Home & Garden

Want to make wine? Now is the time to plant grapevines

If you’re interested in growing grapes it can be done on a smallscale with a mere handful of vines. If this interests you, now is the time to start planting: soon, warmer weather will bring the growing season.
If you’re interested in growing grapes it can be done on a smallscale with a mere handful of vines. If this interests you, now is the time to start planting: soon, warmer weather will bring the growing season. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Down a rural road north of Durham is a vineyard, where Jim Ward is pruning 5 acres of grapevines, one plant at a time. This one, he says, is a Cynthiana.

When I ask how many he has, he looks at me with a good-natured, incredulous expression. It’s like I’ve asked him the price of gas in another country – he doesn’t know off the top of his head, and it’s not of particular concern to him.

“Too many grapevines,” Ward says and laughs, which he does easily and often. “At one time I called this a Heinz 57 vineyard.”

Ward, who has a day job but grows grapes as a money-making hobby, grows vinifera and malbec; chardonel and traminette; Petit Manseng, Chambourcin and Touriga Nacional. While the scope of his operation may seem intimidating to hobbyists, Ward says it can be done on a smaller scale with a mere handful of vines. If this interests you, now is the time to start planting; soon, warmer weather will bring the growing season. And if you’re more interested in making wine, you can take an upcoming class at Durham’s Bull City Homebrew and purchase grapes from local vineyards.

Regardless of which side of winemaking appeals to you, it takes study, intuition and time. “You gotta have patience. You gotta read a lot,” Ward says. “Take your time.”

You gotta have patience. You gotta read a lot. Take your time.

Jim Ward, Durham vineyard owner

Even as the sun sets behind the western trees and the air gets markedly cooler, he continues to unhurriedly snip, snip, snip. It can take some vines years to establish themselves. Snip. And it can take practice to fully understand how and what to prune. Snip. And you have to think ahead to what kind of wine you want to make – snip – or who would potentially be interested in the grape you’ve grown.

“If you want fresh fruit, if you want to make wine, just a few vines might suffice,” he says. “You probably want to plant more, because it doesn’t always work out.” Diseases of the wood, Ward points out, are a problem in the industry. In fact, one expert says, they’re what determines what can even be grown in a region.

“Pierce’s disease is pretty much what tells us what we can plant or how far east we can come with most of the bunch grapes,” says N.C. State University professor and extension specialist Sara Spayd, whose focus is the North Carolina bunch grape industry. “That would include things like Concord and sunbelt.”

Some cultivars grow well in the foothills, in Yadkin and Wilkes counties, with the climate cold enough to keep Pierce’s disease at bay. The farther east you go, the more trouble you run into.

Historically, Spayd says, European grapes have been a poor match for the local climate. Settlers, upon pushing inland and encountering rolling hills, planted familiar grape vines. Thomas Jefferson tried, and there are historical accounts of North Carolinians unsuccessfully trying to grow vinifera or other European wine grapes. Muscadine, however, already flourished here, and became the basis of a thriving wine industry in North Carolina in the years leading up to the Civil War. A tradition of sweet muscadine wine remains.

“It wasn’t really until the advent of modern pesticides that we were able to begin growing (European) grapes within North Carolina or in the East Coast,” Spayd says. Bunch grapes and spraying go hand in hand, Ward says: some people may not want to keep disease and pests at bay with chemicals, he admits, but they have to if they want to grow certain wine grapes.

For some, though, vineyards replaced a traditional North Carolina crop that’s gone out of vogue in the new millennium. The wine industry has been promoted as an alternative to tobacco cultivation, Spayd says. It’s not guaranteed to work, she admits – you can’t suddenly switch from tobacco to grapes with any bankable assurance the transition will succeed – though it’s not guaranteed to fail, either.

The family behind Yadkin County’s RagApple Lassie Vineyards were tobacco farmers, Ward says, while tobacco was the previous crop on the land where his vineyard now stands. It’s not the only crop tobacco farmers switched to, he says, but it did draw in a few who were willing to dedicate time and attention to the finicky, disease-vulnerable plants Ward patiently, calmly prunes.

“I call growing bunch grapes a Ph.D. in farming, (because of ) the nuances and complexities of producing the crop,” Spayd says. “You’re always thinking about the final product and not just the yield that’s coming off the vine.”

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com.

Tips for growing grapes

Vine Selection: Muscadine, the native vine, is a fairly safe bet, says N.C. State University professor and extension specialist Sara Spayd. Chardonel is good for someone trying to make white wine, says Durham vineyard owner Jim Ward, while he also recommends melody. “I wouldn’t say a home grape grower would be happy with Concords,” he says, “They don’t grow well around here.”

Trellis: Ward’s trellises run the length of his vineyard. Depending on the grape, some have wires running 3 feet off the ground or about 5 feet off the ground, strung between wood or metal posts. “For someone who wants a home garden, this trellis system is ... what they need,” he says. Learn how your grape behaves before constructing your trellis – vinifera, for instance, grows up before sprawling outward and succumbing to gravity. Be aware, too, of the western sun – particularly in summer – as it can burn grapes on the vine. Avoid this by pulling leaves through the wire to the west-facing side, ensuring they block direct rays, or with a shade cloth angled toward the afternoon sun. “If you manage it properly, you’re not going to sunburn,” Spayd says.

Pruning: “Pruning is very essential because if you let a vine go as it naturally wants to do, it’ll make a huge mess and you won’t be able to get in there to the fruit and it won’t make fruit,” Ward says. He mentions three techniques. In cane pruning, you preserve the cane – that is, the branch – which has grape-producing buds along its length. In spur pruning, you focus on the buds themselves, removing “no-count buds” to make room for productive ones. Ward balances between the two: “I go whichever way the geometry presents itself,” he says as he works. One downside to spur pruning, he notes, is that every cut in the wood is another place disease can enter the plant. The third method he mentions is formulaic pruning, a mathematical approach in which you measure everything – including the weight of everything pruned – in the quest for a “balanced” vine and a set base count of buds.

Spraying: European cultivars in particular are susceptible to disease and pests. “Use some simple stuff,” is Ward’s pesticide advice: “That’s something else (new growers) need to research, to ask their ag agent.” A by-county list of agriculture extension agents can be found at ces.ncsu.edu.

Winemaking: Start with a kit, Ward says, and work up from there. (Kits can be purchased at many local homebrewing stores, including American Brewmaster in Raleigh and Cary.) The more practice you get, the more you can fiddle with the recipe. “After you do a couple of those you might feel like you can handle some pH strips and figure out what your acidity is,” he says. “By that time, people have learned how to use a hydrometer, so you can measure sugar levels in the must.” It’s worth mentioning that good homemade wine doesn’t necessarily scale up to good commercial product. “It does you absolutely no good to make a wine that you like and that nobody else does,” Spayd says. “Have good friends taste (your) wine and accept any criticism.” Ward also sells wine grapes; contact him at JimboWard@aol.com.

Classes: Several Triangle homebrew stores also offer winemaking classes.

Durham’s Bull City Homebrew has three upcoming Introduction to Winemaking classes: 3 p.m. Feb. 21, March 13 or March 20. Cost: $25. If you sign up now, you can get a second ticket for free. Info: bullcityhomebrew.com/wineschool.aspx. The store also sells winemaking kits and supplies.

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This is the second installment of a new homesteading column, which aims to share information on do-it-yourself skills in the home and garden. Often it will tackle skills once taken for granted by our grandparents.

To learn how to grow your own mushrooms, go to nando.com/shrooms