1st year vineyard - part I

I’m a lifelong DIY’er. It comes from a long family heritage beginning with my grandfather, who was a hard-scrabble farmer in NE Texas. And my dad, who as a teenager plowed cotton fields behind a mule and as a father, planted a front yard vegetable garden before it was vogue. I’ve been at this awhile and made plenty of mistakes, which informs me of my DIY limits. I don’t hesitate to consult with the experts.

"Good planning without good working is nothing",

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I was anxious to plant a vineyard during our first growing season in the North Fork Valley. Having a vineyard was one of our primary reasons for moving to the valley. A new vineyard takes 3 years to partially produce a harvest, and another year or two to fully reap. The clock was ticking, and there was a winter to plan and prepare. During the first year, I’d need to lay out and plant the vineyard, provide irrigation, and construct a wildlife fence.

Vineyard site selection demanded first priority and even a DIY’er like myself could deal with this one. There were only two options. 

The first option was near the valley floor on the lower portion of the property. There is an above-ground seasonal spring, with consistent and strong flows. Directly below the spring, are two large areas with modest east-facing slopes. While this may sound ideal, it wasn’t. To the southwest and directly above the spring, a hill containing large cottonwood trees and brush rose quickly and steeply. The topography limited the amount of sun exposure to the sites mid-to-late afternoon. At 5,600′ elevation, the grapes require as much sun as possible. Poor late-day exposure would inhibit grape ripening in late summer. There was another concern. On the positive, the slight slope would serve to drain cold air away from the vines. With the negative, the air would settle in the larger extended area along the adjacent road and broader valley floor, increasing the potential of late frosts and early freezes.

On the edge of Sunshine Mesa 200′ above the valley floor, was the second potential vineyard location. With a slight south-facing slope, the site benefited from excellent sun exposure to the south and west. Adjacent to the site is a building containing our water system, and a 1,500-gallon cistern. The cistern is fed by water pumped from our spring. This was an ideal situation. The only drawback was the site’s size, smaller than I initially desired. Site measurements suggested I could plant 160 vines. Okay, I’ll work with it!

Ordering plants, confirming the vineyard layout, and planning for planting was now in order. Time for help from the experts.

I had already decided to plant Pinot Noir and Riesling. From my years visiting the valley and talking to local growers, it was clear both varietals did well in the valley. Other cooler climate varietal choices abounded but the long and storied history of winemaking with Pinot Noir of Burgundy, and Riesling of Germany; spoke to me. After asking around, I found a local and forthcoming grape grower and winemaker, with extensive Pinot and Riesling knowledge and experience. With several recommendations in hand, I researched rootstock providers and found Double A Vineyards. They had my recommended rootstock and could deliver from New York State in a good time window for planting.

The big dilemma? How the heck to dig the holes for the rootstock. My soil was high in the clay spectrum, full of scattered stones, small, and especially large. Plus, the vineyard site had not been planted before. I attempted several test holes by hand. Using a pick axe was a requirement. This wouldn’t do. During my information collection stage, someone mentioned the possibility of trenching. I spoke with a local trenching contractor. My worry centered on the level of effort involved in planting rootstock in a trench and backfilling the trenches by hand. And to be clear, for the actual planting task, it was me, myself, and I responsible for the labor.

Somehow, I got the idea of “ripping” (simply put, dig or rip up), the entire site a couple of feet deep, which would make it easier to dig holes by hand. In my mind, the approach could benefit the rootstock, with looser soil promoting vine root growth. I asked around looking for local people with the machinery and expertise, to little avail. One of my calls was to the owner of Black Bridge Winery. He related ripping caused more problems than it solved. I’d have to deal with stones and other underground debris raised to the surface, and it would take a long period for the soil to settle. Instead, he suggested using a small backhoe to dig 3′ deep holes. The holes would provide plenty of room to promote rootstock growth. Thank you, the problem was solved by an experienced grower who had been through the process before!

I knew renting and operating a backhoe wasn’t in the cards for me. I also wondered no matter the operator, the time involved in digging 160 individual holes. Upon reflection, the idea of using an auger as an alternative to a backhoe bucket seemed promising. With this approach in hand, I found a local farmer with a backhoe that could operate a 24″ diameter auger.

Next, was clearing brush, gravel, and stones. I piled the larger stones off to the side of the site, thinking they’d come in handy at some point (they did). I also had to deal with a 6’x6′ concrete pad, which needed to be broken up and moved. The work was grueling. After a few days, I began to refer to myself as a rock farmer. After clearing everything, I ran twine between stakes to mark the rows and holes. I spaced the rows 8′ apart and the holes 6′. Everything was ready for the next phase, planting. 

Stay tuned for Part II!

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