John Marshall: Winter Vineyard Tips
Winter is upon us and, while it has been unseasonably warm this year, January still looms before us. It is an annual event for any fruit grower that January always stands like the Sword of Damacles before us, waiting to strike us all down with a single night of severe cold. We always must consider, ‘will the cold air from Alberta sweep down upon us this year and remake the viticultural scene for the coming year or will it remain up in the Prairie Provinces and allow us to go on to plan another year!’
Here in my area Lake Pepin, which is just a very large widening of the Mississippi River, froze over momentarily on a still night and created perhaps the largest sheet of unbroken skating rink in America for a short time. It stretched nearly from Red Wing, Minnesota, five miles north of us, to Wabasha, perhaps 15 miles south, and shone like a mirror in the sun. However, since that time it has warmed, rained, sleeted and all the ice has broken up. A grower from New York’s Finger Lakes stopped by sometime back and asked me if the lake ever froze over? Apparently the Finger Lakes rarely do. I told him we drive trucks on it in mid-winter. He expressed disbelief. If the weather pattern does not change, however, we may not see trucks out there this year.
With the vines asleep it is now perhaps a good time to assess the past season, how the harvest went. How the vines look as we begin to look toward spring. Did your vines overbear and go into dormancy weakened? Do we need to prune a little tighter and leave fewer buds to remedy this? Are the vines becoming mature and can they handle more fruit than last season. In this case it is time to consider how much longer are we going to prune. Now is a good time to consider a bit, talk to other growers, and begin to develop a pruning plan that will be needed when pruning begins later this winter.
Were there any problems this past year? Now is the time to decide how to correct those problems and make a resolution not to let it happen (in some cases ever!) again. Did we get our dormant spray on this fall or are we going to have to get that on next spring when there always seems to be so much to do? Were the weeds well controlled? How will we deal with them in the coming year. Were there any nutrient problems? This is a good time to assess our situation and create the plan to resolve our deficiencies and emphasize our strengths.
If your vineyard is still young and you have never had fruit for sale it is time now and not next August, to begin to find a home for your grapes. One new grower I know sent letters introducing himself to all the wineries, both locally and in adjacent states, describing where he is and outlining the varieties and the number of vines each, he had available. It would be important to include photos of the vineyard and vines so they know you are serious. Wineries tend to be overrun with inquiries about growing grapes for them, most of which are not serious. You can solve this by exhibiting a good size, well kept vineyard via photos. Of course you could do the same with email, as well. Those wineries that respond should be contacted to outline possible quantities, prices, and get to know these folks. A good relationship with a winery can last for years at huge mutual benefit.
For growers who have had fruit in past this is not the time to sit back. Although last year’s crop is only just gone, it is not too early to begin marketing next year’s. In fact, this is a really good time to do so. With everything fresh in our minds, how did it go this fall. Did you have enough pickers? Were you able to get the fruit to the winery when they needed them. Were they still fresh? In future, do you need to arrange cold storage? Did you have enough picking crates or buckets to handle the crop. If the vines are more mature this year, will you have enough for next year? Did the markets used to sell your crop last season pan out well?
Most important, were they happy with the fruit they got. If not, and this is often the case, talk to them about what they need and how to deliver grapes more to their liking in future. I began drinking wine back in the 1960s. I recall having a bottle of Christian Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon that was so tart it was nearly sour. This is from too much acidity and for grapes to be acidic in the long baking California climate means the grapes were either picked too early or the vines were under-pruned and were overbearing. These renowned California growers of today, were like us then, inexperienced. They learned and so will we, but communication is the key to getting it right for everyone involved and getting in touch with the winemaker to see how he is feeling is the place to start.
Another valuable, even essential, marketing tool is to be able to offer a good estimate of the coming crop. Winemakers need to estimate how much tank space they are going to have to set aside for each wine they plan to make and I don’t know any grower, new or old who has not missed a crop estimate at one time or another.
First off, be conservative! If you have, for example, 600 vines of Marquette, remember that any estimate taken at a pounds/vine rate are subject to losses at many junctures along the way. I like to take 10 lbs. per vine as a starting place. That is about 3 tons/acre, pretty average production in the eastern U.S. If the vines are young you will be lucky to see 5 lbs./vine or 1.5 tons/acre. If the vines are older and have been pruned leaving extra buds you can expect to see 14 lbs./acre or a little over 4 tons/acre. To get higher than this you will need a divided canopy trellis like GDC. In any case these are best case scenario estimates. Following this estimation there could be mid-winter cold injury, late frost injury to buds in April, a prolonged infestation of Grape Flea Beetle and poor pollination weather in May, fungus damage to vine clusters in June and bird and raccoon damage to the ripening crop a few days before harvest in September to name a few. Like I say, there are many ways to over-estimate so be conservative. Even so, use this estimate as a ballpark figure on the grapes you can deliver. This is a marketing tool for you that the winemaker needs to know.
Also, today wineries seem to like to make contracts with growers. When I started out all we had to do was tell one of the wineries we had grapes for sale. They were thankful to have the grapes and all we needed to know was who was going to deliver and when they wanted them. Today, we find wineries sending along pretty extensive contracts. Having a set price is a good thing. Be sure there is a ‘natural causes” outlet for you. I have had raccoons come in the night before we picked and decimate the place. Grape growing is like any kind of agriculture – challenging and fulfilling but there are no guarantees.
In between all this winter planning, be sure and attend a Grape and Wine Show this winter. You will learn a lot, see some products you might want to try, meet some growers who will teach you if you take time to listen and you’ll have some great fun as well. If you come to the MGGA’s Cold Climate Grape & Wine Conference in St. Paul this winter, stop by my booth at the trade show and say hello. Hope to see you there.
This story was reprinted by permission of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA) and first appeared in the Winter issue of MGGA’s “Notes from the North.” Midwest Wine Press is proud to be a member of the MGGA. Please visit their website at mngrapegrowers.com