Monday, January 7, 2008

New Year: New Vineyard

The New Year is underway and so is our work installing a new trellis system, Phase II of the Blue-Merle Vineyard Master Plan. What better time to catalog this work step-by-step for those of you considering planting your own vineyard this year. We've decided to increase our plantings of Grenache, Aglianico and Petite Sirah, and to fill in some significant gaps in the vineyard landscape. We will be planting an additional 190 vines, bringing out total to well over 1,000 vines. Many of our rows are wide (16 ft.) -- which means we could increase the density of our plantings. But let's face it. This is supposed to be a hobby, not a profession. This will be enough. At least until next year.

Here's a check list for those of you wanting to get started. Like most things in life, there are more than 100 ways to skin this cat. So don't take my words as a must-do manual; this is what worked for us. (Be sure and share with us what worked for you!)

Develop a master landscape plan for your property.

Design your vineyard, either making a sketch by hand, or using a computer program such as SmartDraw. Remember, "vineyard is art." Keep this motto in mind as you design and install the vineyard. Follow the contour of the land. (At first, I had a notion that rows were supposed to be North - South. That would have been a mistake on our hillside, so we followed the land.) Read books on the topic, such as Vineyard Simple and from Vines to Wine.

Consult with a local vineyard expert as necessary and as desired. Decide how much of the work you want to do yourself, and how much assistance you require. In the San Diego area, there are consultants who will implement your vision for you. The going rate is approximately $40/vine, including the trellis system, irrigation, vines and planting. (Of course the final cost will depend on terrain -- and how many unexpected obstacles confront you -- such as a humongous 3,000 lbs. rock directly under a spot where you want to dig a post hole!) Another good reason for consulting with an expert is you may need help down the road maintaining the vineyard (mildew control, Pierce's Disease prevention, etc. -- hey, I never said this was going to be easy, but, you can do it.)

Prepare your land. Are you able to plow or till your land? Do you need to add any nutrients? (As we are on a steep hillside, there was little we could do in this regard.)

Stake out your vineyard design, using stakes, string and measuring tape. The string really helps you visualize the location of rows, and the spacing. (Also use the string to line up your end posts when you get to that step).

Ready to get started? If you're ready, and you'll be hiring labor, you'll save yourself a bunch of money by having everything staged and organized in advance. So plan, and have everything ready:

Dig your post holes. For digging, your choices are by hand with a post digger, with a handheld auger (which rent for about $50/day at Home Depot) or the auger of a professional drill (such as that provided by a BobCat). Note: You would be smart to start digging at the "cornerstone" to set the first post. Then, go to the end of your planned rows, and set that post. With those two posts set, use string to define the line by which to perfectly line up your other posts. As you will be looking at your vineyard everyday, the time spent in lining up your rows correctly is well worth it! We used 10 ft. poles when we installed over 30 rows last year. This year we purchased some smaller 8ft poles for some of the short rows we're installing. Believe me, the 8ft poles are a lot easier to work with and to carry around! (Discuss with your consultant what poles are appropriate for you.) The depth of your holes will depend on your poles and your digging method. When we used the BobCat auger, we went about 4 ft. deep. When digging by hand, we try to go at least 3 ft. At a minimum, we went 2.5 deep in some places. Remember to angle the hole, so the post will be at an angle (and be able to accommodate more weight and tension when the wires are tightened).

Set the posts. There are a number of different ways to do this. One is to insert the post, then maybe add back some dirt, compacting it (with a "compactor"). Use a level, to make sure the post is "straight." If you "eyeball" it, I guarantee you will be redoing some posts. Once "level" (straight) add cement. I prefer to mix the cement in a wheel barrow -- then add it. We found that 2 @ 60 lbs. bags for each post was right for us. Others might only use one bag and refill the rest of the hole with dirt then compact it. Another technique would be to pour dry cement down the hole, then add water, and stir (but like I said, I prefer whenever possible to do the mixing first in the wheelbarrow, then pour). After setting the post, you may make a "brace" to keep it in place. After the concrete is dry, the post should be extremely stiff, and not budge when you push it at all. (When setting a few posts over the Christmas holiday, I tried to take a short cut and see if I could get away with a hole 2 ft. deep and one bag of concrete. This was a total failure, and we had to redo those three posts the next day.)

