Growing wine grapes at home

What can feed your ego more than to grow your own grapes, ripen them to perfection, produce your own wine and then slap your own label on the bottle to share with friends and family. Now, that’s a rush. However, it is also a lot of work, requiring dedication to weeding, training, pruning, netting and a constant battle with insects, diseases, wildlife and Mother Nature. Fortunately there is an easier way to make wine from grapes . . . by purchasing fresh grapes. The aura of growing your own grapes may fade quickly when you compare it to the ease of purchasing. Think of all the extra time you will have to pursue other interests — like perfecting your winemaking skills. I have done it both ways for several years and, for me, there is no contest.

If you are lucky enough to live on the West Coast of the United States, near a winegrowing region, getting grapes is relatively easy. However, living on the East Coast — or anywhere that is not near an established viticultural area — does not mean you cannot get quality wine grapes. Shipping fresh grapes to the East to home winemakers was very popular during Prohibition, though very limited by variety. Since that time, servicing the hobby winemaking industry has expanded significantly by variety and to many major urban areas of the country. Regional markets or railheads frequently are home to dealers of produce and in particular, fresh grapes. These major dealers will frequently wholesale their grapes to other more local purveyors and provide local retail sales to home winemakers as well. If you live on or near the East Coast, you are probably within a reasonable drive of such a dealer. In this article, I will review the keys to success when buying grapes shipped from a distant location.


From Vineyard to Market

Grapes make their way to local purveyors in several ways, depending on the source. Most grapes intended for home winemakers will be packaged in 36-lb. boxes, sometimes referred to as cases. Grapes originating from South America and Italy are packed in 18- and 22-lb. (8.1- and 10-kg) boxes respectively. Some dealers can provide grapes in ¼ and ½ ton bins, usually intended for serious hobbyists and commercial wineries. (A word of caution with delicate grape varieties, the larger bins will contain some crushed fruit at the bottom due to the heavier weight of the package). If you choose to obtain your grapes in such larger packs, make sure you have a way of handling them once you get them home. Some dealers can also provide local home delivery services. Indeed, the larger purveyors can arrange for direct drop shipments to relatively remote locations throughout the country, provided the quantities are large enough to warrant the added costs.

Traditionally, shipping boxes have been made of wood slats although more recently plastic boxes are favored. Each box will have a packer or growers label on at least one end. This label will identify the grape variety, number of pounds, and name and address of the packer or grower. Some of the labels will have registered trademarked names, such as Valley Beauty, Smiling Baby, etc. It is suggested that the grapes in those boxes are sourced from the same area year after year by the same packer. If you are pleased with those grapes, you may want to make repeat purchases. Boxes labeled with the growers label contain grapes from a particular vineyard or perhaps even a particular area within a vineyard. Each vintage year, the grapes from the same vineyard will be so labeled.

Premium grapes are normally harvested starting either at night or early in the morning before the daytime temperature gets too high. They are field packed in shipping containers (normally 36 lbs./16 kg), consolidated by dealer, gassed with sulfites, quick chilled to 34 °F (1.1 °C), and shipped directly to a specific purveyor, sometimes arriving on the East Coast in as little as three days. This is a grower to dealer direct shipment and normally limited to very premium grapes. Other non or less-premium grapes may be harvested and quickly transferred to local packing facilities where they are chilled and processed and subsequently consolidated by grape variety to await sales and shipment to dealers, arriving possibly weeks after harvest. This process is fairly common and would represent a grower to consolidator to shipper to dealer transaction.

Regardless of the transfer method, once grapes arrive at your purveyor, he or she should be able to assure you, if asked, that the “cold chain” has been maintained at 34 °F (1.1 °C) from harvest until you load the grapes into your vehicle. Be cautious of seasonal dealers who do not have proper cold storage facilities to protect the grapes until you get them. Arrange to pick up your grapes as quickly as possible, if this is the case.

Once the grapes arrive, your local dealer may be able to advise you on your grape purchase specifications, i.e., sugar content (in °Brix), total acidity and pH. Keep in mind that we are dealing with natural products and as such the numbers can and will vary box to box. A purveyor’s readings should be used only as a guide. Once you crush and destem your grapes, stir the must and take your own readings. These are the only numbers you should rely on. Remember to adjust the readings for temperature since the must will most likely still be in the 40–50s °F (4.4–10 °C).

Once you arrive at the dealer’s premises, ask to be shown the grape varieties you are planning to purchase. You should view grapes from several growers/packers. Look at the grapes in the boxes. Look for signs of quality, i.e., firm berries, good coloration, chilled temperatures, clean packaging, no mold or mildew, minimal raisining, few or no leaves and twigs, etc. There should be little or preferably no MOG (Material Other than Grapes). Since the boxes must contain at least 36 lbs. (16 kg), occasionally box lids crush some berries near the top, causing mold to appear. Such damaged berries (and possible resulting mold) should be discarded before starting the winemaking process. Conditions such as that are usually rare in premium priced grapes.

Much to the chagrin of dealers, some of the old timers often sample individual berries to determine ripeness by taste sweetness. I caution you against this; all it tells you is the berry you ate was sweet or not. One berry will not indicate the final readings of the box. If you participate in such tastings, please limit your appetite!

The real measure of overall quality is when the box is crushed and a sample of the mixed must is taken. Please recognize still that grapes are natural agricultural products and as such the sugar, acid, and pH will vary from box to box. Hence the importance of taking your final readings on the entire crushed batch and making appropriate adjustments.

Pricing of the grapes is driven by a number of factors. Obvious criteria include grape variety, grape quality, growingAVA, grower reputation, packaging and transportation. Also impacting pricing is storage and refrigeration, transportation costs, shipping expediency, currency fluctuations for foreign sources, packaging, dealer services and technical knowledge.

The Good Grape Grocer

A dealers’ reputation and transparency are key factors; you should feel, first, comfortable making the purchase and asking whatever you need to know about the grapes, and second, confident that you are getting exactly what was described to you. This is especially true if you are making a distant grape purchase, sight unseen. They should provide you with the grape quality you desire and a demonstrated ability for timely delivery of your choice of grapes. A quality purveyor should be able to tell you with certainty who the grape grower was, their location within an AVA, length of transportation time, and other pertinent information. Some purveyors have developed direct relationships with growers and may even own vineyards. These are the dealers you want to search out for fruits (and subsequent wine) that will make you proud. With such relationships, you can be advised of ripening conditions, including sugars, acid and pH readings even prior to the harvest. It will also behoove you to develop a good relationship with your local purveyor; being on a first name basis would be great. A smile and a word of appreciation for his or her efforts to get you quality grapes go a long way. Also, as a hint, please do not ever suggest to your dealer that his “bad” grapes caused your poor wine. Look the grapes over before you buy them; if you are not happy, do not make the purchase! You have a major impact on the final quality of your wine.

Since there are two annual grape harvesting and winemaking periods, your grape purveyor may have grapes available twice a year. The northern hemisphere, i.e., North America and Europe, harvests in September through November. The Southern Hemisphere, i.e., South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, harvests in April and May.

Keep in mind that grapes arrive over a period of time, depending on grape maturity dates, harvest dates, consolidation dates, etc. If you plan on purchasing several varieties, they may not all be available at the same time. Contact the purveyor early for probable due dates and plan around them with some flexibility as to your start of fermentation.

