Thursday, November 4, 2010

So You Think You Want a Vineyard?

Part I The Rise of Insanity
Part II Making Your Own Terroir for Fun and Non-Profit
Part III A Plantin’ We Will Go
Part IV The First Year
Part V The Second Year (Fall 2011)
Part VI CH. Petruski at Last (Fall 2012)

Part I: The Rise of Insanity
Many years ago, when my wife and I first moved up to Sonoma County, we fell in love with the idea of learning everything we could about wine and the wine business, with an unfocused goal of maybe, somehow, being involved in the business – someday. At that time, working in corporate finance in downtown San Francisco and commuting 50 miles a day, it seemed like a pretty far-fetched idea.

Besides drinking our fair share of California wines, we decided to make our own wine. After all – what could be so hard about it, we naively told ourselves. Since we didn’t actually own a vineyard, and we had a nice dry garage I could insulate and put barrels into, and there were lots of small growers willing to sell grapes to garagistes like ourselves, we dove in. I took a series of courses at the University of California at Davis sponsored by the state agricultural cooperative extension, and got the basics of fermentation science down. While most of the wines we produced were drinkable (one was even rather good), it was obvious we needed a couple of things in place in order to, as Emeril says, “Kick it up a notch!” Like a better facility dedicated to home winemaking, and, most importantly, better control over the grapes we were trying to coax into becoming quality wine.

Part II: Making Your Own Terroir for Fun and Non-Profit
Fast forward about 15 years and we find our protagonist actually working in the wine business – although not in quite the way he’d originally thought about. After deciding to stay in the finance and operation side of business, but trading transportation for fine wine as the underlying franchise, the empty-nest syndrome kicked in, and we decided to move to the country. Finding a fixer-upper in rural Sonoma County on 2/3rds of an acre, we settled in to become grape growers for our own hobby. But wait! There is no vineyard – only about 35 evergreen trees and shrubs, courtesy of the previous owner who really liked the FREE TREES the county was giving away back in the 70’s…

BTW – when buying an old house, figure out what you think you need to do to fix it up, then quadruple it. Then, when you’ve made the place somewhat livable, you can get your vineyard going. So, after a new roof, new well casing, new septic drain field, new kitchen, new everything in the house, new pool equipment, new fences, new electrical service, etc., it was time to start prepping the land.

Early on a hot October weekend, Paul Bunyan and his brother and their fraus attacked the forest in what we laughingly call “the south 40.” The sole survivor was a 50 year old Mission Fig tree dead center in the south 40. Still very productive, we thought it set a nice mood when gazing out towards the mountains of Annadel State Park. Then, a few months later, Stumpy the Stump Grinder ( I’m not kidding – that’s what he called himself – don’t ask) shows up and removes the last remnants of the carnage. Ready to plant you say? Not quite yet…

I believe back in 1880, there was a rock farm here – probably was a fairly profitable business, judging by what was going on at the business end of my rototiller. Back to the rental shop, get a bigger machine. Try again. Spread out the ground up shavings from the stumps. Remove rocks. Rotovate again. Repeat as necessary for a couple of years. Finally get smart and rent nice new Kubota tractor. Remove rocks. Now – how to go about getting the trellis built, the plants bench grafted, the dripper system in? Who ya gonna call?

Part III: A Plantin’ We Will Go
In answer to my rhetorical question posted above, no, it’s not Ghostbusters, it’s Mr. G. and his crew (names are changed to protect the innocent). In just 2 weekends, they installed a very sturdy professional trellis system, drip irrigation, and 394 grapelings mostly Merlot and a bit of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot thrown in roughly the same proportions as Petrus. The end posts are leftover drilling pipes from the Alaska Pipeline project, manufactured in Napa, driven into the ground with a small pile driver attached to a bobcat way cool... us boys like our toys.

We decided on 3X3 spacing rather close, but I want to be able to drop a lot of excess fruit and manage the yield to produce better flavors. We will add the third and fourth wires of the trellis before the first fruiting year, which is year two.

Part IV: The First Year
We just got the protective sleeves on the baby vines a day before the first hard frost nothing like cutting it close! The danger in the first year is mostly due to these being bud grafts onto a phyloxera resistant root stock. Nearly all California grapes come from grafted stock, partly because we don't have severe enough winters to warrant growing vines on their native rootstock. In colder climates, like Washington, Oregon and New York, you will see mostly planted varietal rootstock.

We came through a rather mild but very wet winter and early spring. We only lost six vines - that's a good start. Then, the invaders arrived. Gophers (bad) and moles (not so bad). Towards the middle of summer I started feeling like Carl the groundskeeper in "Caddyshack." Poisoning, trapping, and gassing became my second business. While I didn't lose any vines to them, they managed to take a three foot lime tree completely down into the ground, with no evidence it ever existed except for the forlorn planting stake and the identification tag, left sitting near the hole in the middle of the tree ring. Nice $40 dinner for the little buggers. Sadder but wiser, I trudged back to the nursery, found a gopher wire basket and another tree, dug a hole and put the basket in, then planted the tree inside of it. Now, I am the proud owner of a nice little dwarf citrus that cost three times what it should have. I wonder do I need to hire dwarves to harvest it for me?

This was the summer that never was cool days, cold nights. I thought that would be OK for me, because my little vines were just producing a few leaves, and I was concentrating their growth on producing sturdy cordons, not fruit. However, upon returning from a two week vacation out of state, I discovered that my neighbor's powdery mildew had migrated into my vineyard. A good dose of Neem oil sprayed on the leaves, and subsequent sulfuring, saved all the vines. In total, of the 394 planted, we have 388 left - pretty good survival rate for an amateur.

Now, all the vines are starting to shut down as the days are getting colder, wetter and shorter. Time for the gophers to return (launched a major operation today dubbed Operation Underlord with apologies to the folks who participated in D-Day), the fig tree to give up its last fruit, and the vines to go to sleep until February or March.

To be continued...

--Craig House, CFO/COO

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