Pretend for a moment that you suddenly and surprisingly became ultra lucky and received a sizable sum of money. Perhaps you won the lottery or got an inheritance from a rich uncle. Regardless of where the windfall came from, you are now a certified millionaire. Deciding what to do with all that cash can be a dilemma; one suggestion would be to buy a patch of land and invest in the wide world of wine.
It doesn't matter if you are inexperienced in winemaking. You can hire people who know the difference between Sangiovese and Sauvignon to do the work while you sit in the CEO's chair and oversee your ambitious little empire. However, one thing you won't be able to succeed without is the study of the land you'll cultivate. Finding vacant land to convert into a vineyard sounds relatively easy. But taking the right steps to assure the soil is productive can be a challenge. You need to practice prudent pedology, the study of soil as a natural resource. To be considered are the aspects of formation, classification, mapping, chemicals, irrigation and fertility, as they pertain to the management of dirt. In other words, "soil science."
There are five basic pedological and edaphological (the other division of soil science) phases that influence the soil for living plants to help develop a fertile vineyard. Keep in mind that if this is a new venture, you would be wise to consult a professional viticulturist to advise you on planning and planting.
Select the Site - Hillside or Flat?
Hillside appellations, especially those facing southwest, have been the preferred location for growing quality grapes for ages. However, some of these sites are available only because other agricultural crops have failed there due to rocky, infertile or alluvial soil. (Learn more in "Why Are Most Vineyards Placed on Slopes and Hillsides?")
Another disadvantage is that the slope and topography can take a toll on the equipment needed to maintain the site. On the other hand, the benefits of sloping and terraced vineyards include easy spraying, pruning and picking, plus fewer drainage and frost issues. By comparison, quality grapes are usually more profuse on level ground, though they tend to be more vigorous and require additional pruning to keep the vines from getting wild and out of control.
Sun and Wind Exposure
It is essential to know what side of the vineyard gets the most sunshine, shade and wind during the March to October growing season. Sun is essential to good grape production, so positioning a vineyard among shade trees or in the shadows of a canyon is not recommended. The more sun, the more grapes will grow. But too much wind shuts the CO2 stomata in the leaves and causes vines to stop respiring. (Read on in "The Anatomy of a Grapevine.")
Preparing the Soil
Soil should be tested by pits, samples and laboratory analysis to determine its pedological health. Samples are taken from depths of 24 to 36-inches, at which the root structure establishes itself. Tests can also detect the presence of metatode worms and/or phylloxera pests that are destructive to the roots.
To fortify the soil, add necessary lime, nitrogen, compost or other additives. Another consideration is ripping the soil to a 3-foot depth to spread the amendments evenly and help slow down erosion and choke potential weed growths. Irrigation can be the most expensive aspect of maintenance, especially for flatlands. Options include a pump to distribute the water evenly, drip emitters and watering by hand. (Learn more in "Soil Types and the Wine Grapes That Grow Best in Them.")
Trellising and Spacing
Trellising is a complicated process that is valuable at some vineyards, though useless at others. Consulting other vintners in the area is a smart start. Spacing is a hot pedology topic in many wine circles. The wide spacing of numerous high-end Napa Valley vineyards, for example, has been a wine industry standard for years, though smaller separations are common as well.
Viticulturists measure spacing between the rows three ways: 12'x6', 8'x4' and 3'x3'. The first dictates what equipment is essential, the second limits what machinery fits in the space and the third is too tight for most maintenance vehicles. It depends, too, on the type of grapes planted. Pinot Noir is best suited for high-density plantings, while Rhone, Syrah and Greneche fit nicely in smaller intervals.
Planting the Vines
After location, soil prep, irrigation and spacing are determined, you're ready to grow grapes. Planting generally occurs in late spring after the threat of frost has passed. Should you use dominant or green-growing vines? Dominant usually is preferred, so buy and let them acclimate about a week. Keep them moist until planting, then fill a 5-gallon bucket halfway with water. Also dip the roots in a solution of mycorrizae fungus to bolster the plant's ability to soak up moisture and nutrients. Dig an 18" by 20" hole and insert each plant with a half bucket of water.
Sprinkle shards of broken glass in each hole to keep gophers and burrowing pests from chewing on the roots. And dig up some extra soil to build a protective mound around the exposed stems. Now your new vineyard is in the capable hands of Mother Nature. If pedology and edaphology procedures were properly performed, you should be ready to harvest the grapes by September or October.
After the grapes are picked and processed, the new wine is ready to be poured, sipped and enjoyed throughout the fall and winter. When spring makes its introduction, it's time for another cycle to set the stage for next year. Time for an encore. (Read on in "From Vines to Vino: The Process of Making Wine.")