Own It: A Sane Person’s Guide To Insanity
Rows of vines rule your yard, easing out family and friends. Your mini-fermenter sprang a leak and oozed booze on the new Nissan. Pickled beets and canned corn occupy your wine cellar. You want a piece of the wine business, but don’t know how to branch out. Seasoned vineyard owners in BC, Ontario and Quebec offer six tips to get you started.
Caution: Only those with copious amounts of extra cash, an insanely rich relative, or the itch to convert sugar into value-added vino need read further.
It’s day one of vineyard ownership. You wake from a sound sleep to a glorious field of green. Outside your window, 50 willing workers hum happily spoon-feeding organic fertilizer onto softened soil. A high-tech in-ground irrigation system sprays rivulets of rain every hour as you relax on your veranda guzzling Gewürztraminer. Then reality strikes and you realize you’ve been standing in the sun too long without a hat, hunched over six-inch vines, burnt from the blistering heat. Overhead, a thick flock of starlings prepares to swoop and nibble. As sweat pools, you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. “Romantic notions of vineyards are pretty hard to shake,” offers Dan Taylor, former development officer for Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario. “When your knees are scraped and your fingernails are dirty and you’re overwhelmed with the volume of what Mother Nature forces upon you in a short period of time, you’ll need a drink of wine to get you through.” After planting her first property in 2006, Christine Coletta, co-owner of the Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland BC, was certain she’d never do it again. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” she admits. Undaunted by their first foray into farming, Coletta and husband Steve Lorie are now preparing to plant 60 to 80 acres of a new site, Garnet Valley Ranch. Cynthia Enns of Laughing Stock Vineyards on the Narmata Bench in the Okanagan Valley has adjusted to the seasonal cycle of the vineyard and finds it “grounding.” “It was a real surprise for us to be connected to the land,” she says. Enns rises at 5 a.m. in the summer to beat the heat.
There are many reasons to venture into vines such as a passion for purple, a fetish for farm implements, a fascination with dirt, and the desire to drink before noon. Being clear about your interest in investing in a vineyard is critical. Coletta spent her teens on a horse farm and was passionate about purchasing land. “The larger the better,” she admits. Enns and husband David wanted a lifestyle change from the financial industry and started a vineyard and winery at the same time. “We decided to take on the vineyard farming piece as a step toward our winery goal,” says vineyard manager Cynthia. Pat Del-Gatto, fourth generation winemaker and owner of Del-Gatto Estates Winery in Prince Edward County learned skills and secrets from his Italian grandfather. Del-Gatto’s five-year plan included building a trellising system, acquiring equipment and opening for retail sales. Starting a vineyard takes careful planning and research. Patience is critical in reaching financial goals. When Taylor started a vineyard in Prince Edward County 12 years ago, it took about eight years to recoup the first dollar from an investment. Now he estimates that it could take 12 years or more.
Develop soil sense
The pig farmer down the street assures you that the County has good growing potential. His horseradish crop survived the winter and he’s now growing garlic. You want to trust him and go with your gut, but wonder if you shouldn’t dig deeper. Planting in unsuitable sites is a mistake made by some vineyard owners. Coletta advises hiring a “terroir hunter” to help find the right site. For her vineyard, she chose an expert from Chile. She says, “the real beauty of a site lies below the surface. It may have a great lake view, but if the soil and other factors do not align, the vineyard will never be considered world class, no matter how hard you work at farming it.” Coletta suggests looking beyond the surface of the soil, to “dig a massive trench to discover soil composition, not just the top 12 inches.” Enns cautions against “bulldozer disease,” disturbing dirt on a site to contour the land without replacing the topsoil. “It will take years to establish plants,” she says. Coletta’s aha moment came when she realized that she is merely a steward or caretaker of the land and should make the best of it while she is here.
Focus on fruit
You don’t want to risk your relationship with your mother for not raising Riesling, her favourite varietal, especially if your dad prefers Pinot Noir. So how do you pick the perfect grape? The number of varietals is mind-boggling. Should you pick vinifera or go with hardier hybrids with a better chance of survival? It’s important to suit the soil and climate conditions. Del-Gatto relies on a “balanced mix of hybrid and vinifera vines to minimize risk in bad years.” He says, “hybrids will always be consistent and deliver a good crop because they are disease resistant and hardy against winter cold.” Coletta recommends, “Choosing grapes that are best suited to the site you have selected.” According to Coletta, it’s more important for the grapes to the site than for the owner to like it.
Hopefully you’ve sired a carload of kids whose main aim in life is to work the land and commune with nature. You can also make amends with long lost friends and enlist their help. Del-Gatto and his family do much of the labour themselves from vineyard to winery and retail, and hire local tradesmen when necessary. Enns suggests getting “hands on” with leaf removal and pruning. “Don’t just watch the crew do it,” she says. Now in her tenth harvest, she knows what she is doing and could instruct others. “I tended the vines right from the beginning like a first-time parent,” says Coletta proudly. “I did all of those things new parents do.” According to Coletta, “You can make a lot of wrong steps, but it’s pretty hard to kill grapes.” Del-Gatto advises starting small, “with a half acre for the first year so you can determine who much time is required to perform each stage of maintaining a vineyard from planting to trellising, training, pruning, weed control and pest management.” Taylor recommends minimizing plantings and buying grapes from growers.
Seal the Deal
You’ve spent several summers nurturing new vines and feeding the soil to produce your first crop. You think your investment will finally pay off and that wineries will be lining up to pick and purchase your grapes. Then you find out there is no market for your variety and the wineries wonder about your farming practices. “I’ve seen too many vineyard owners plant what survives, using less known hybrid grapes to produce wines that consumers aren’t interested in drinking or are not willing to take a purchasing decision on,” states Anthony Carone, owner and winemaker of Vignoble Carone in Quebec. Another mistake new vineyard owners make is to plant varietals that may be too trendy. Harry McWatters, considered the pioneer of Okanagan Valley wine, gives the example of Pinot Gris as the largest variety currently being planted in the Okanagan Valley. McWatters wonders whether the consumer will still have an appetite for Pinot Gris once all vineyards grow to size. It’s important to make sure that there is a market for your grapes and a winery willing to buy them.
So why start your own vineyard? With the high cost of land, labour and equipment, the uncertainty of climate conditions and little profit for a number of years, you’d have to be crazy to get into vines full-time. So why do people do it? Maybe there’s something about battling the elements to protect a tender commodity and bring it to market, or finding the right formula to cultivate world-class fruit. There’s also the pride of seeing hard work pay off in a high quality product. Just think about it — you could spend your day behind a desk staring at a flat screen, waiting for 5 p.m. or outside in the fresh air chasing starlings, your straw hat askew atop a burnt head. What would you pick?