7) Align the posts. Use string.

This is a good place to take a rest. In the next post, we'll talk about irrigation, installing the drip system, and stringing and tightening the wire. Click here if you want to see highlights how we installed the vineyard at the Blue Merle last year.

(February 28, 2008) -- The trellis system is in. The drip lines are in. We've got gophers and weeds to deal with. We'll use an auger to start digging the holes this weekend. Nova Vines is shipping the vines out next week. We'll plant those babies in 9 more days. We were able to up the shipment to 235 vines, including an extra 25 Tempranillo, bringing the total to 1,085. We also finished pruning the first year vines. More about that later. The gophers are attacking. Need to get an owl. Just warmed up this week; the snakes must be thawing out, so need to keep an eye on them. Bluey's paw getting better -- seems to be non cancerous. He must have pricked it on a bougainvillea while digging.


Anonymous said...

Craig, I have a friend who is re-doing his slope in his backyard. He is looking to plant vines and wants me to help him.

I can make the wine but I don't know that much about viticulture and certainly not that good at planting, post setting and irrigation.

I can plant the vines. You grow grapes right? Or can you suggest someone for us to talk to prior to ordering supplies and grapes?

I know a couple people in the SD Wine Club, but havn't asked anyone yet.

I would say this site may be able to plant 50-70 vines but I don't have the dimensions of the land just guessing from when I've been to his house.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I have too much experience in that department!

If it's only 50 - 70 vines, I would consider "staking them" without a trellis system... saves a lot of money and less work.

Order the vines from Nova Vines.

Get the order in soon.

February - March (after danger of frost) is best time to plant in San Diego. (January is also good... but do it after danger of frost has passed.)

Take a look at (There's a whole section on our first year of planting. Don't forget to have an "admire" treatment done against the sharpshooters and Pierce's disease after planting once there's leafy growth.

Purchase the book: "Vineyard Simple" -- look it up on Amazon.

This is enough beginning information to get your friend started.

50 - 70 is a perfect number of vines... it's still a "hobby" -- but still enough to get some wine.


Craig & Bluey

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a lot of information, thanks.

Would you consider send soil in for analysis or just go with the rootstock. He told me what kind of soil he has, I think sandy until about 4 feet when he hits clay.

Also we should plan to meet, exchange wine or something sometime.

Craig Justice said...

Soil type is definitely a factor to consider in the selection of rootstock. My major concern about rootstock is the availability of water, especially in hot, dry San Diego county, where growers are already facing a 30% restriction, and homeowners may face mandatory 10% reductions in water next year (your friend needs to consider this -- if reductions are enforced, what can your friend stop watering in order to nurture the vines the first year or two?) Sandy soil is "good for drainage" but bad for water conservation, because you'll need more water. It's good that you have clay 4 feet under (because that will hold the water, when you water deep). The experts at Nova Vines can give you better advice about root stock. We have some Aglianico vines on "sandy soil" with a moderate, less vigorous root stock. Those vines are definitely "thinner" in the 2nd year compared to other areas in the vineyard -- and do need more water. On the other hand, when mature, I should not experience "over growth" -- I'm already seeing that in another area of the vineyard where we have a few "drought tolerant" "aggressive" vines in an area with some fine "top soil" -- these vines are "out of control" and growing faster than The BLOB (and about as scarry). Like everything in winemaking (and vineyard management) there are more than 100 ways to skin the cat and trade offs are to be made. There are labs available that for a fee of $200 or so will analyize soil samples for you. We used AgroLabs (?) -- the people were very knowledgeable and helpful.