Grape Varieties

Grapes grow in many locations covering the whole range of temperatures, from the very warm Central Valley of California to the cool vineyards to the north. Grapes from the warmer south, for example, will usually reflect lower grades and pricing. Grapes from the cooler northern areas will often reflect more premium prices. (These geographical generalities of course will be just the opposite for grapes sourced for the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina or Chile, where the cooler temperatures are to the south). Within all growing areas and even AVAs, there are better and super premium growers, with commensurate pricing. As an example compare Cabernet Sauvignon pricing for grapes from the southern regions to Napa growers. Certain varietals will do better in some areas and develop commensurate reputations.

A Gewürztraminer from Washington State will likely produce a more complex wine than one grown in the south. Overly ripe fruit (with high Brix and associated difficult pH and TA values) from the south will present far more of a winemaking challenge than one grown in a cooler region (with more moderate specifications). A major factor even in the normally warmer zones is the altitude of the vineyard; higher altitudes will generally be cooler and may very well produce higher quality grapes. Grapes from the northern regions of the West Coast tend to be difficult to find in 36-lb. (16-kg) boxes; the fruit is frequently delivered directly to commercial wineries throughout the region by truckloads.

Beyond Selling Grapes

Full service dealers will also offer some preliminary winemaking services such as crushing, destemming, sulfiting, pressing, as well as providing sugar, acid, pH and possibly YAN analysis for your grapes. You may have to provide your own containers for transporting the must home or you may purchase them at the facility. This service allows you to make wine without a large capital outlay for a crusher/destemmer and wine press.

Of tremendous benefit to the home winemaker is to locate a dealer that has on-site technical support for making wine. The support should cover all aspects of winemaking, including the latest developments in yeast selections, additives such as nutrients, tannins, fining agents, etc. Some purveyors will even offer classes for novice winemakers.

Before embarking on your grape-purchasing venture, decide on the quantity and type of wine you wish to produce. For example, are you looking for a low cost drinkable wine destined for rapid consumption, or are you planning for a specific varietal, high quality, complex wine that will tantalize your taste buds for years to come? These two extremes, and everything in between, should drive your grape purchasing decisions. Also recognize that regardless of the sourcing of the grapes, a good quality wine can be produced, provided you start with sound, appropriately ripened grapes. Palate interest and wine complexity may, however, be different depending on the starting quality of the grapes. It is that difference that distinguishes a more interesting and enjoyable wine from one that is merely quaffable.

Next, break the thought process down incrementally, first to white or red, and then work on the varietal or varietals. Once those decisions are made it becomes a search for the best quality grape your budget will tolerate. Note that the home winemaking industry focuses its products (yeasts, additives, etc.) on 5-gallon (19-L) batches. A rule of thumb suggests about 15 lbs. of fresh grapes for each gallon of finished wine (1.8 kg/L). So if you decide to make 5 gallons (19 L) of wine, two 36-lb. (16 kg) boxes of grapes will just about do it. (Plan on adding a pectic enzyme at crush to maximize your juice extraction). For example, let’s decide on a Gewürztraminer and a Zinfandel. Since the Gewürztraminer prefers a colder climate we should investigate grapes from Washington, Oregon, or the northern counties of California. For the Zinfandel we would look for a moderate climate such as Lodi, Suisun Valley, Amador and Mendocino counties. Compare the varietal pricing and berry condition for each region for your decision point.

As you make your varietal decisions, consider some basics relative to color, texture, and nose of the final product. Alicante grapes became very popular with early immigrant families due to its relative low cost, inky color, and frequent high sugar content. Despite its lack of complexity as a wine, it still worked itself into family recipes. These recipes survive today in many families. However, Malbec grapes will provide similar color and will give a more interesting, complex taste. Remember also, aroma, the portion of smell that is attributed to the grape variety, can be accentuated by selecting an aromatic grape, such as Gewürztraminer or Traminette. Bouquet, the part of smell that is attributed to fermentation and aging, will be influenced by your selection of yeasts, nutrient and other additives during fermentation. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel will normally produce a heavier bodied, rounder wine than, for example, a Sangiovese, or a Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Viognier will be heavier, more viscous, than a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris.

There are several alternatives to making wines from fresh grapes. You may also purchase fresh juice, frozen juice, or frozen musts. The shipping process to your local purveyor is the same as for fresh grapes except for the temperatures, which are kept at 30 °F (-1.1 °C) for the juices. Your local dealer may also have facilities on site to produce frozen crushed and destemmed grapes. All these products are packed in 5- or 6-gallon (19- or 23-L) plastic containers suitable for primary fermentation. This saves a lot of work, not to mention the capital expenditures of equipment. With such products, you may select your grapes and possibly witness the operation.

So, when buying wine grapes grown elsewhere, be sure to find a reputable dealer. (Ask at your home winemaking shop or local winemaking club for other’s experiences with regional merchants.) Be sure the grapes have remained cold (34 °F/1.1 °C) in transit and inspect them to ensure they are sound before you purchase. Over time you will learn to distinguish problem amounts of mold, MOG or other indicators of poorly-handled grapes from the minor imperfections (such as the occasional raisin) that are inevitable in any natural product. And finally, record the source of your grapes so you can find the same grower or packer next year if you liked their product. And of course, once you’ve got your grapes purchased — turn them into wine!

Good wine starts in the vineyard

Social Etiqutte

Displays of wine snobbery may be seen as signs of superiority and frowned upon accordingly. We in the Shiraz Republic treat each other as equals, no matter the quantity of grapes that you purchase or the scale of your wine making.

Here is a summary of the Shiraz Republic’s Social Etiquette policy.

1. Make yourself known (”G’day how ya goin’?)
2. You tell me what you want. (Provided it’s Shiraz)
a. How much (kilograms/tonnes)
b. Where
c. When (roughly, the weather and the vines make the rules)
d. Any special requests (Baume’, clone)
e. Your contact details
3. We agree.
4. We keep our word
5. You keep yours
6. We test the grapes each week. (and inform you via this website)
7. We tell you when they will be delivered. (We know most people want them on the weekend and we try to accommodate, but we try to give you a week’s notice.)
8. All hell breaks loose as we get the crew together to pick, pack and transport
9. Our intrepid driver delivers to you. (Make sure someone is around to help him unload)
10. You pay on delivery or organise a bank transfer ahead of delivery (Cash preferred, but cheques OK)
11. You make good wine (don’t be afraid to get it tested. The wine supplies shop is your friend!)
12. Keep in touch (Register with The Shiraz Republic, follow us on twitter, facebook etc.)

This article is adapted from an excerpt of the upcoming book, Taste the Past: the Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine.

There’s no nice way to put it: American grapes make bad wine. At least, that’s their reputation. For decades oenophiles have turned up their noses at the idea of native American grapes, with the industry bible Oxford Companion to Wine describing their flavors as being akin to “animal fur and candied fruits.” And so the Napa Valley grew famous with its plantings of Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon, Cabernet or Pinot—the so-called “noble” French grapes—while Concord grapes were deemed only fit for jelly and juice.

But American wine grapes are poised for an epic rebrand. Using DNA analysis and other high-tech tools, a group of scientists in Minnesota, California, New York and other states have taken a harder look at indigenous American grapes and found long-hidden qualities that could redeem them even to the most snobbish of wine-sippers. Their goal: to produce a drink whose taste and quality can compete with the most coveted French and Italian vintages.

