Basics: ‘You Only Get One Shot At This’: The Science and Art Behind Vineyard Sites | Wine Enthusiast
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‘You Only Get One Shot At This’: The Science and Art Behind Vineyard Sites

Planting a vineyard requires a lot of time, labor and capital. It all starts by looking at a particular piece of ground.

“The most important thing when you’re laying out a vineyard is knowing what your soils are and knowing where the soils change,” says Marshall Edwards, vineyard operations manager at Shaw Vineyards in Benton City, Washington.

To do this, growers dig soil pits with backhoes. They use those samples to create soil maps with the help of geologists. They then overlay their findings with United States Geography Survey maps. And this tells them exactly what the soil types are and where. Growers also send out soil samples to outside consulting agencies to analyze composition, pH and other properties. These results can be used to tailor composts to aid vineyard development.

The prepped ground awaiting vines at WeatherEye Vineyard in Washington
The prepped ground awaiting vines at WeatherEye Vineyard in Washington / Photo courtesy of WeatherEye Vineyard

“If you can improve the biological balance between the vine roots and the soil, then the efficiency of the uptake is better,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Washington. “You can also reduce the amount of fertilizer and other inputs you’re adding.”

Boot-level data is critical. Ryan Johnson, vineyard manager at WeatherEye Vineyard on Red Mountain in Washington, spent six months walking his site prior to planting it.

“It becomes like a giant game of detective work,” he says. “You have to look at the big picture and then also get very, very close to the details.”

A main goal is to spot soil changes. This means a particular area might need a separate irrigation system or perhaps to be planted with a different variety. If some soils are shallower and harder to irrigate, for example, irrigation tubing might need to be doubled in that area.

New Mourvèdre and Syrah plantings at WeatherEye Vineyard
New Mourvèdre and Syrah plantings at WeatherEye Vineyard / Photo courtesy of WeatherEye Vineyard

“If we have a block that has consistent soil from one end to the other, we’re able to irrigate that block more effectively and efficiently,” says Mike Macmorran, winemaker and partner at Mark Ryan Winery, which is currently working with Edwards to plant a vineyard on Washington’s Candy Mountain.

For vineyards that use irrigation, an engineer will design a water system based on blocks determined by soil type.

Next up is selecting the grape variety as well as the particular clone, or one of a series of genetic variations. Both can be informed by soil and other aspects of a site, such as heat accumulation.

“If an area has a little bit richer soil, I’ll choose to go in with a Cabernet [clone] that has a little bit more shatter sensitivity and may not have as large of clusters,” says Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards in White Bluffs, Washington.

“Where there’s an area that has kind of rocky, shallower soil, I’d go in with a well-producing clone, like Clone 8.”

Mark McNeilly, founder and executive winemaker at Mark Ryan Winery, walking with Mike MacMorran, winemaker, in Quintessence Vineyard
Mike MacMorran (L), winemaker, walking with Mark McNeilly (R), founder and executive winemaker of Mark Ryan Winery / Photo by Victoria Wright

In areas where phylloxera is a concern, growers also need to pick a rootstock resistant to the louse. These can provide other properties that will impact development.

“Certain rootstocks might bud out a little later than others, same clone,” says Clubb. “So those might be a good choice for, say, Merlot if you wanted to slow it down, because Merlot is an early ripener.”

Then, winemakers source plant material, either as potted plants or dormant wood, which are bare rooted vines that have been nurtured for a full growing season before being trimmed, bundled and held in storage. These need to be ordered as much as a year and a half in advance of planting. Growers also must think about row orientation. While many plant north-south, some put rows off-axis to increase or decrease the amount of sun grape clusters receive.

To protect the fruit, Johnson orients rows to receive less solar radiation during the height of the day.

“There is a peak solar radiation that occurs here around 1 or 1:30 [pm], and that’s like a laser beam hitting your grapes,” Johnson. says. “That’s not like a little laser pointer that you’d use for a presentation, right? That’s the Death Star.”

Growers also consider row spacing at this stage.

Mark McNeilly walking with Mike MacMorran in Quintessence Vineyard
Mike MacMorran walking with Mark McNeilly in Quintessence Vineyard / Photo by Victoria Wright

“The first question is, how much money you got?” Johnson says of spacing. “And the second question is, what equipment do you have?”

The tighter the row spacing, the harder it is to use mechanized equipment, and increased labor needs will drive up costs. Trellising is another consideration, with a wide variety of options that impact how fruit develops.

With all this information in hand, growers plant their vines in spring if using dormant wood, or in late spring or early summer if using potted plants. It’s a lot of work to get to that point, but the time investment is critical.

“You only get one shot at this,” says Edwards. “If we do our due diligence and plan ahead, it makes things a lot simpler after we plant it.”

Two to three years after it’s planted, the vineyard will bear its first crop. Another year or two later, the first wines will be released. All this means the most important aspect of planting a vineyard is patience.

“It just takes time,” Macmorran says. “But if we plant it correctly, this is a 30- to 35-year investment for us.”

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