There are many ways to approach winegrape growing. Dry farmed, irrigated, till, minimum till, no-till, conventional, sustainable, organic, and biodynamic to name a few. Yet, regardless of approach, some grape growers are more successful than others with regard to viticultural effectiveness, operational efficiency, and profitability. What attributes make them so? I believe there are at least four elements of successful vineyard management and they are the subjects of this article.
A wise grape grower once said, “In farming you are better off doing an imperfect job on time than a flawless job late”. It is true; we must be in step with seasonal vine development and other vineyard events, as well as have a sense of urgency about our management actions to achieve the maximum viticultural benefit from them.
For example, shoot thinning when the shoots are four to ten inches long is easier, faster, and less expensive than thinning later when shoots are longer (Figure 1). In addition, early shoot thinning results in early reduction in competition among shoots for internal vine resources, causing greater shoot growth invigoration, shoot elongation uniformity, and fruit set. In a similar manner, leaf removal immediately after bloom has greater disease control and grape quality benefits than later leaf removal, and post fruit set cluster thinning promotes fruit maturation and grape quality more than later thinning.
Sometimes lateness is missed opportunity. For instance, there is no way to compensate for a missed early bloom foliar application of phosphorus, zinc, boron, and molybdenum for promoting maximum fruit set. Likewise, leaves damaged from severe water stress due to missed irrigations cannot be repaired with later irrigations.
It is not only important to do the appropriate things at the proper time, but winegrape growing success also requires they be done year after year. Grapevines, being perennial plants, appear to have memories in the form of carryover affects from previous years. Prominent among these are declining growth vigor and crop carrying capacity due to past episodes of insufficient leaves or excessively large crops (Figure 2). Such affects result from missed opportunities to adequately supply vines with water and mineral nutrients or to regulate crop loads.
Further, vineyards are long-term investments with lengthy return on investment expectations. Soil erosion, declining soil tilth and fertility, accumulating weed seeds, increasing canker disease, and intensifying vine growth variability diminish vineyard productivity and value. Management consistency is the means for avoiding or minimizing these undesirable outcomes.
Attention to Detail
To consistently implement vineyard practices on time a grape grower must know what is happening in the vineyard. Moreover, he or she must be prepared and know what to do when the time is right. In other words, successful grape growing requires attention to details in vineyard monitoring, production planning, and management execution.
A vineyard management plan provides a framework for documenting grape growing details. It consists of a chronological list of management actions, including regular vineyard monitoring activities. The plan serves as a guide for your vineyard management team, helping them consistently do the appropriate thing at the right time.
On a broader scale, every vineyard endeavor ought to have a comprehensive business plan that includes an assessment of the business environment, objectives for the future, operational plans, and a financial plan (Table 1). Remember the old adage: to fail to plan is to plan to fail.
Can we do things better? This question, which suggests a quest for excellence, under
lies all highly successful vineyard enterprises. After harvest, while memories of the growing season are still fresh, is usually the best time to contemplate answers. Read a previous article here about Vineyard Management Self-Evaluation.
As you reflect on the season, ask the question above to all aspects of your vineyard management. As you do, make a list of “yes” answers, which designate areas for improvement. In a column next to this list, add actions for improvement or at least, topics to research. For instance, a positive answer to a question about bunch rot incidence naturally leads to consideration of canopy management, fungicides, and perhaps, cluster elongation with gibb (Figure 3). Should this process result in operational changes, be sure to add them to your vineyard management plan document.
Vineyard management styles may vary widely, but the fundamentals of consistently successful wine grape growing are narrowly focused on at least four elements. They are paying attention to details, applying the appropriate material or practice on time, applying them consistently year after year, and continually striving for excellence.
A version of this article was originally published in the Mid Valley Agricultural Services April, 2016 newsletter, and updated for this blog post.
Grant, S. Five-step irrigation schedule: promoting fruit quality and vine health. Practical Winery and Vineyard. 21(1):46-52 and 75. May/June 2000.
Grant, S. Balanced soil fertility management in wine grape vineyards. Practical Winery and Vineyard. 24 (1): 7-24. May/June 2002
Grant, S. Fertilizer efficiency for wine grape vineyards. Practical Winery and Vineyard 28. March/April (2006).
Howell, GS. Sustainable Grape Productivity and the Growth-Yield Relationship: A Review. American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 52:165-174. 2001.
Keller, M. The science of grapevines. Academic Press, Burlington, MA. 2010.
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