“We have grapes that taste like pineapple, strawberry, black pepper. I think the resources are only limited by the amount of time we spend exploring them,” says Matthew Clark, an assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the University of Minnesota. “We’re really trying to develop wine products that are more in the European style, but utilize the resources of the North American germ plasm.”

Clark is part of VitisGen, a project that aims to do for wine what the Human Genome Project did for humans. That is: use the vast power and rapidly declining cost of DNA research to pinpoint the precise chromosomal locations in American grapes that drive flavors, aromas, grape size and other important attributes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began funding VitisGen in 2011, and then VitisGen2 in 2017. The project now includes scientists from Cornell University, the University of California at Davis, the University of Minnesota and other universities, as well as industry giant E&J Gallo.

The new research has uncovered another valuable trait as well: a reservoir of natural pest and disease resistance. Like strawberries, grapes are particularly vulnerable to pests and disease, which explains why more than 260 million pounds of pesticides were applied to vineyards between 2007 and 2016 in California alone, according to official state records.

Downy mildew is one of the leading global problems. So is Pierce’s disease, which causes entire vineyards to wither and die and is transmitted by small winged insects called sharpshooters. Much of the vineyard treatments involve sulfur and copper—relatively low-risk chemicals—but even those traditional sprays can cause problems. Breeding grapes with their own resistance to these threats could be a life saver for vineyards across the country.

Clark says the new CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology could speed up the creation of new varieties by precisely deleting the DNA that drives unwanted attributes. “It’s a tool that plant breeders are certainly using in a number of crops. Some of the questions that come to mind, and I don’t know if these are warranted or not, but what do you put on a bottle? What would the label say when you have wine that has now been, for lack of a better word, modified with CRISPR?” Clark wonders.

Hand pollination, from a VitisGen video on growing grape crossbreeds. (VitisGen)

It may even be possible to breed those nasty “animal fur” flavors out of native American grapes. “We’re doing work right now to identify some of the off aromas and flavors, and we’re making great strides,” says Clark. “Ultimately our goal is to have a DNA test that we can use to screen a seedling years before it produces its first fruit as part of the breeding program, to determine if it has that negative trait or not.”

Yet another challenge awaits this theoretical improved American wine. Compelling science and environmental benefits are all well and good, but will picky wine lovers accept these unfamiliar grapes? One answer came in 2015, when The New York Times listed the top 10 wines of the year. “A few years ago, I never imagined I would fall in love with a Vermont wine,” critic Eric Asimov wrote of Deidre Heekin and Caleb Barber’s La Garagista vineyard. “ wines are so soulful that they demanded my attention. I was especially taken with the floral, spicy, lively 2013 Damejeanne.”

It was as if a Kansas restaurant had won Times praise for best sushi.

The wines he loved used Marquette red and La Crescent white grapes, both created at the University of Minnesota (UM). UM varieties are now grown in numerous states, and in Canada. “The wines we produce, that niche itself, they offer some unique flavor profiles. It’s an opportunity for someone who’s interested in locally produced products,” Clark said, adding that large producers such as Gallo may be able to use such grapes for blended wines that don’t specify a particular variety.

The Seeds

The Minnesota program began in the mid-1980s, but moved very slowly at first. “It really took nearly 20 years to get Frontenac, our first variety, out ,” Clark said. Frontenac was a hybrid: 50 percent from a wild Vitis riparia American vine, and 50 percent from Vitis vinifera, the European grapevine. Other new cultivars come from the American native grapes V. labrusca or V. rupestris.

In the past only one out of 10,000 Minnesota grape seedlings made it to the stage of being grown in vineyards. Many have one desirable trait but lack others, such as berry size or productivity. “So it really is a numbers game,” Clark said in a phone call. Now VitisGen is speeding up the process.

The American grapes clearly have potential, but one expert pointed to an obstacle. For U.S. consumers, grape variety and wine preference are strongly linked, notes Geoff Kruth, a Master Sommelier and the president of GuildSomm, an international nonprofit based in California. “It takes quite a bit of time and exposure for new grapes to catch on with the drinking public,” Kruth wrote in an email. “If the quality is there, unknown varieties with good yields can always find a home in blends or niche bottlings. But you wouldn’t want to be in a position to have to sell large quantities of any wine without a familiar grape variety or brand name blend.”

Clark is optimistic, given the strong interest in regional foods, craft brewing and small distilleries in recent years. “Maybe we’ll swing back to where we were before the ’70s, where people bought red wine and white wine, or bought by region. And they weren’t looking for Chardonnay, or Merlot or Pinot on the label.” Maybe next time, they’ll be looking for Vermont.

Leaf samples from different grapevines being tested at Cornell University for natural resistance to Downy Mildew, as part of the VitisGen project. (Cornell University)

Viticultural Apartheid?

To understand the challenge of creating a truly American wine grape, you have to understand that viticulture has become a monoculture. French grapes dominate the marketplace, especially in America.

I asked geneticist Sean Myles if there was any justification for planting only the famous varieties. He’s at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and was the lead author on a widely cited 2011 grape genome paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DNA analysis showed that humans have been breeding and mixing grape varieties for at least 8,000 years—when organized winemaking began in the Caucasus Mountain region. That’s thousands of years before the French started making wine.

Myles reeled off a botanical sermon about rampant viticultural apartheid. “If applied to any other category you’d say this is just plain old racism. A little bit of wild ancestry? Ah, you’re still a hybrid. You’re inferior to the noble European grapes,” Myles said of the prejudice against American grape DNA.

One grape scientist who isn’t involved with the VitisGen research said the shift towards global grape monoculture began in the late 1800s. Before that time many countries and regions grew hundreds and hundreds of local varieties. Then in the 1860s a tiny, aphid-like pest called Phylloxera began destroying vineyards throughout Europe. Two things happened during replanting.

“First, they had to choose which variety to use, and in many cases—not only in France, but also in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, and everywhere—they had a tendency to forget the old (native) grandfather varieties,” says Jose Vouillamoz, a Swiss wine scientist and co-author of the acclaimed reference book Wine Grapes. “And they chose to plant varieties that were easier to cultivate, and especially that would produce more. So that’s why in many regions some of the ancient, traditional varieties have been almost abandoned, or sometimes have disappeared.”

The solution to Phylloxera was grafting European vines onto American rootstock, which had natural resistance.

In recent decades the global shift towards monoculture has accelerated, even as some vineyards try to preserve old local varieties. A study in the Journal of Wine Economics found that between 1990 and 2010, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot more than doubled their share in the world’s vineyards. By 2010 French grape varieties comprised 67 percent of vineyard acreage in New World countries, up from 53 percent just 10 years before.

Almost all of the wine we drink stems from just a few grape varieties. (Image Source / Alamy)

Inbred Nobility

A final irony is that oenophiles are in some ways loving their famous French grapes to death—or more precisely, preventing them from loving at all. In an obsessive quest to keep classic wine flavors consistent, vineyards stopped natural crossbreeding. Instead, new vines are created not from seeds but by cutting pieces of existing vines and grafting them to rootstock. (The grapes self-pollinate, too, so aside from mutations the DNA doesn’t change.) In other words, the famous grapes stopped evolving—but insects and diseases didn’t. For example, Pinot Noir may date to the Roman era.

A VitisGen summary notes that modern grape production is expensive and requires large quantities of chemicals, “largely due to the widespread planting of unimproved cultivars, developed 150—2000 years ago, that are highly susceptible to biotic and abiotic stresses.”

