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Starting a Backyard Vineyard

August 29, 2018

Most of my winemaking grapes have historically come from California, Chile, and the Great Lakes.  Starting several years from now, I will have a new and exciting grape source; my own backyard!  I live in southwestern Pennsylvania which is between climate zone 6B and 7A.  This might be considered a less than optimal growing region but with new techniques, technologies, and a lot of elbow grease, I hope to produce high quality wine grapes to rival those of the Finger Lakes, Washington, or Virginia.  As a side benefit, this little R&D vineyard will help me to have better conversations with commercial winegrowers and source the best grapes possible.  The vineyard is starting to take shape and I plan to keep readers up to date as it evolves into a high tech micro-vineyard.  

The five row vineyard will have around 65 vines once fully planted.   This year I planted around half of the vines.   Keep in mind that grape nurseries will often sell out of many varieties up to one year in advance of delivery, so order your vines early.   I planted varieties that should do well in my climate but also make good wine varieties.  The grapes I settled on are Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, Lemberger, and Traminette with a couple one-off vines just to see what happens (Cabernet Sauvignon, Noiret, Marquette).   

 

Most of the vines are grafted onto rootstocks that will best suit my soil type and drainage.  Popular rootstocks for eastern North America include 101-14, 3309, SO4 and Riparia.  Each of these are very phylloxera tolerant which is not the case with ungrafted vinifera.   The graft union should be 1-2 inches above the soil to assure that the scion does not root.  This also allows the graft union to be easily buried to protect against winter injury. 

 

Most grapes varieties that make good wine can be a little higher maintenance, so prepare for close monitoring and a little extra work.  Common headache-causers are japanese beetles, deer, downy mildew, powdery mildew, and birds.  Additionally, many vinifera are cold sensitive and can suffer damage under -5°F.  All of these issues can be overcome but will take some effort.  

 

I planted my vines in grow tubes to protect from deer during establishment and provide a greenhouse like environment to get things started well.  The tubes will need to come off before winter so that greenhouse effect daytime temperatures do not force vines out of winter-mode.  Several oz of 10-10-10 fertilizer was used around each vine in the late spring to kickstart the growth.  The plants were watered religiously until the roots seemed to be establishing and growth tookoff.  

 

I chose to use treated posts to keep the vineyard looking nice for my neighbors to help in the event that I may ever sell my house.  For the uprights, I used 3-4”  diameter x 8ft round treated post from Lowes.  These are seated 2.5ft in the ground and backfilled with dirt and crushed block that I had from another project.  You can also pound these posts if you have access to a tractor and mechanical post pounder. 

 

The end posts will support the most lateral load.  Most end post designs feature a cable and buried anchor.  Because of my limited space and to make mowing easier, I opted for an old fashioned angled brace design.  The end posts are 5-6” x 8ft from my local farm supply shop.  These are seated 32-33 inches into the ground and are leaned back 4° which looks nice but probably does not help much for strength.  The angle braces are made from 3-4” x 8ft treated post which has been cut at 63 inches with a 30° angle.  The 63 inch piece makes the angle brace.  The remaining 33 inches is set into the ground as an anchor for the angle brace.  Both the end posts and anchor posts were backfilled heavily with large rocks, broken block/brick, and dirt.  These were also tamped HARD with a tamping bar making them extremely solid.  The angle posts were pinned to the uprights and anchor posts with 5/16" painted re-bar.  Galvanized rod is also a good choice for pins.  

 

 Finished End Posts and Braces

 

Next is the type of vine training system that I will use.  Most native grapes use a high wire cordon style trellis, which is simply one high wire that the vine will be trained along.  Vinifera are more often trained using “Vertical Shoot Positioning” (VSP) as they prefer to grow vertically.  Because my soil is relatively fertile, I will use a split canopy design to spread out the vegetative growth.  Common split canopies are Geneva Double Curtain, Smart Dyson, and Scott Henry style systems.  Geneva Double Curtain splits horizontally, which is good for vigorous draping grapes like Concord.  Smart Dyson and Scott Henry split vertically which is better for Vinifera.  I will use the Smart Dyson in my vineyard since it is relatively efficient on space and does not require extra tall posts.  This will not only improve the grape quality but also increase the yield of each vine without increasing vine spacing.

Wires for the trellis system will be 12.5 gauge high tensile galvanized steel.  To maintain tension, a ratchet style tensioner will be used in-line for each wire.  To hold the load of the fruit and cordons, a single wire will be used.  Two pairs of guiding wires will be used to guide canes upwards, and one pair will be used to guide canes downward.  The wires will be installed in the late spring of year two.  

 

To get the cold sensitive vinifera through the first winter, a small trench will be dug with a grape hoe and the vines will be buried under several inches of soil after they go dormant.   In subsequent years I haven't decided what I will do...  One option is to bury the graft union of the vines so that if any winter damage occurs, a new trunk can quickly be grown from the healthy buried vine.  A second option is to bury renewal canes grown near the trunk for replacement if necessary.  The most likely option that I will use is to bury above the graft union and maintain several trunks per vine.  This redundancy will reduce the likelihood of losing an entire vine to winter damage in the event of an unseasonably cold winter night.  

 

This little vineyard should provide about 400-500lbs of grapes once fully established.  Year two will be a busy year of training the vines, and I hope for year three to be the first harvest.   I will share any unexpected lessons in future articles, so stay tuned!  If you have any suggestions or comments, please post below and make sure to checkout "Starting a Backyard Vineyard - Part 2".

 

More information can also be found on The Home Winemaking Channel.  Cheers!

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