Growing Grapes in the Northeast
Posted: June 18, 2012
The Northeast is proving that wine grapes can be grown for quality wine in our region with more than 2,800 acres of wine grapes and 140 wineries. As an aspiring grower you may be drawn by your love of wine and the romance surrounding the industry. But farming is hard work and wine grape establishment “is not for the faint of wallet,” Mark told us. This workshop was designed to introduce aspiring growers to grape growing realities and get them started in the right direction to minimize their risk and optimize their potential for success.
The first thing to consider when thinking about a new business venture is the economics. “I am not trying to scare you out of this but you want to know there are a lot of up-front costs,” Fritz told us. Establishing a vineyard can cost $10,000 to $28,000 per acre to depending on what resources you already have on the property. You will also need equipment: tractor, tiller, mower, sprayer etc. If you don’t already have these, plan on another $45,000 to $55,000. With average yields of four tons per acre you will start making money after six to seven years. Can a vineyard be profitable? “Yes,” Fritz told us, “if you have a good business plan, excellent management, match scale of equip to the scale of your vineyard, if your operation is efficient and your risk is minimized (good site).” The good news is there is a strong market, strong prices, and a strong community of growers. To get a start on that business plan it is a good idea to start with cost and return models like this one (available in Vineyard Costs Presentation) and tweak it to fit your situation.
Visualize the vineyards you have seen. Most are on top of a hill, on a slope, on well drained soil. Fritz explained the why this is and what to evaluate in potential vineyard sites. Vineyard profitability and sustainability are dependent upon excellent site selection. “No site is perfect but you need to get your site assessed before you spend your first dollar,” Fritz told us. You will want to consider the climate, aspect, elevation, slope, soil, disease potential and don’t forget to think about your neighbors!
Climate it critical. Your site can’t be so cold it kills the vines and must have enough warm days to ripen the fruit. If your site gets down to -5 F or -10 F you are at the borderline. There is no magic number, but generally winter lows of -8 F is the critical point where one in ten years you will have a problem with frost injury. To ripen wine grapes you will need at least 165 frost free days, long season varieties need more like 180. If you are at a higher elevation from sea level your site will accumulate less heat.
High elevation (from sea level) may be a challenge. But greater relative elevation compared to the surrounding area can be a good thing. You don’t want to be in a low area where frost pools. “Think of the cool air as moving like a river on your land. You want it to be able to flow away from your vines,” Fritz told us. Slope and situation above surrounding valleys will keep that cool air from pooling.
Soils are also important. Fertility can be improved, but good structure, at least 30 inches of soil depth, and good drainage are critical. To start you can check the web soil survey for your area, dig a soil pit to check for color, texture and deep roots, and take a soil test. Then “get someone that knows vineyard soils at your site,” Fritz told us.
Site selection is definitely not something to ignore. For more information see presentations here. You don’t want to start your vineyard on a site like the one Fritz showed us where cattails were growing.
Pest, Disease and Weed Management
“This is quite simply the most difficult fine wine region in the world,” Mark Chien told us. What do diseases and insects like the most? Heat and moisture. Both are plentiful in the Northeast. With an average of four inches of rain a month all through the year we face much bigger challenges than growers in the West.
Powdery and Downy Mildew, Japanese beetles, and weeds are huge threats to your young vines. Phomopsis, Black rot, Botrytis, Flea beetles, Grape Berry Moth and Grape borer will be upcoming threats. Make sure you know your risks and make a plan to manage them.
There are many varieties and root stock to choose from. Make sure you consider cost, demand, and what works on your site. A variety might be very desirable to the winery, but “no one will buy it if you can’t ripen it,” Fritz reminded us. Many of the more desirable varieties are susceptible to rots. For example, Chardonnay has high fruit quality, and fair cold hardiness. But it is susceptible to botritus, grapevine yellows and powdery mildew. “It is very susceptible to every disease and will be the first one to get it.” Chambourcin, on the other hand, has excellent quality, good cold hardiness and disease resistance. But it can have low vigor so you have to watch the nutrition status. A good place to start when thinking about varieties are the climate maturity groupings by Greg Jones (see below). You want to make sure there is enough heat at your location to ripen the fruit. More in variety the presentation here.
There are a lot of things to consider before starting a vineyard. Participants said this workshop was a, “great overview!... enough information to help us decide to move forward or bail out!” The next steps will be a lot of reading. Armed with new knowledge then will be the time to visit other vineyards and start making plans.