Myles elaborated, with a grim prediction. “That is going to be the potential demise of the entire international wine industry as we know it today. The industry is losing the arms race to the pathogens that continually evolve and attack the grapevines. It’s really only a matter of time. If we just keep using the same genetic material, we’re doomed,” he said.

That might seem unlikely, except that botanists can cite examples where excessive crop monoculture led to disaster. By the early 1800s most people in Ireland were planting just one potato variety, propagating it from shoots. That wasn’t a problem until the rot disease Phytophthora infestans showed up in the 1840s, destroying entire harvests and leading to massive starvation. The Gros Michel banana dominated markets until the 1950s, when a fungus destroyed many plantations. It was replaced by the supposedly immune Cavendish, which now occupies about 90 percent of the world market. But the old Gros Michel fungus kept on evolving—and now it can attack Cavendish, too.

It’s a Catch-22 for the industry: keep using the same grapes wine-lovers expect, even as they grow weaker genetically, or risk introducing unfamiliar new varieties.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine

In this viticultural detective story wine geeks and history lovers alike will discover new tastes and flavors to savor.


Psychology, Wine and Climate

For centuries winemakers had no precise way to separate the good characteristics in native grapes from the obviously bad ones. Now they do. Andy Walker, a viticulture expert at the University of California at Davis who is also part of the VitisGen project, says the continued aversion to American varieties is purely psychological.

“And in fact”—given the social pressures to reduce chemical use and the way climate change is already impacting wine growing regions—”we’ll have to get over it,” he says.

Vouillamoz agrees that climate change will ultimately force vineyards to make tough decisions. To make the point, at one wine conference he faked a bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti—one of the most renowned and expensive wines in the world. “And I put on the label, the vintage 2214. And I was asking the audience what do you think will be in this bottle, in 200 years from now. Will there still be Pinot Noir, as it is today, or something else?” he says.

Vouillamoz says Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy are already out of the optimal window of cultivation because of increasing heat, yet Romanée-Conti’s legendary owners would turn in their graves if future generations plant some other variety. It would be like planting date palms to replace the Washington, D.C. cherry trees.

“So if you want to keep Pinot you can do adjustments, but at some point you will need some more help,” Vouillamoz says. That could mean tweaking Pinot with heat-resistant genes from some obscure vine.

Scores of smaller vineyards are now using native grape hybrids in cool climate areas across North America. In 2014 Ducort vineyards in Bordeaux planted new vines that contain disease-resistant genes, and German vineyards have done similar plantings.

But the general public might be confused by such grapes. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMO crops are safe to eat, but consumer resistance is a reality. One newspaper mistakenly used the term “Frankengrapes” to describe Walker’s research. That word was originally used to describe an early GMO tomato variety that contained a flounder gene. The headline was eventually changed, and Walker said the wine writer didn’t aim to denigrate his work. Yet the risk of exaggeration was there.

Technically, the VitisGen scientists are using genomics and other tools just to identify various genes – not to insert other animal or plant species DNA beyond grapes. Clark says it’s essentially a greatly speeded up version of old-fashioned breeding. Walker agrees. “There’s no reason to use genetic modification unless you don’t have the genes at hand. And within Vitis we have everything we need,” he says of the native grape varieties.

Using just a handful of grapes doesn’t even make sense from a purely sensory point of view, Walker adds. “We’re still caught in that trap of saying, ‘well, there are only 10 good varieties in the whole world, and that’s it.’ Anyone who’s drunk wine around the world realizes this is a complete fallacy,” he says. “There are wonderful wines to be made everywhere from a huge number of varieties. But it’s a marketing scam that we ended up with 10 varieties that are destined to be the best in the world.”

With all the excitement of harvest and crush in the air, it’s easy to forget about planting. But if you’d like to start a small, backyard vineyard next spring, there are some important things to do before winter arrives. It’ll make it easier to get your vines in the ground when the weather warms up.

The most important elements in any vineyard development project are research and resources. And the most important resources are other grape growers. Try to find folks in your region who are growing decent grapes. Then bring them some good wine and ask as many questions as they’re willing to answer.

When and what did they plant? Are the vines on their own roots or special rootstock? What resources — favorite books, local growers or nurseries, the county agriculture department — do they use? How much and when do they water? When and what do they apply to the grapes to control mildew, rot or insects? Is there a local university or community college, like UC Davis in California or Cornell in New York, that offers courses on vine growth?

Once these preliminary questions are answered, you’re ready to start planning your backyard vineyard.

How Will Your Vineyard Grow?

Ten key questions to answer this fall

Here are ten questions you’ll need to answer before you plant your vines next spring. The more research you do at the beginning of your project, the less backpedaling and problem-solving you’ll have to do once the vineyard is growing and producing.

1. Have I done soil samples to check for available nutrients and potential soil problems?

This is pretty easy — just grab a shovel and dig a nice deep hole (up to three feet for a good sample of subsoil) where you plan to grow some grapes. Once the hole is dug, scrape soil off the side of the hole into a large Ziploc bag. Scrape soil from 1 to 12 inches into one labeled bag, and scrape some soil from two feet and deeper into another labeled bag.

Consult your local Agriculture Extension Office (county branch of USDA) for a laboratory that can evaluate the soil for wine grapes. Soil samples will alert you to nutrient problems before planting. A neutral pH, around 7, is optimal. Lower pH is considered acidic, higher is considered alkaline. If the soil has always produced healthy vegetation or vegetables, chances are vines will do fine in that ground. Rich soil tends to produce herbaceous flavors, clay is to be avoided, well drained soil and sandy loam is best.

2. How will my local weather impact my vines?

You ideally need between 150 to 200 frost-free days to produce mature vitis vinifera fruit. This classic wine-grape family includes renowned varietals like Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. A lot depends on the timing the last frost. Pinot Noir, Gewirztraminer and Riesling do better in later frost areas and Chardonny, Merlot and Cabernet, need 190 frost free days or more. If your climate is less than ideal, you should select something from the hardy North American vitis labrusca. family or try hybrid vines, such as Norton, Chardonnel, Chancellor, or Baco Noir.

The key is to find what your neighbors are planting and what vines produce the best wines. If you can’t find any local winegrape growers, call a few nurseries and make inquiries about what varieties of grapevines might do well in your backyard.

To make sweeping generalizations, vitis vinifera thrives in the West and Northwest. It also does well in selected locations in the Southwest, Midwest and Northeast (a prime example is the fine white wine from Michigan and New York, where lakes tend to moderate the climate). Vinifera has also showed limited success in niches not normally known for quality vinifera production. From Virginia to Pennsylvania and Maryland, many growers are having limited success with small vineyards. I even received an e-mail a year back from a gentleman who mule-farms Pinot Noir in Kentucky. Talk about a challenge! Due to hard winters, Canada grows mostly vitis labrusca, but microclimates in the lake Erie and Ontario regions produce Chardonnays and Rieslings and British Columbia produces some top rate dessert wines. Most good vineyards in the East seem to lie within a rough triangle that extends from Rochester, New York (in the northeast) to Virginia (in the south) and Martha’s Vineyard (on the eastern seaboard). As a vinifera grower in California, my expertise in the area of v..labrusca and hybrids is limited. Again, local experts should be sought out and bribed with fine wine.

3. How cold does it get in winter?

Without severe pruning and mounding soil over vines, very cold temperatures will kill vinifera grapevines. In vinifera varieties without a lot of mature fruiting wood, temperatures under 20° Fahrenheit may kill and injure buds and canes. If it gets really cold in winter, you may want to choose hybrid vines that can tolerate cold winters. Foch, for example, has been known to survive temps as cold as –20° F.

