August 14, 2013 —
What’s the Value of a Viticulturist?
Fritz has learned through his work in extension programs that often prospective grape growers are not coming from a farming background, and even if they were, growing grapes is very different. Here’s what we learned.
Tips from Fritz for Prospective Vineyard Owners
1. Find an experienced grower in your area. Ask questions. Recruit someone to advise you.
2. Send a soil sample to the lab and have it analyzed. You need an expert who understands the results. Is it suitable for growing grapes? What will the soil require? What potential issues will you be facing?
3. Is the drainage, aspect and slope good for planting a vineyard? Typically you need to drill down at least 4 feet to evaluate the soil horizons.
4. Water quality is often overlooked. Salts can be an issue. High calcium levels can cause problems later on.
5. Ask an experienced grower what he would do differently. Most often it goes back to Day 1 – drainage, more or less fertilizer, row and vine spacing, row orientation, etc.
“You’ve got one shot to put in your vineyard. Find someone with knowledge and a proven track record for growing quality grapes in your area. It will pay for itself to do it right from the start.”
Biggest Mistake: Being in a Hurry
“Everyone is in a hurry. Potential growers are overly passionate about their plans, ideas and visions for the future. Once they know they want to plant a vineyard, they want to get started right away. Even if you know what will grow well on the land, that doesn’t mean the rootstocks will be available. Do not compromise here! Plan at least 2 years before planting your first vines. Do not compromise doing it properly by not being able to wait. You will get payback for waiting and planting the best vines for your land….Most of my clients are new to grape growing. Working together, we can take on a vineyard and get it to production faster.”
Planting a New Vineyard vs Purchasing an Established Vineyard
“Buying an existing vineyard is often like buying someone else’s problems, kind of like purchasing that classic car – it’s sexy and romantic, but soon you find out it’s a sinkhole.” It’s preferable to work with the land than with an existing vineyard. Starting from scratch you can develop a site to emphasize proper establishment of your vines. The decision-making process is most dynamic in the first 4 years, from establishment into production. Remember that a vineyard should thrive for 20 years or more, and this is the time to do it right.
Working with a consultant early on, will help you prevent disease and pest problems too. “When I work with new growers, we are proactive instead of reactive. Working closely, we can prevent disease and pests. I can diagnose problems, recommend fertilizer, help make weekly decisions, and work with growers with vine training and canopy management.” After the the first 4 years, the grower knows what they’re doing. But new challenges always will arise. Through a large network of growers and wineries, Fritz keeps up with the weather, soil reports, pest challenges and more. He talks with growers over an entire region to understand if a client’s problem is occurring elsewhere or if it’s secluded. Although Fritz flies often to work with clients, he puts email, photos, calls and newsletters to good use, helping growers across the country. He also offers a free email list to deliver seasonal grape growing updates to several new and established grape growing regions.
Wine Grape Contracts Between Grower & Winery
Most often a winery asks for specific grape qualities from a grower. Often these “orders,” made in advance of the season, are done through contracts. The grower doesn’t know for sure how the harvest will be, but he forecasts and projects what he will be able to provide.
1. What do you do if your grapes are not meeting the specs the winery stipulated?
2. What if the season is tough and your grapes don’t achieve the brix or other measurement wanted by the winery?
3. How do you sign a contract without knowing what your end product will be?
How a Consultant Can Help:
1. Help the grower establish Plan B. Ensure that the contract stipulates what will happen if harvest isn’t exactly what the winery wanted to ensure the grower is not stuck with his grapes.
2. Crop estimation. Newer vineyards often don’t have what they promised or deliver too much. Solid data and good estimation can prevent this.
3. Sample correctly. Berry samples early in the season and a whole clusters late in the season will help forecast the acidity and brix of the grapes.
4. Overabundant harvest. If you do have too much, a consultant can help you find a buyer.
5. Facilitate communication. Often the new winemaker doesn’t know exactly what he needs or wants or the new grower can’t effectively communicate what they are doing. A consultant can bridge this gap.
More on Communication Between the Winemaker & Grower
Fritz is finding that more and more winemakers are going out into the field several times during the season to learn and visit with the growers. The winemakers and wineries are showing the grape growers they care by learning about the process. The more the winemaker and grower are communicating, the more the relationship develops and the better everyone does their job. For newer regions, this is a great opportunity for both the winemaker and grower to learn from each other. Sometimes the addition of a consultant can help get the dialogue started and assist with communicating the science behind the processes.
How Do You Choose a Vineyard Consultant?
1. If you don’t have a bunch of knowledge yourself, find someone with experience in your region and who has a good track record of working with growers.
2. Ask for a list of references. They should have several and be able to share many specific success stories about how they were able to solve a complex problem, work intimately with a group, tackle unforeseen situations. For example, by working with several growers, we were able to track insects in the region through their lifecycle and figure out how to properly time control.
3. Choose someone YOU LIKE. You should want to sit down with them and enjoy a glass of wine and visit with them, whether it’s about grapes, families, events, etc. You will want someone to share your successes with when it is a good season, and when it’s a bad season, you’ll want a shoulder to lean on.
4. Find someone who will teach you how to grow grapes and run a vineyard. You want someone who will make a big impact in the first couple of years and then scale back because they have taught you well.
Winery Consultant and Vineyard Consultant – 2 Sides of the Same Coin
As a winemaker and winery consultant, I find most of Fritz’s ideas and concepts to the be similar to a winery consultant’s – it’s just from a different perspective. A winery consultant advises on layout, equipment, operational processes and business planning, similar to a viticultural consultant advising on varietals, location, disease prevention, the business of having a vineyard, etc. And a winemaker consultant helps the winery with choosing the varietals they want to work with and getting that from the grower(s). A winery consultant also is a great partner for a vineyard that is ready to expand into becoming a winery. Offering their own unique expertise, wineries often use both viticultural and winemaking consultants.
Parting words from Fritz Westover:
“At the beginning it’s just a bare field and dreams. Then, 2-4 years down the road you have a producing vineyard, a new business and the confidence that you can run it. It’s a long term commitment, but if you enjoy working hard and being in the vineyard, then you have found the right career.”
“Relax – be patient. Good wine is not to be rushed.”
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Thank you Fritz! We wish you well in your new endeavors.
Fritz’s web site serves as a leading resource for grape growers: http://www.vineyardadvising.com/
You can follow Fritz as he travels to diverse grape growing regions on the Westover Viticulture page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WestoverVineyardAdvising
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