect to get a serious crop. Specifically, the roots need to continue to extend to pull more water from the soil and, at the same time, the trunks need to get thicker and start to build some woody layers. All of this will help the vines survive a lean year or a bitter winter. So, this means that I should not expect to get any grapes this year. Still, I have to start learning more about what to do with grapes so, assuming the vines flowered, I decided that I would allow just one cluster on only the strongest vines to run to maturity. That way, I wouldn't stress anything too much.

Pruning and Preparation

In late March, as the winter chill started to recede, I again started to work on the vineyard with some of the routine maintenance that needs to be done. I pruned our vines so that the new growth would help our vines mature -- we're using the cane-pruning approach which means that we will establish a T-branch at the top of the vine but no woody spurs. Just as in Burgundy and Oregon, this means that we will just take the two strongest canes each year and train them along the pruning wire -- which means bending them ever so gently (see the first picture) so that the canes don't break and then tying them to the wire so that they will have some support over the year.

For the few vines that had not show robust growth in 2003 and that had not at least reached the top wire of our trellis, I simply cut them back to just a pair of buds down at the ground and will let them re-establish the main trunks in a more healthy growth. Also, I replaced the three dead vines (well, two dead and one that was really sickly) of the 46 that I had planted a year ago. Surprisingly, the one that just hadn't shown growth above ground had actually established a really long, deep root and it probably would have done well this year. I also worked a bit of fish meal fertilizer into the ground for some incremental nutrients and checked the irrigation system even though we wouldn't need it until June. All was good to go.

Bud Break!

In a bit of surprise, about a week or two into April, we saw 'bud break' as the dormant vines started to push out their leaves. This is almost a month earlier than usual in Seattle according to some of the other local vineyardists and, if I had really expected to grow a lot of grapes this year, this would be a positive sign even though it's not clear whether the summer will be warmer than usual as well.

I decided that I had a couple of more spots around our house where grapes may also benefit. So, I added seven more at the south end of our house next to the house, eight more in the middle of the hillside, and one (for decoration) in a redwood planter around our back patio. I didn't add a trellis to any of these as I figured that I'd try a 'head-training' for these vines.

With what is now sixty-two vines, I think I may have the biggest vineyard inside the Seattle city limits. At least, I'll make that claim until someone can contradict that!

More Pruning and leaf-thinning...

Surprise!  Our grapevines grew and grew. Each vine generated what seems like twenty new shoots. I got concerned about whether this might increase the probability of developing mildew or other issues. After checking my references, I decided to thin out some of the shoots so that I could ensure that the vines would get some airflow. In order to strengthen the trunk, I also trimmed off the buds and shoots from the bottom twelve inches of the trunk -- that way, the trunk would develop straight up.

Each of those new shoots also generated a number of flower clusters. (See pictures.) This is the first step in actually getting grapes! However, this time of pruning was also the time to trim off some of the flower clusters so that the vines would simply focus on growth of the root system and the trunk. Sadly, this meant taking off about ten potential grape clusters from each of the grapevines. However, I couldn't do this all the way -- because I wanted to really see how these developed over the year and I wanted to get some experience in determining when to pick, I left one cluster on just the strongest 10-12 vines. Anyway, next year, I will probably try to leave about half of the clusters assuming that the vines continue their strong growth.

June - July
In the thick of it

The vines are healthy. All of them, at least, with the exception of one or two of the ones that are partly shaded and even they are still growing but just a bit more slowly. Not much to do in June except make sure that the new shoots are growing up through the trellis; once started, they don't need too much help and are growing quite thickly. I did take some time to start positioning next year's canes so that they would be growing in more or less the right direction. By the end of the June, the healthiest shoots were already three feet over the top of the trellis. I may need to hedge them before the summer ends so that they don't grow too far.

In July, I just saw more of the same with the vine growth. The shoots continued to grow longer; even the weaker plants still showed reasonable growth. However, the more interesting part was watching the grape clusters start to transform from a bunch of pellet-size bumps into recognizable grape forms. (See pictures.) Pinot Noir is a black grape but, at this point, the clusters are still completely green -- and should stay that way until they change color in August. However, even seeing the clusters look like real grape clusters is pretty exciting at this point!


Starting in the middle of August, the few bunches of grapes I had started to turn color and soften up. First pink, then a bit darker. (See pictures.) By the end of the month, they had all pretty much turned a nice dark bluish color. This is expected but it's still pretty cool when you have never really watched the transition before. Sometime 45-60 days from now, the grapes should be somewhere close to optimal ripeness.

I tasted a couple of the grapes for curiosity and they're a bit tart. Again, this is pretty much what I expected as the acids and sugars still haven't really had a chance to get into balance. Assuming typical weather patterns for Puget Sound, the grapes won't really be ripe enough to pick until late September or, more likely, early October. This won't be a problem this year as I just have about thirty clusters which isn't enough to really try anything yet.

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.

Winegrapes. Really!  (And birds too...)

Every few days, I've started to sample the grapes to see how they taste. I have a refractometer that I could have used to measure the sugar levels but I chose not to use it this year. Instead, I'll wait until next year as I was more curious to get a sense of how the flavors develop without developing a bias for equipment. Next year, I'll be a bit more rigorous about checking sugar levels. What I can say with certainty is that through the first two weeks in September, the increase in sweetness was noticeable even though we had a cool and relatively wet period.

I figured at some point in September, the resident birds would swoop in and polish off the few grapes that were left once the sugars had increased beyond a certain point. This year, I'd let them actually get to the grapes because I really wanted to know when I need to have netting in place next year when I expect to have enough grapes to make a first batch. Based on our experience this year, I can tell you that if I don't get some netting up by the end of the first week in September to be a barrier for the birds, I won't have many grapes left by the end of the second week.

Wrapping up the growing year...

The PSWG was pleased as this was a warmer than usual year for the area by about 150 GDDs (Growing Degree Days). Their harvest started in late September and I think the vineyards that have planted pinot noir in the area harvested in the second week of October. After the birds had polished off our vines in September, everything sort of muddled along as the leaves slowly started to turn color and then dropped as the vines started to go dormant for the winter. I looked at the trunks of our second year vines and they had definitely grown in diameter. They're still not much wider than a thick fountain pen but they probably almost doubled in size from the previous year. I'm taking this as a sign of health and good luck for next year. I've probably got to do a bit of fertilization this winter and a bit of soil prep to give the vines their nutrients for next year. If the warm weather patterns hold up, it could be an interesting year!


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 Goût 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.
bulletThinking 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.
bullet Time 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.
bullet The First Year. Once we planted the wines, we still had a lot of work to do in the first year to ensure that they would be healthy and make it into their second year.
bullet The 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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