Vines do need some cold weather every year to be healthy. All vines have a chilling requirement — if it doesn’t get cold in winter, the vines will not go dormant, and will eventually just give up and die. Finding the right vine for your climate is as easy as finding some local growers or a friendly nurseryman and asking for some helpful advice.

Heat is also a consideration. Photosynthesis maxes out at about 87° F. Super high temperatures can scorch plants, dry the grapes and make it difficult for a vine to respire and thrive. The best wines in the world are grown at the coolest edge of their climate zone.

4. What pest challenges will I face?

Check with your local Ag. Extension office and ask what pests currently reside in your area. What insects are likely to feed on your vines? Do any of them carry disease, and if so, how can you protect your vines from infection?

If you live in an area with wild pigs, deer, rabbits or large flocks of starlings — and you have no fencing or netting — I would dissuade you from wasting time and effort on a vineyard that will do nothing but feed wildlife. Are there gopher mounds every five feet? Better start trapping (or do some research to devise a more humane approach).

Perhaps there are beneficial insects that can be released into your vineyard early, so when you plant there will already be a healthy population of “good bugs” to fight off the “bad” ones. Lacewings, praying mantises, spiders, lady beetles and other beneficial insects can be released in lieu of pesticides. In the long run, pests become resistant to chemicals and harder to kill.

5. Is your soil infested with nematodes or the root-louse phylloxera?

I might sound like a broken record at this point, but local growers and your Ag Extension office can help you find out. If so, you might want to choose a rootstock (such as 5C, 101-14 or110 R) that is resistant to these pests. Rootstock is basically the “bottom half” of a grafted vine — viticulturists commonly use the hardy roots of an American vine grafted on to a vinifera “top.” This way you get the benefits of a pest-resistant root system and the fruit of a European vinifera variety. Vines are usually grafted by the nursery, and can be ordered in any combination imaginable. If you are lucky enough to be free of these pests, vines can be planted on their own roots.

6. How are the vines to be irrigated?

Is my water clean and usable for agriculture? If you’re a perfectionist, you can have you water tested (many companies test water; look in the yellow pages under a category like “laboratories — testing.”) In general, hose water will be appropriate for a home vineyard.

Applying the water through the ground or by “drip irrigation” is much more efficient than by sprinkler. Try to keep water off the fruit and vines; otherwise you might have problems with rot and mildew. Do not over water. Wine grapes like just enough water to keep alive. Do not early water before May 1st, or the vines can produce leaves but no grapes.

7. Can the land be cleared in a way that is legal and will not upset the natural balance of the site? Is your site erosive?

Remember that keeping the land healthy and full of biodiversity will help your vines help themselves. Nature attacks the weak. You want your vineyard to be healthy enough that pests will look for easier pickings.

8. How much crop do I need for my winemaking?

At five pounds of crop per plant (assuming low to moderate yield), you will need 200 to 250 vines to assure that in a “regular” year you’ll have enough fruit for one 60-gallon barrel of wine plus extra for topping. You can use this ratio (250 vines = 60 gallons) to figure approximate wine yield. Different vines and different soils produce different crop levels, obviously. You may well be able to push more yield from your vines.

Another rule of thumb is that you need approximately 20 pounds of fresh fruit for each gallon of homemade wine. If each vine produces five pounds and you’d like to make one five-gallon batch from your own grapes each year, then plant 20 vines (plus a few extra, just in case).

9. How am I going to trellis my vines?

This is a difficult question. I recommend ordering a few vines a year early and doing a test plot to see how the vines react to your soil, climate and water. Low vigor sites (mature shoots are less than 6 feet tall) are easily managed with a “vertical shoot” system (sets of wires to direct all shoot growth straight up), while high-vigor sites (mature canes are in excess of 6 feet) may be left to ‘sprawl’ on a common wire trellis. They can be trained onto a more complicated trellis system; you’ll find these described in many viticulture reference books (see “Grape Growing Resources” at end of story).

10. How am I going to orient my vineyard?

I am a big fan of fruit grown on tight spacing — less than eight feet between rows and less than 4 feet between plants — with southwest exposure. Close spacing encourages less vigor and more competition.

Exposure is increasingly important. In places where the climate is almost too cool to ripen a crop; the exposure to sunlight can compensate for cool weather.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Prepare the soil before winter arrives

Suppose you have read the previous warnings, answered the questions and researched your area. You’re armed with all the information you need to start growing your own wine grapes. Here’s yet another list to tackle before the first hard frost.

  1. Try to break up the soil before fall and winter rains — the deeper, the better. If the soil is loose, vine roots will take deeper root as they search for water and nutrients. This process will also show if you have restrictive or hardpan (clay) layers in your soil.If it is going to be a very small vineyard, or you can afford the trouble, dig or rip the soil 3 feet deep, and add some small stones throughout the first few feet of soil if you would like better drainage. This is just a recommendation; most soils will accept grapevines without this preparation. Some of the best vineyards in the world also stack small light-colored rocks under their vines to reflect light into the canopy and keep the soil warm at night. Again, this is not necessary — but it looks neat and does help the fruit mature.
  2. Plant a cover crop. There’s a cover crop plant for every soil requirement. Clovers, subclovers, vetch and other similar plants fix nitrogen into the soil. Rye, barley, and other grasses will help keep the soil from eroding during winter rains. Most flowers will attract beneficial insects — plant the perimeter of the vineyard with marigolds for added organic pest control.
  3. Take care of gopher, vole, mole, deer, pigs, rabbits and other vertebrate pest issues. Consider fencing your vineyard — if it’s small enough you can also use underground chicken wire (3/4-inch or smaller, sunk at least 2 feet deep around the perimeter) to keep gophers out. Consider keeping a dog or cat (or more than one) around the vineyard to deter deer, pigs, and rabbits.Consider bird netting when your vineyard matures and fruit begins to ripen (birds hit red fruit first, and seem to start eating at about 17° to 18° Brix). Gopher hint for the month: Save your old wine bottles, crush them up, and throw a good glove-full of broken glass into the hole of each vine you plant. The sharp glass will rip a gopher or vole’s hands until they learn a vineyard is not a varmint smorgasbord.
  4. Make a paper and pencil plan of your vineyard. Measure, design a simple trellising system and order your vines carefully. Make sure you get the best varietal selection and rootstock combination for your soil and climate, and order vines ahead of time to ensure you get the materials you want.Decide what spacing you are going to use between each vine, and between each row of vines. Most vineyards use closer spacing these days. My vineyard is spaced 8 feet between rows and 4 feet between each plant. The closer the vines are to one another, the more the root systems will compete for water and nutrients, and the smaller the vines will be. Smaller vines have less vigor, less problems with sprawl and fruit shading and produce smaller, more intense fruit. This is especially true for Pinot Noir.Meter by meter spacing is also quite popular (3 feet between rows, 3 feet between plants), and will be an excellent use of a small backyard space. The vines will have to be sprayed and tended by hand — although you may be able to fit a small mower through the rows to help with weed and grass abatement. If you have an ATV and plan to use it in the vineyard, you want at least 6 feet between rows to let the ATV pass with a little space on each side.
  5. Amend the soil according to your soil studies. Ask a local agricultural professional to help you choose soil amendments to make your soil neutral (around 7 pH) and balance the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) requirements for grapevines. These requirements are, Nitrogen: 4 to 8 ppm, Phosphorous: 30 to 75 ppm, and Potassium: (exhangeable) 81 to 500 ppm. Mix ammendments into the top two feet of the soil and let the water carry them down to the roots. I also recommend that you look into inoculating the baby vines with mycorrhizae fungus (available from farm suppliers or on the Internet at This beneficial root fungus drastically improves a vines’ ability to uptake nutrients and water. Inoculating the plants is as easy as sprinkling some mycorrhizae powder on the roots before you drop the vines in the ground. I would discourage the use of chemical soil sterilants like methyl bromide. They may kill nematodes and phylloxera, but also destroy the soils’ microbiological balance.
  6. Plan an irrigation system that keeps water off the leaves and fruit when possible. For very small plantings (100 vines or less), dig a furrow along the vine row that can be flooded every few weeks. You can even just walk along the vine rows with a hose and give each a long drink each week.For those who are interested in a more complicated method, I suggest using a drip system. First, you attach a regular hose bib to black irrigation tubing; the tubing runs the length of the vine row on a low trellis wire. The other end of the tubing is crimped shut. Then you attach “drip emitters” along the hose. Use pressure-compensating drip emitters (Netafim are my favorite) to make sure all emitters are dripping equal amounts of water at the top or bottom of a slope. Use “one gallon per hour” emitters on flat vineyards and 30 percent more for hillside plantings to allow for runoff. During the growing season, most vines need about 5 gallons per week to maintain healthy growth. One inch of rain equals about 16 gallons per plant, so take away irrigation time for rainfall.Keep all of these things in mind when planning a small vineyard. It may sound daunting, but don’t fret too much. Vines are easy to grow, hard to kill, and will provide you with more fun than challenges if you set up your vineyard correctly. Be easy on yourself for the first three years — the vines will have a few problems, but solving them will help you understand what your vineyard needs.

