Viticulture at a Local Vineyard
The value of living in a small community is that we are all interconnected. I recently spoke with my neighbor who owns a trucking and large equipment company. She told me that her son had been working on clearing a few more acres at another neighbor who had a vineyard. Jim Butler wanted to plant some more grapes on his and Susie’s ever expanding site. Jim is hoping to plant an additional 2 ½ acres of wine quality grapes.
I hadn’t been out to Butler Winery since I registered one of my hybridized daylilies for them. I named this daylily Chateau Butler. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do some exploring to see where this new planting area was being developed. This also presented a chance to visit their beautiful gardens around the sampling room too.
The Butler family has been developing this vineyard for a number of years. They list their origination year as 1983. They have been active fermenting experts even longer. The downtown Bloomington location supplies materials for brewing beer and wine in addition to selling their bottled vintages. It was my early interest in learning to brew beer that led me to their downtown location shortly after graduating from college.
What Type to Grow?
There are a few growing tips for grapes if you wish to produce superior quality fruit. The first and obvious concern is the type of grape to grow. Butler Winery currently has 2800 grape plants under cultivation. They grow grapes that are hardy in our environment here in South Central Indiana to some that have proved to be marginally tolerant because of some unusually cold winters recently. Some of their plants are on their own root stock while others are grafted cultivars. Jim and Susie Butler currently list 6 cultivars that they use for production. Many others are under evaluation.
While it might be useful to know these 6 primary types of grape it should be remembered that these were chosen for our growing conditions here in South Central Indiana and may not work well in your location. You will want to talk with your local vineyard to determine the type of grapes they have found to be excellent producers for you locally. They will have excellent knowledge of table type grapes too. Your own local vineyards are a better source of cultivars to plant than a general catalog. Garden catalogs sell grapes that generally do well over large areas of the country but may not take into account local growing conditions.
Grapes are perhaps mankind’s oldest grown and cultivated plant. It has been estimated to have begun roughly 10,000 or more years ago in a region of South West Asia near the Black Sea that includes North East Turkey. It was these ancient people that learned to ferment wine. The process of fermentation quickly spread south and then west as fast as civilization could spread the process. Most people typically picture Roman citizens with grape clusters being fed to them while drinking wine out of elaborate drinking vessels. Romans certainly promoted and raised viticulture to a fashionable level of appreciation.
There are an estimated 10,000 known cultivars of grapes in the world. Of these, only about a dozen comprise the vast majority of fruit grown today. Still, it is important to the quality blending at Butler for them to consider a variety of grape cultivars. They need to find just the right types they can blend to produce wine that identifies their product and most importantly consistently produce well in our local habitat. Yes, grapes can be grown from seed. Stay posted for a future article on this process. Beginning gardeners should purchase rooted or grafted stock.
Jim has a firm belief that the habitat in conjunction with the particular cultivar of grape produces a wine that is distinctive and reflects the area they are grown. He has served and been involved in this region’s cultivar growing organization and other fermentation societies for many years. Yet, they continually monitor other cultivars in the event they discover another they want to include. They rely on these other networking groups to help them determine new cultivars to evaluate.
The next consideration is pruning. In order to produce abundant quality fruit, grape vines need to be pruned each season. This pruning reduces the number of growth buds so that the majority of the vines energy is concentrated in a limited number of locations. Larger fruit is produced on a maximum number of clusters when the number of growth buds is held to a minimum. There are some specific guidelines one can follow. Reducing the number of active growing buds to no more than 4 dozen is an average one can follow as a general rule.
Pruning of the vines can be done two different ways. The first happens late autumn after production and before winter. One newer vineyard in the South Central Indiana area prefers to prune in the fall. They like to perform this task while it is still somewhat pleasant outside. They bury the cut vines. Some of these will root over winter and can be planted out the next spring. This is another propagation technique to increase the number of vines in a vineyard.
The other method most growers recommend is a late winter pruning just as the vines are showing growth activity. This allows one to keep bud count to a reasonable number and it is easy to discard sections that have died during the winter. There are advantages to both methods though the novice grower should choose the late winter pruning method until enough experience has been gained to try the fall pruning method.
There is a secondary type of pruning that happens during the late spring and early summer. These are the suckers that grow lower down on the main vine. These suckers divert energy away from the developing clusters. A grape vine wants to grow more than it wants to produce fruit. This is why the suckers grow. To redirect the vines energy back to the fruit these suckers need to be removed. It is a painstaking task that requires manual attention. It isn’t terribly difficult though it can be time consuming if you have 2800 vines to visit. Small growers will find that “rubbing” off emerging sucker buds can be a fast and easy way to deal with this problem.
Next comes fertilizing. This is done shortly after bloom and the fruit has set. When you are looking for a good fertilizer you will want to pay attention to the N-P-K numbers listed on the front of the label. A well balanced fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 that are common formulations can be used on newly planted grapes. Thereafter you will want to look for formulations where the first number is smaller than the second and third numbers. 5-10-10 and 6-24-24 are two common formulations one can find with little trouble.
The first number in a fertilizer is for Nitrogen. Nitrogen is the macro nutrient needed for growth. The middle number last numbers are required for bloom and root development. We don’t want abundant grape leaf growth. It is the fruit that we want. That is why you will want to limit the amount of Nitrogen or first number. Look for labels that say “Bloom Formula” if you forget what three numbers to look for.
It is also a good idea to consult your local vineyard about supplemental mineral applications. The taste and quality of the resulting fruit depends on the soil. You local vineyard will know if the soil tends to be too acidic or basic or whether certain micro minerals should be supplemented to improve the quality of the grape. They will be a better source than your county extension agent.
Another problem with grapes is that they are food to a host of life forms. One of the worst is mildew. Professional vineyards use a Fungicide. Fungicides can be dangerous to use if you are unfamiliar with these chemicals. Home gardeners have a few natural options to reduce this particular problem. The first is to always plant your grapes in full sun. The second is to provide adequate spacing between your plants. This allows for maximum air flow. The third is to avoid wetting the leaves excessively. Water only the roots.
Personal experience shows using mycorrhizal inoculants that contain the genus Tricoderma can be helpful. This fungus consumes other pathogenic fungi including mildew. Spray a solution on cloudy and humid days. This is when both the bad and good fungi are most active. There is no supporting scientific literature on this. It has been useful and is not harmful to people though it still isn’t a good idea to breath in the spray.
The grape is the ultimate goal. How do you tell when to harvest? Professional growers like Jim have many options in their arsenal. They desire specific sugar content and can test for this. Still, experience and a keen sense of taste serve most well. Sampling random grapes will soon let the home grower know when to harvest their grapes. That is part of the charm for a home gardener. It is a bit of an art to know when the grapes are sweet enough to harvest. One can develop a sense in just a few seasons.
Even seasoned growers will use a subjective tasting approach to harvest. After all, that is what good wine is all about. It is this uncanny sense of taste that began a love of wine to begin with. That is part of the enjoyment the Butlers get out of individual years too. Each year is different. No matter how hard they try to provide the same quality maintenance and attention to their plants, nature will always have a major influence on the end product. All wines are excellent. Some years are just more excellent than others.
Whether you are a home gardener with grapes or someone who appreciates fine wine you should connect with regional vineyards like Butler Winery. Hopefully you are as lucky as I am with neighbors who have a remarkable vineyard they enjoy showing off. They welcome the curious. Educating others in their love and passion is a full time job with all vineyard owners. Jim and Susie conduct workshops and welcome all. They provide guided tours in addition to demonstrations on how to ferment. These two experts are representatives of man’s oldest gardening profession that is ever changing and always improving each season.