Pruning is a critical process in the production of premium wines. Grapevines are similar to the more commonly known rose bushes that need spring pruning. The goal is to cut back the previous year's growth, help store carbohydrates, shape the promote high quality fruit sets and structure the vine to grow a healthy crop but more importantly, a proper canopy to support the fruit in the coming spring and summer months.
Before jumping into this laborious process, please consider knowledge, equipment and sanitization - all are VERY important. For years we tried to landscaper variety labor force to prune our vineyard. We soon realized that anyone could prune a vine...but to be successful, the experience of the folks pruning is more important than the task itself. Each vine must be evaluated on its age, vigor (growth patterns) and structure (or balance).
You'll need several tools as you make your way across the vineyard blocks. First and foremost are the pruners themselves. There are several manufactures of hand pruners. We like the Corona product line. These hand (manual) pruners use a by-pass action to cut the cane, cordon or trunk. Various sizes are available. We use the 3/4" on a regular basis though you can find 1/2" and 1" sized actions. Prices vary, but $25 - $30 dollars is a reasonable price to pay. They also have a parts department for replacement blades or any other item you may need. Larger pruners (we call loppers) will be needed if you are cutting trunks or cordons larger than 2" in diameter.
Keeping them clean and sharp! Dipping the pruners in a 10% bleach solution is a great way to keep virus' and bacteria from propagating throughout the vineyard. In our earlier years of vineyard development, I would purchase 4-6 sets for our labor crew - hand them out when they arrive and collect them when they leave. Never let anyone use pruners on your vines without sanitizing them first. As for sharpening, hardware stores sell knife and tool sharpening gadgets. Carrying one in your pocket to keep a fine edge is highly recommended. This will prevent ragged and incomplete cuts on your canes.
Picking the right location is a critical step in a successful and fruitful operation. We felt as if we accomplished adequate research when we were deciding on our location. With that be said, remember that achieving everything might be difficult. Be prepared for give and take as you move forward. Here are a few things that we feel are important and others that we should have made more important.
Finding a large river or lake to moderate your temperatures in your vineyard might be a substantial challenge in Arizona. Instead, topography will be your primary means of assisting natural airflow, sun exposure and prevailing winds moving through your vine rows. You might consider using GIS technologies to assess factors in determining your vineyards micro-climate. There are some rules-of-thumb (ROT) that can be used to help pre-select good vineyard locations - in no particular order.
ROT #1: Try to locate property that slopes gently to the south or southwest avoiding hills and valleys. These valleys usual collect cold air and water resulting in uneven irrigation, spring budding and harvest season ripening. In other words, valleys are colder and therefore delay vine growth patterns, valleys also collect water in driplines which continues to 'irrigate' even after the block has been turned off and lastly, fruit in these areas tend to become more diluted during harvest because of over-watering.
ROT #2: Keep the lowest elevation of your vineyard 50 feet above the lowest cold-air draining ravines or river beds. I came across this statement in an agriculture document on a university website. I dismissed it, but after several years of seeing cold-air damage and frost issues in our vineyard, I assessed that the number was a pretty good rule-of-thumb.
ROT #3: Don't over-size or under-size your vine blocks. Many irrigation tasks rely on applications of ounces or gallons per acre during an irrigation cycle or cycles. In other words, if your volume of water can support 1000 vines per block, it's advised that you keep your block structured with 1000 vines (but not necessarily the same varietal). By doing so, you will be successful in applying a consistent nutrient (or just water) over a given time or application. To illustrate, your injector pump is pushing a solution of nutrients at 3 ounces per minute into the flow of water. If your blocks vary in size, a larger block will receive lower desired rates and a smaller block will receive high than desired rates over the same time period. This can be compensated for with complicated equipment and expensive sensors. In my opinion, keep it simple. Have an irrigation specialist explain this if you need for clarification.
As any typical man, I thought I needed a full complement of tractors and associated attachments, aka implements. Instead, I spent more time and money re-tooling the vineyard equipment to what I needed vursus wanted. Here is a must-have. I use the compost spreader multiple times each year. More specifically, I spread chicken manure in the fall and gypsum 2-3 times during the year. It does a beautiful job banding the material right into the vine row. Gypsum is probably one of the hardest materials to spread. It's almost like talcum powder. Getting it to flow out of a simple spreader is a challenge. You need a compost spreader and this one works beautifully.
One caution of note. Gypsum is VERY heavy. This spreader attaches to the three-point hitch on the tractor. If you are not careful, you can overload the hopper and lift the front tires off the ground. The lack of steering makes for a challenging trip down through the vine rows. There are other manufactures that make towable spreaders if you have enough room at the end of the rows to turn around due to the large turn radius those units require. The towable spreaders are more costly but carry more weight/material to and from the vineyard. That means less time stopping and refilling.
As you probably guessed, you’ll need a tractor or skid-steer or some type of equipment with a loader/bucket to fill the hopper. Some folks rent a loader tractor when they are spreading gypsum. A rental for that need is very easy to find. I broadcast about 2,000-2,500lbs of gypsum per acre, per year. This hopper holds about 1500lbs of material and still allows me the ability to steer the tractor.