How to establish a wine grape vineyard

What are the best soil types for wine grapes? Are my soils suitable for a vineyard?

Questions about soil suitability are the most common first questions raised by individuals interested in establishing a vineyard. While soil type is important, it is not the most important factor when considering whether a wine grape vineyard will be a viable crop for your farmland.

Location, location, location

It is important to consider your location first, as it is the most important factor for two reasons: 1) environment and 2) marketing.


Grapevines need certain climates to grow successfully. Production limitations exist for grapevines, including:

  • The length of growing season
  • The amount of heat units gained (growing degree days) during the season
  • Minimum winter temperatures
  • The risk of frost in spring and fall.

Different grape cultivars are suited to specific regions, and not all are suited to a particular environment. It is important to understand grape production first to match cultivars to vineyard sites and avoid developing vineyards on unsuitable properties and/or areas of the state where there is greater risk. Grapevines may be able to grow in just about every region of Oregon and the US. However, they are easier (and less costly or risky) to grow in certain regions over others. Minimizing your risk as a farmer and wine producer is important to establishing and maintaining a viable vineyard for the future.


Locating your vineyard within an American Viticultural Area will help increase your ability to market and sell your grapes (and wine if you plan to have a winery). Many wineries in Oregon prefer to purchase fruit from designated American Viticultural Areas for higher quality wines. Furthermore, vineyards in certain regions of the state have higher price values for the grapes produced in those regions. See the latest Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report for further information on production statistics and regional grape prices.

What about soils?

Even in a region well suited to wine grape production, there may be unsuitable soils throughout that region and within a given vineyard.

The emphasis of soil for suitability likely comes from consumer wine marketing about vineyard terroir. However, soil properties are the most important consideration rather than any one specific soil type. Even in a region well suited to wine grape production, there may be unsuitable soils throughout that region and within a given vineyard. When determining suitability of farmland for vineyards, you will want to consider the following: soil depth, water holding capacity, and depth to restrictive features. Also, you will want to avoid areas with flooding, seasonal high water table, and shallow depth.

How to learn more

There is much to consider before establishing a vineyard, so use the resources below to help guide you through the planning process.


With the vast range of fantastic red wine grapes out there, it gets difficult to determine the most popular ones among them. However, we have compiled a list of the top ten most popular red wine grapes names below to give you a head start.

10 Red Wine Grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon

A noble grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon grows well in humid regions. It became famous as one of the red wines of Médoc, in Bordeaux. In the present day, it is grown in California, Washington, Italy, Australia, Chile, and Argentina, etc.


Merlot is the most cultivated red wine grape variety in Bordeaux. It is also an important red wine grape in Chile, Washington, California, Long Island District, New York, and Northeastern Italy.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir red wine grape variety is enigmatic and challenging. It is grown in France, where small vineyard plots yield wine made from Pinot Noir. Other regions that produce good Pinot Noir include Oregon, New Zealand, California, Chile and parts of Australia.


Zinfandel is among the oldest grapes grown in California and is highly regarded there. It has a blackberry or raspberry flavor. For many years, wine authorities weren’t sure of its origins. However, in recent years it has been proven that Zinfandel is a Croatian grape.

Syrah or Shiraz

Syrah is a heavy skin, dark grape that grows in hotter climates which is why California and Australia are two major producers of this delicious wine. It also excels in Sicily, Italy. While its style can vary from country to country, it is called Shiraz if processed in Australia.


Malbec originates from France and although once the major component of wine varietals in Bordeaux, it is typically used in there to flesh out Right Bank blends. Argentine and French winemakers have discovered the ideal conditions to grow this wine grape.


Recent data has shown that Tempranillo could be the largest cultivated grape species per acre. It is the wine of Spain and is also grown in warmer climates like California, Australia, Turkey, New Zealand, South America and Texas. There are strict laws in place regarding the production of Tempranillo.


Sangiovese is an excellent choice for Italian and a host of Mediterranean-style cuisines. It is mainly produced in warmer climate areas like Italy’s Tuscany region and California. The primary preparation style is medium-bodied with plum flavors, and fresh berry included.


Barbara red wine grapes are versatile, and they go well with many dishes, including tomato sauces. This grape thrives in temperate regions, particularly in Italy. It has a delicious taste with silky texture and unique acidity.


Carménère is Chile’s most popular red wine grape with a fascinating story. It was originally cultivated in France. It is also a part of the Cabernet family. Its name, which translates as Crimson refers to the colors that abound in the harvest season.

The 7 grapes most used in Spain to make wine


Garnacha grapes were considered a low quality grape that was used in a mix with other varieties. At the end of the 20th century, the success of Garnacha del Priorat wines in Catalonia revitalised this grape. It is the third most used red grape in Spain, after Tempranillo and Bobal. Garnacha grapes mature late, therefore they need dry and warm conditions. In Spain they are present in La Rioja, Madrid, Navarra, Toledo, Zaragoza and Catalonia. Wines made with Garnacha are powerful, and have a high alcoholic content. They tend to be used to make young and rosé wines, as well as vintage wines.


A grape native to the Aragón area, it is one of the oldest varieties in Spain and one of the most harvested worldwide. It is a fruit with a high tannin content that tends to be mixed with other varieties. Single-varietal wines have a light violet aroma and are silky on the palette, with an alcoholic content than may reach 13º. It is known as ‘mazuelo’ or ‘mazuela’ in La Rioja and ‘samsó’ in Catalonia.


