1) Have a dream and the commitment to make it happen
2) Either have a big budget or a long time frame in mind. It will cost $20,000 per acre just to set up the vineyard, $6,000 per acre each year to maintain (assuming you do most of the work), and it won’t produce any grapes for four years.
3) Find a good site. Check the weather maps. Acquire or lease some land. Make sure it’s well drained. Grapes like to have their feet dry. Some would say that a moderate South-East slope is best.
4) Decide on which varieties of grapes to plant. One of the biggest decisions affecting cost, effort and chances of success is, Hybrid or Vinifera? Hybrids are easier to grow for a number of reasons, including better suitability to our climate and disease resistance, so if you are keen on organic farming or biodynamics, hybrids would be a good decision. But if you prefer to drink wine from Vinifera varieties, that’s the way to go. Generally it may be easier to market Vinifera. Only a couple of Hybrid varieties are acceptable for VQA certification. The decision of which varietals to plant will affect everything about your product, positioning and go-to-market strategy four years from now, so take some time and do your research.
6) What sort of spacing do you want to have? High, medium, or low density? Many growers believe high density of as little as 3 feet between rows begets high quality. It may. However, in humid Southern Ontario, fungus is a real challenge in crowded vines and canopies with restricted air flow. And you can’t have high quality grapes that are full of fungus. You also need specialized equipment to fit between or over narrow rows, and in parts of the County, the soil is so shallow and hard you may not be able to scrape enough soil over the vines when you bury the canes for winter protection. Being pragmatic and having a 6 foot wide tractor, we chose 9 foot spacing between our rows and haven’t regretted it.
5) Contact a nursery like Vinetech in Niagara, and talk to them about your soil type and spacing.
7) Prep your site. Measure the dimensions carefully using a wheel or a rope. In the Fall, hire Gary Parks or a helpful neighbour to plough up the sod or previous crop. Cultivate an additional 10-15 feet of soil on all sides of your intended vineyard. The planting machine needs extra space to get started at the ends of the rows. Cultivate enough for an additional row or two in case you made a measurement error.
8) Test the soil for nutrient status by contacting Mar-leigh Farms and asking for a soil test. If feasible, make any corrections by fertilizing before you plant. In the County our main challenge is magnesium deficiency, but this is only resolved by well-timed foliar sprays of Epsom Salts.
8.5) Calculate the area you have to plant. Recommendations:
- subtract minimum 30 feet from the ends of your rows for headlands. This allows for the turning radius of your tractor.
- subtract minimum 50 feet from all borders with neighbouring property, wells, buildings, and woodlands.
- discuss your plans with any residents that have a home adjacent to the vineyard property. You’ll likely need to spray the grapes at odd hours and make lots of noise with equipment.
9) Order your vines based on the area you have to plant, less area for headlands etc., and your spacing. For example, if you have nine feet between the rows, and four feet between each vine in the row, then each vine needs 36 square feet. Divide the number of feet in an acre by 36 to get the number of vines per acre.
10) Rest easy in the Winter. Have a glass or a bottle of wine and contemplate the joy of how beautiful your vineyard will be. Toast a glass to your cavalier view of how much money it will cost, the hard work and setbacks you will face, and how many years it will be before you see any grapes.
11) In May, contact Wiens Farms and get on their list for machine planting. Or rally a huge group of eager volunteers. Machine planting gets it done fast and straight, eager volunteers get it done cheap. If you go the volunteer route I hope you have a lot of energetic and gullible friends.
12) Contact Gary Parks to arrange discing and cultivating of the vineyard.
13) If you contacted him, James Wiens will come with a big machine to plant your vines in early July! Exciting! Arrange to be there, to ensure your vines get planted where you want them! You’ll have to work to his schedule. If you decided to use eager volunteers, work to your own schedule, throw a big planting party and treat them right. They deserve it.
The vines are planted. Congratulations! You are now well on your way to becoming a grape grower!
All you need to do now is purchase and install stakes, posts, t-bar, spray them every week or so, cultivate bi-weekly, put up clips and wires, and then bury the vines for the Winter. You’ll have then made it through the first critical year. Only two more years to go before you get a reasonable harvest.
If all that seems like too much work and expense, why not just come by our place? Have a glass of Pinot Noir, sit in the hammock, and admire the vines. That’s why we say “we work hard so you can relax with our wine”.