See it at work here: [Compost Spreader]
There is an enormous amount of thought that must go into your decision before building and developing an estate vineyard and winery. Doing so in Sonoita, Arizona is even more difficult than most areas. Don't rush your decision. Make sure you are asking yourself the really hard questions - we did not. We often wish we had spent more time doing so. Many questions may not have been answerable at the time, but it's important to establish those expectations going into the endeavor.
Location, location, location - it applies in so many ways. There are many opinions (and science) supporting the importance of geographical locations (soils, water, terrain and cold air flow just to mention a few). In Sonoita, you might consider one or two more. Many wineries are clustered together on Elgin Road. This has an enormous marketing effect due to the fact you'll have 100's of cars driving by your winery every weekend. I believe there are more ideal locations but off-the-beaten-path. This will require you to be creative about directing traffic to your location. I'll discuss this topic in later posts.
To venue or not to venue. We over-looked this very important aspect of the business model. Wine is a social event. Additionally, vineyards & wineries are considered very romantic. These factors have a very unique niche and you must consider this in your planning. If you do not, you'll spend significant time and money retrofitting your establishment to support large group events, festivals, dinners, weddings and potential corporate functions. We are now developing areas on site to support these functions at our winery and in our vineyard.
Grow, buy or sell? Vineyards are now producing volumes of high-quality fruit. All three markets are easily supported and welcomed. As we started, the Arizona wine-grape market was non-existent. Wineries were struggling to get the vineyard up and running while supporting the huge capital requirement of establishing your operation. Nowadays, I believe you can build your winery and develop your wine program (by purchasing grapes) while you develop your vineyard. You may even consider remaining in that model once you discover the difficult path of building, growing and maintaining a vineyard in Sonoita, Arizona.
I had no idea! I considered myself to be very savvy about farming and the work associated with it. My family owned and operated very large farms in Colorado. It was back-breaking work as a young man. Large equipment and automation have drastically improved a farmer’s lifestyle…but still very long days: 16-18 hours a day is not uncommon. I once read that 1 acre of grapes equates to 500 acres of traditional farming. That was probably the most accurate statement I came across during my research, but I have determined it to be under-estimated. So just remember, a 15-20 acre vineyard is an enormous undertaking.
Who’s doing the work? Be careful of what you expect of yourself. The labor force in Sonoita is extremely limited, you might even say non-existent. Throw into your calculations the needed skilled laborer to run equipment, prune vines, mix and spray herbicides, fungicides and maybe pesticides…and you quickly run out of options. Based on your budget and ‘other’ revenue streams, you’ll find yourself needing to do the work yourself. Although it’s extremely rewarding, it’s the most back-breaking work you’ll probably ever accomplish. Be careful about your expectations. Operating 2-3 acres, producing about 500 gallons of wine and running the business (and all of its facets) can be very doable by yourself. Just be aware, if you throw in a vineyard manager, winemaker, tasting room staff, marketing, sales (the list goes on), you'll find your adjusted bottom line unpalatable.
Karyl and I met in Desert Storm. We've been happily married now for 28 years. We are definitely partners in this operation. Karyl is arguably one of the best winemakers and is completely self-taught. She attended the U.C. Davis Winemaking Accreditation course to better her understanding of the intricate details of winemaking. Her engineering degree with loads of chemistry has been very valuable. Although her heart is her best asset, her nose, pallet and creativity has built a respected brand in homes and around dinner tables. She produces a variety of wine styles and, I promise, she has a wine that will satisfy anyone's pallet. She is the heart and soul of WFV having never met a stranger. She feels comfortable talking about anything to anyone.
As for me, I'm a 4th generation farmer. I grew up in Colorado farming with my father, grandfather and for a short period of time, my great grandfather. My father and mother taught me everything I needed to succeed in life - and none of it from a textbook, cell phone or computer. Later, I learned I had a knack with 0's & 1's, so in addition to the farming and manual labor, I've assumed the IT roles around the business as well. You rarely will see me. I like to remain behind the curtain doing my own thing - I guess I'm more of a listener then a talker. My biggest mental stimulation is going to bed physically exhausted excited to start again the next day.
If I was to pinpoint things that Karyl and I lack, it would be understanding the trench work of business marketing and the psychological influences that effect the wine industry. You can't sell wine with just a good product and a smile. There are thousands of brands that are equally as good (and probably less expensive) than a owner-operated boutique farm winery like ours. We have discovered it's all about relationships - a bond between us and our valued customers and members.
We have been asked to document our lessons learned. Hopefully our posts will guide others in making better decisions and avoiding the pitfalls of others. The last 15 years of developing a vineyard and winery has been chocked full of unimaginable experiences. As a family, we've learned a lot about ourselves and the resolve of our character. You gotta have passion! You'll need it to motivate you through every day's good and bad. Like anything else in life, your mistakes will be expenses lessons. Oh yeah, a heavy dose of humor comes in handy from time to time. Just remember, it takes a family to build & operate a farm. It's not a task, it's a process. You pay into the process to reap the rewards of patience, wisdom and success - however you decide to measure it.