Monastrell is mainly harvested in Levante, Catalonia and Albacete. The style of wine varies greatly depending on the place where it is produced, but it is distinguished for its earthy notes, as well as soft red fruit aromas. This grape has special roots in the regions of Alicante and Murcia, where it is used as a single-varietal wine, or is mixed with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.


Very widespread in Navarra and La Rioja where it is used to make ‘Gran Reserva’ wines. In Andalusia it is known as ‘tintilla de Rota’. The wine produced by this grape is characterised for its red colour, a significant acidity, a strong aroma and a great ability to age correctly.


This is mainly harvested in Asturias, Santander, León and Galicia, and is especially associated with wines from Bierzo. It produces fruity wines with great colour and acidity. It is a grape with a lot of tannin that provides wines with a slight astringency, but much personality.

What Makes Great Wine… Great?

Deep Dive May 16, 2016 – Updated on November 26th, 2018

What makes a great wine… great? By understanding the processes involved with making a great wine, you’ll be able to identify a great wine based on your own tastes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a collector or a novice to the world of wine, a solid foundation provides the basis of how to find great quality (regardless of price).

Carlo Mondavi and I sat down to discuss the grape selection and winemaking processes for a presentation. The goal of the presentation was to point out the most important facets of what defines a great wine so attendees would know what to look for when seeking great wine. We decided it was a good idea to share the concepts within to all 🙂

NOTE: Carlo Mondavi is the grandson of Robert Mondavi; partner in Continuum Estate on Pritchard Hill in Napa Valley; and founder of Raen Winery that specializes in Pinot Noir wines from the Sonoma Coast. By the way, the Mondavi family is no longer associated with the Mondavi wine brand, which is owned by Constellation.

What makes great wine…great?

We came up with a list of 4 pillars that essentially summarize what makes a great wine:

  1. Great grapes
  2. Great winemaking
  3. Longterm vision
  4. Art

“Making good wine is a skill, making fine wine is an art” -Robert Mondavi

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Grapes and Winemaking: We can all agree that you need high quality ingredients and exceptional preparation skills to make outstanding sushi (imagine Sukiyabashi Jiro in Jiro Dreams of Sushi) so it’s easy to accept that this same idea also applies to great wine.

Longterm Vision: There are many intriguing new wineries and winemakers, but the great ones have one thing in common: they think big. As soon as the winery’s founder considers that their winery may continue to exist after they’re gone, they think differently about how they develop their brand and, ultimately, how they make wine.

Art: There’s this undefinable x-factor to great wine that’s hard to quantify in a scientific manner. Art is also a very personal choice that really comes down to the eye of the beholder. Of course, the more educated you are at understanding the craft of art, the more sophisticated/nuanced your taste will become. Winemakers, like artists, follow different ideologies and these core competencies are indeed reflected in the wine.

Since art is a personal choice, we’ll focus on the quantifiable aspects (Grapes and Winemaking) and leave the fun part of seeking the art-side of wine for you to explore.

“You can make bad wine with great grapes but you can’t make great wine with bad grapes.” -Robert Mondavi

When you simmer down all the many processes involved in growing great grapes, there are essentially two areas of consideration:

  • Terroir: Terroir is essentially mother nature’s influence on grape growing and includes the climate, soils and other aspects dealing with the natural world.
  • Vintage: This area involves the choices that humans make to facilitate grape growing throughout a single year/vintage (i.e. pruning, irrigation, soil treatments, pest management, harvest timing, etc).


The word “terroir” can mean many things to different wine experts so, for the sake of simplicity, we’ve defined terroir to reference a region’s climate, soils and flora.

People talk a lot about soils and climate when it comes to wine, but there’s a third component that scientists are now beginning to understand more: Flora.

What is Flora?
Flora includes all the living plants/funghi in a given area. This includes everything from trees, sagebrush, grasses, and flowers, all the way down to microbes like yeasts and bacteria.

“You can find 50,000 yeast particles on a single wine grape”
-Carlo Mondavi


Climate not only includes what’s happening with weather on a grand regional scale, but also references small differences from place to place. There are really 3 levels of detail that can be observed with climate:

  1. Macroclimate
  2. Mesoclimate
  3. Microclimate


The figure above was used with permission by the author, Dr. Gregory V. Jones (Jones, 2006; Jones et al. 2012).

From the work done by Dr. Gregory Jones, an Environmental Scientist at Southern Oregon University, we’ve learned that different grape varieties are suited for different macroclimates. Very simply, a macroclimate includes the average temperature and degree days (sun irradiance) of a particular region during the growing season. Based on the chart above, we can very quickly see that certain grape varieties are better suited to certain climates (e.g. Pinot Gris in a cool climate or Sangiovese in a warm climate). From this information we can identify larger regions (such as Napa Valley) that are better suited for certain wine varieties based on their average seasonal climates.


A closeup map of Sonoma and Napa Valley which are located just north of San Francisco, CA in the North Coast AVA. Full map available here

If you dial in a step deeper from the macroclimate, you’ll be able to notice subtleties between wines from different vineyards within a single region. Mesoclimate refers to climatic differences in an encompassing region such as distance to a river (where it may be cooler and foggy in the morning) or the location of a vineyard on an elevated slope. The influence of mesoclimates is partly why Napa Valley has been chopped up into 16 different sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).

Here are some basic questions that pertain to a vineyard’s mesoclimate:

  • Is the vineyard on a slope?
  • Is the vineyard in a valley?
  • Is the vineyard close to a large body of water (lake, ocean, river)?
  • Which direction does the vineyard face?


Finally, microclimate goes all the way down to the individual vine. Perhaps there is a part of a vineyard that is shady during certain parts of the day or there’s airflow in one part of the vineyard and not another. Microclimates are what influence a single vine to produce quality grapes.

Technology: In Northern Italy a cooperative called Cavit in Trentino developed a region-wide monitoring system called PICA . The system monitors changes and gives growers (through iphone messaging) immediate vineyard management actions. For the time being, PICA is a proprietary tool, but as growers develop more advanced technology we’ll see active farming based on microclimates.


Forget terms like Goldridge, Kimmeridgian, and Jory… what matters in soil is drainage, pH, soil depth and soil temperature.

What really matters about a soil is how the fertility of the soils affect the vines throughout the growing season. There are 4 fundamental soil compositions based on particle size:

  1. Clay: Known for producing rich, structured wines
  2. Sand: Known for producing wines with higher aromatics and slightly lighter color intensity
  3. Silt: A harder to manage (viticultural-y speaking) soil that can produce highly vigorous vines which deliver more herbaceous flavors, but when managed it can produce wines in a style very similar to clay.
  4. Loam: Typically found in valley floors and is not typically associated with fine winemaking due to high productivity (unless blended with higher levels of clay/sand).

What’s interesting about the soil types listed above is that if you look at all the finest, most structured, age-worthy red wines, they almost all grow on clay-dominant soils (Rioja, Pomerol, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Tuscany, Coonawarra, Burgundy). Beyond this, the most highly appreciated aromatic wines (like German Riesling and Beaujolais) grow in sandy/rocky soils.

Complexity in soils = complexity in wine
When managed properly, vineyards with diverse soil types tend to produce wines with more complexity.

Shallow and/or Infertile soils
A controversial topic of soil quality has to do with soil depth. Carlo Mondavi observed how Pinot Noir vines with shallow soils (on hillside vineyards) spend more energy during the growing season on fruit development and less towards vigor (making green leaves). The reduction on energy spent in leaf development resulted in wines with less herbaceous character. And, while some may argue that herbaceous notes in some wines adds complexity, many of the finest wines do grow on infertile soils.


