Tips and Tricks Winemakers Used To Improve their Harvests

Gene Estes said he started his first vineyard with eight different varieties of grapes.

After seven years of diligent recordkeeping, he found that just two did well on his estate.

Keeping good records on which varieties do best in your vineyard’s soil and adjusting accordingly is something that has helped Lost Oak Winery in Burleson, Texas improve its harvests over the years.

Lost Oak still adheres to that practice, taking leaf petiole samples just before bloom and increasing nutrients in those that test low and decreasing them in those that test high.

“After seven years, we ended up with only two that produced better yields and better quality of uniform, evenly ripened crops,” said Estes, founder of Lost Oak, which is located south of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. “It is (also) important to take leaf petiole samples each year and send them to labs for testing so that you can adjust each year’s growth performance based on correct availability of the correct amounts of nutrients.”

It’s a world of perpetual adjustments for winery owners and grape growers who are looking to get the most out of their harvests and get better yields with each passing year.

The adjustments haven’t stopped for Estes, who has made several adjustments since the previous year.

Those improvements include adding bonus canes to their Syrah at the end of last year’s harvest to improve yield; training and suckering all vines, controlling weeds and thinning the leaves early in the growing season; and bumping up the irrigation to combat Texas’s unusually dry growing season.

Their recommended best practices also include adding supplements like iron, potassium, and boron to nourish the soil and vines and treating the soil with agents like imidacloprid to control insects. They also install bird netting just before veraison.

In Richmond, Kentucky, monitoring the weather for frost in the early season and protecting against birds are two things Alex Southwell said Chenault Vineyards does.

Southwell said learning to work with Kentucky’s difficult grape-growing climate has been a struggle, but he’s learned from having productive conversations with other growers around the country.

“This year I changed our frost prevention methods and that seems to have made a huge impact,” he said. “I’m always learning and adapting to new methods and practices because there’s always something better you could be doing.

Chenault is constantly monitoring the weather to make sure they spray the grapes to protect them, Southwell added. Also, making sure they get bird netting on the vines in time for each varietal is key. 

“We have a very large bird population in our area and netting is a long tedious job,” Southwell said, “so timing is everything.”

Some distance away from Kentucky, in the Spanish province of Valencia, Bodegas Murviedro winemaker Juanjo Muñoz said last year his crew began making several passes in the vineyard, harvesting each time the clusters were in their optimum state of maturation.

This year, they’re turning to technology to help speed up the process.

“We plan to incorporate a drone that allows us to identify plot by plot the areas that are in the optimal state of maturation,” he said. “We will practice a precision harvest.”

In Canton, Ohio, Gervasi head winemaker David Smith said good canopy management was key to setting yourself up for a good harvest.

“Canopy management is always key to growing healthy well-ripened fruit,” Smith said. “Ensuring that the vines’ foliage is never too dense to inhibit good airflow and light penetration is very important and always a top priority.”

Smith also said the weather during harvest was always a challenge, and each year they strategize between when to harvest and when to spray protective chemicals on the grapes.

“Harvesting early can be a great strategy to use when the weather will be fairly wet around harvest time, but this may require adjusting winery treatments,” Smith explained. “This coming harvest we’ll be trialing two new vineyard sprays. These sprays are made up of pieces of yeast cells that should encourage the vines to increase the color and aroma compounds in the grapes before we harvest.

“We also have some new chemical sprays that are designed to allow late season application if we need it without harming the fruit quality.”

Smith said the most impactful areas to focus on for a good harvest are consistent dormant pruning, early-season pesticide sprays, and keeping up with good canopy management every year.

“If any of those three areas don’t get the attention they need every year you will see it in the fruit quality,” he said. “Managing a vineyard is a long-term project, and your actions today will have consequences — good or bad — for years to come.”

Getting Good Help

Improving technology has made farming easier, but having human help is naturally important when preparing and harvesting grapes.

Having reliable full-time workers in the vineyard is a luxury that Estes said Lost Oak is fortunate to have. One worker spends 85% of his time in the vineyard, and the other spends 50% of his time buying chemicals and doing the spraying, dripping, mowing, and weed control while maintaining the other 45 acres of winery and estate property.

Educating them and fairly compensating them have been high priorities, Estes said.

”They have been here for 15 and 18 years and have learned from our vineyard advisor and me, and have gained much knowledge through so much experience,” Estes said.  “I think it is a good idea to interview people who already have experience in viticulture but it is also important to hire those who are stable and are likely to stay with you for years if you pay them adequately and provide appropriate benefits.”

Outside, temporary help during harvest comes in the form of eager wine fans at Gervasi.

“Before harvesting our grapes we reach out to our customers via email and social media to give everyone a chance to sign up to help with picking the grapes,” Smith said. “Most people have a lot of fun helping with the harvest and we usually get more than enough people to help bring in the fruit.

“Our permanent winery staff also assists/coordinates the harvest effort which helps everyone know they’re doing the job well.”

When hiring staff for vineyard work it’s most important to find people that enjoy working outside and don’t mind working in the weather, he noted.

“Much of the vineyard work throughout the year is done in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. If you hire someone that isn’t used to that they may not stick around very long,” Smith said. “Obviously previous vineyard experience is great, but not very common. If you can hire someone that has previously worked in a nursery or landscaping they will tend to have at least a general understanding of how plants grow and respond to pruning and leaf-pulling. Finding someone that is already comfortable with a pair of pruners in their hand is a big plus.”

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