Starting a vineyard can very quickly turn from a dream into a nightmare if you aren’t properly educated and prepared for what it takes to start, own, and grow a vineyard. So, let’s dig a little deeper and unearth the key factors for turning your vineyard dreams into a successful reality.
It’s all about location…
Your vineyard location site selection is the single, biggest factor for your success or failure as a vineyard owner. The attributes that make a good (or bad) vineyard location include:
- Topography & Aspect
There is a reason you often see vineyards planted on hills as the slope allows the air and water to drain and elevates your vines above low lying frost pockets. Additionally, the aspect or direction of your field…the way it faces the sun…influences heat accumulation and, in turn, the number of growing degree days, which may limit what grape varieties you can successfully grow in your vineyard.
Proper soil is essential for successful vineyard establishment. The soil texture (amount of clay, sand, and silt in the soil) and soil structure will influence not only the drainage but also the ability for it to hold water and hold on to the nutrients that you are either applying to the soil or that are already naturally there.
Before planting it is imperative to assess your soil…with soil samples and/or the help of a soil scientist or an soil expert. And, remember that you can more easily add to soil than to take away from it…meaning that nutrients and organic matter can be added before planting to boost soil, but there are not reliable options for taking aways problems such as heavy clay or poor drainage in the soil.
I cannot say this enough…if you do not have a proper water source, your site is not suitable for growing and sustaining a vineyard.
You must have both enough water and the proper quality of water to grow grapes.
The general rule of thumb is a range of 5 to 10 gallons per minute of well output for every acre of grapes. This can go lower depending on your soil’s water-holding capacity and the regional weather patterns in your area.
You must also determine the quality of your water. Water with high sodium or high boron levels will cause toxicity for your vines and vineyard decline over time. Although rainwater may be adequate in your area to fulfill the annual needs of a vineyard, it is not guaranteed the rainfall will occur when needed by the vines.
- Land History Use
What the land was previously used for can also play a crucial role in whether your vineyard will be successful. Land use factors include:
- Soil compaction from old roadways
- Depleted topsoil from over-cropping
- Allelopathic plants like black walnut trees which harm grape vine roots
- Surrounding land use including row crops where herbicides drift can cause toxicity for your grapevines.
But, it’s also about you…
Establishing a successful vineyard is all about location, but let’s be real here…it’s also about you. A perfect vineyard site will not automatically mean a thriving vineyard and that’s where you come in. So, let’s talk through what it takes from you, as a vineyard owner, to be successful.
- Money – It takes a lot of money to start, grow and maintain a vineyard.
- It takes from $15,000 to $30,000 for years 1-3 to establish a one-acre vineyard.
- Vineyards usually do not produce positive cash flow until year 4 (occasionally year 3).
- It can take 7-10 years to break even on your investment and see any profit. Or more if major infrastructure is needed.
- Additional upfront costs can include:
- Drilling a well
- Installing exclusion or deer fencing
- Putting in access roads on your land
- Purchasing sprayers, tractors, and other equipment
- Education and training – Growing wine grapes is a science… and an art… from how you plant your vines, fertilize your vines, train your vines, handle pests and disease, etc. You need to have the right training and resources around you to start and grow a vineyard. Resources can include:
- University extension agencies
- Local growers’ organizations
- Vineyard consultants
- Virtual Viticulture Academy (available no matter where you grow your vines)
- Ability to handle risks – Growing a vineyard is not for the faint of heart. You need the ability to understand and handle the risks that come with growing grapes, including animals and birds, pests and diseases, erratic and unpredictable weather conditions, and so much more.
- Labor & Lifestyle – Vineyards require a lot of manual labor, so that’s either you (doing the work) or you have to hire a vineyard manager or team. Vineyards need someone onsite from February through October for most growing locations in the northern hemisphere. Almost everything in a vineyard is time sensitive, so attempting to be a weekend vineyard warrior is going to be a struggle and likely not yield the results you hope for.
In addition to regular vineyard labor, you will need extra labor for planting, dormant pruning, and harvest. It is crucial that you plan for crews for planting, pruning, harvesting or plan for mechanical harvesting; do not rely on your friends and family as your crew.
There are many things that go into growing a vineyard successfully. If you want to learn more about what you need to know before starting a vineyard, check out www.vineyardundergroundpodcast.com/vu007.