Each vintage starts the moment you pick grapes until the next harvest in the fall.

All the processes and preparations made throughout the year leading up to, and including, harvest define the job of viticulture or “wine growing.”

“great wine is grown, not made”


Terms in figure: Brix is the measure of sweetness in grapes. pH, in this image, shows an estimated level of acidity in a resulting wine made with these grapes. pH is logarithmic and inversely related to acidity so, a wine with 3.5 pH has an acidity level 5 times higher than a wine with a pH of 4.

Timing is the most important consideration for harvest. Once grapes are picked, they do not continue to ripen. In cooler regions, winemakers need to consider weather changes and pick before heavy rains. In warm climate regions, timing the harvest improperly (even by a few days) can mean the difference between a fresh and fruity wine and a flabby, overripe wine.

Ripeness involves more than just sweetness of grapes.

It’s important that sugar levels are high enough for harvest, but then there’s also phenolic ripeness. Phenolic ripeness pertains to the condition of the tannin in the seeds (catechin) and skins (epicatechin) of the grape. We talk about this style of ripeness often when describing a wine as having “sweet tannins.” Grapes with less ripe seeds and skins result in more astringency and bitterness in a wine.

Some grape varieties have lower tannin naturally and winemakers may pick them a little more green to add texture and acidity to a wine (this is commonly practiced with Pinot Noir). Other grape cultivars have high tannin (such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo) and are better to be picked when the phenolic ripeness in the seeds and skins is higher.

Wine Growing Practices

Great vineyards lean towards the sustainability side of the spectrum.

If you step back and look at a winery’s vineyard as a whole, you’ll see their growing practices are somewhere on the scale of sustainability. The very best wineries with long term vision are sustainable. And while most of us think of sustainability as an environmental consideration, it also involves social and economic aspects. Each of these 3 aspects of sustainability (Environmental Responsibility, Social Equity and Economic Viability) work together and produce a slow increase of profitability to maintain the winery, land and community.

What is Permaculture? Permaculture is an agricultural system that is sustainable and self-sufficient. It involves planning for ecological and environmental design so that the resources available on a plot of land can be stored and used to sustain the land. This type of farming practice involves observing and working with natural conditions to fight obstacles in farming (pests, rot, etc). It is the ultimate goal of sustainability to be self-sufficient, but it’s not always possible. This is why different types of sustainability certifications exist so that we may understand what protocols a winery follows.

You can read more about the other different types of sustainability certifications and what they mean here.


Even after the fermentation is complete, a wine continues to change as it ages.

After the grapes are harvested, the process of making wine begins. This is where the winemaker has several choices which can affect the resulting style of wine.

The first choice is perhaps the most important and least talked about: Yeast. Yeast adds its own set of flavors to wine. Yeast aromas are referred to as Secondary Aromas and can range from yeasty, beer-like aromas to buttermilk, and even earthiness (mushroom). While most wine is produced with commercially controlled and manufactured yeast, many of the finest wines in the world are made with natural yeast (from the region and winery’s natural flora). Natural yeast fermentations can be much more difficult to manage but, if the vineyards and winery have a healthy yeast population, the end result is a complexity in the wine.

Winemaking Processes: Punchdowns and Pumpovers

Grape skins rise to the surface of the fermentation chamber and a few techniques have been developed to reintegrate them into the wine.

The process of punchdowns and pump overs is to reintegrate grape skins and seeds into the fermenting juice so that the proper levels of phenolic extraction can be made. You could relate this process to stirring the grinds in your french press. Of course, different grape varieties need different levels of extraction to develop positive flavor characteristics (and not the bitter, astringent or sulfur-like aromas). Generally speaking, the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot do better with higher intensity extraction (e.g. pump overs) and lighter varieties (such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and GSM blends) do better with more delicate extraction.

Winemaking Processes: Fermentation Temperature

Just as making a proper cup of tea requires the proper temperature (maybe between 160–175º F / 70–80º C), wine needs to be fermented at the right temperature too.

As yeasts eat the grape sugars and metabolize them into alcohol, the temperature of the fermentation increases. This increase in temperature causes volatile aromas to burn off and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. You can assume, for the most part, that red wines with more floral notes are often fermented at lower temperatures (flower aromas are usually the first to go), which means the winemaker was trying their best to preserve these volatile aromas in the fermentation. When temperatures get too high, wines will exhibit less fruit flavors and more earthy or baked flavors. And, while this is not necessarily a bad thing (a chocolaty Malbec anyone?), it suggests that not all the original aromas in the wine were preserved.

NOTE: You’ll note a few winemakers using whole clusters of grapes in their fermentation. The inclusions of stems will naturally decrease the temperature of the fermentation.

When the wine is finished fermenting it spends time in a vessel to settle and/or age. Certain aging vessels introduce oxygen which alters the chemical state of the wine and changes the flavors.

After the fermentation is complete, the winemaking still has a ways to go. The choice of aging vessel plays a crucial role in the development of a wine.

  • Tank: Stainless steel is meant to preserve the original flavors as much as possible. This style of settling is most commonly used for white wines where floral and herbal aromatics are of utmost importance.
  • Concrete: Concrete storage vessels may breathe more than stainless while still maintaining a cool temperature. Wines aged in concrete have a higher level of preserved fruit characteristics, while still seeing the benefits of oxygen ingress (for red wines, this can include softening bold tannins). Some believe that concrete adds a textural sensation of minerality, but this hasn’t yet been fully proven.
  • Oak: Oak aging not only increases oxygen interaction in the wine but, when barrels are new and toasted (“toasting” is essentially torching and caramelizing the inside of the barrel to create flavors), they add flavors too. The flavors created include vanilla, clove, smoke, sweet tobacco and cola and are caused by aroma compounds from the oak.

Aging: Reductive vs Oxidative

The choice of aging vessel is really where the winemaker makes a visionary/artistic choice about their wine. Some producers try to preserve the wine’s natural character as much as possible by using neutral (used) barrels which do not add oak flavors or by aging wines for extended periods of time to soften the wine’s characteristics (acidity, tannin, etc). The choices the winemaker makes during aging, might be the best place to start when developing your own preferences.

Fining and Filtering

Another choice in the winemaking process is whether or not wines are fined and filtered. Wines often have a little bit of a hazy color due to dissolved amino acids in the wine. Fining agents bind to these proteins and they drop out of the wine, leaving it clear. By the way, most fining agents are a protein of some kind (casein from milk, egg whites, fish bladders, etc). Nearly all white, rosé and sparkling wines are fined/filtered in some way but not all red wines. Filtering essentially does the same process of fining but with filters that have microscopic holes.

Proponents argue that fining/filtering clarifies and stabilizes wines and opponents believe that by not filtering their wines they provide them with added texture and structural elements for age-worthiness. The main issue with unfined and unfiltered wines is that consumers do not like cloudiness in their wines, particularly in white, rosé and sparkling wines.


By now, winemakers have observed success for long term aging for both corks and screw caps.

When it comes to bottling, many believe that wines with screw cap closures are not as high quality as wines enclosed with corks. This isn’t true. Many high-end producers choose natural corks, but there are many turning to screw caps as a more reliable method (screw caps do not cause cork taint). In fact, low quality agglomerated corks tend to be more problematic than screw caps. Our one takeaway is that both methods are suitable for fine winemaking.

Happy Searching and salut!

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