The grapes were piled high, almost to the point of falling over the sides of the 5-gallon buckets. I estimated that the three full pails would yield roughly 100 pounds of fruit and, more importantly, five gallons of wine. Looking down the rows of vines, I felt great satisfaction in the hard but rewarding work that went into creating our own little vineyard. I realized right then that growing wine grapes for fun and profit is a great fit for folks with some acreage to spare.
The land I grow my wine grapes on is located in northwestern Minnesota, about 150 miles from the Canadian border. Although Minnesota is far from more traditional grape growing regions, new winter-hardy varieties have expanded the range for the crop in the central and north-central states.
The University of Minnesota is known worldwide for developing cold-hardy grape varieties. Scientists have been breeding vines there for more than a century. Since the mid-1980s, much of that effort has been focused on creating high-quality, cold-hardy and disease-resistant wine and table grape cultivars. Since 1996, the university has released four wine grape varieties that can withstand temperatures below minus 35 degrees. The extreme hardiness of these hybrid vines, coupled with increased demand for the fruit, has created a niche market for small growers who may decide to sell grapes or produce and market their own wines, juice or jelly.
One of the benefits of growing grapes is that once you invest in the considerable expense and effort necessary to establish a vineyard, the vines should continue to produce regular crops for 20 years or more. As with any fruit, plenty of routine maintenance is required to keep the grape vines healthy and producing. But the rewards can be substantial.
Variation in varieties
One of the first steps to creating a vineyard is to decide what type of grape you want to grow. Are you interested in making wine? How about juice, jelly or fruit for the eating? Of course, you don’t have to plant only one type of grape, and some multipurpose varieties make excellent juice and jelly and also can be made into pleasant wines. If there is an established vineyard nearby, or you know someone who grows grapes in your neighborhood, ask them to suggest a few varieties suited to your part of the country. Grape growers tend to go out of their way to offer help to beginners. Don’t forget your local county extension office or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – they can help with variety selection and growing information, too.
Location, location, location …
When selecting a site for your vineyard it is important to remember that choosing the right location can mean the difference between success and failure in producing a crop. In the upper Midwest, one major concern with growing grapes is the available number of frost-free growing days. While you can’t change the dates of the average last frost in the spring or the first frost in the fall, certain sites are more or less susceptible to early and late season chills.
Since cold air is the enemy, vineyard sites with some elevation and slope are ideal because cold air passes through rather than pooling to frost the vines. No matter how tempting that little valley bottom looks, avoid it if you can. Even a slight slope of 11/2 percent can greatly facilitate draining cold air.
Grapes thrive on sunlight and need as much as possible in order to ripen and produce sugar. If possible, locate your vineyard in an area that gets full sun and is open enough to receive good air movement. Planting between windbreaks, or in other areas with wind protection, may increase the susceptibility of the grapes to diseases like downy mildew or bunch rot.
When you have narrowed your site selection, it’s a good idea to take soil samples and have them tested. This extra step will reveal the soil’s nutrient and acidity levels. Your county extension office can refer you to a testing facility and will make recommendations on amending your soil.
Prepare in advance
Whether planting a garden-size vineyard or several acres, field preparation should be done the year before. If you are planting an area that has never been tilled, you will want to eliminate as much existing vegetation as possible. Some folks recommend application of a broad-spectrum herbicide, such as glyphosphate, before turning the soil. Others use crop oil, flame or close mowing as a prelude to mechanical tilling. If you prepare the field in the summer or early fall you will have plenty of time to go over it again and keep the unwanted vegetation in check. Till the soil deeply (and apply recommended amendments) the following spring to give the new grape vines a good place to set their roots.
Planning the purchase
Deciding what type of grapes you want to plant is one of the first steps in establishing a vineyard. Purchasing the vines also requires some planning. Because certain grape varieties are in high demand – especially the new cold-hardy varieties – most nurseries recommend that you order vines the previous fall for spring planting. A down payment is usually required to hold an order with the balance due at time of pick up or delivery. Since grape vines are often shipped bare root, you will want to be sure that you’re ready to plant soon after they arrive.
Put them in the ground
Grape planting in the upper Midwest usually occurs in April or May depending on when the danger of late spring frost hasassed. Vines may be planted by hand digging with a spade, but depending on the number involved, a tractor-mounted posthole digger or hand-held power auger might be a better alternative. Plant the vines in holes large enough to accommodate the root system, while locating the lowest bud right above the soil surface. All new vines should be watered in with 2 to 3 gallons right at planting.
Newly planted grapevines should be protected their first year with “grow tubes” (plastic tubes 1 to 3 feet in height), which provide a mini-greenhouse environment and protect against damage from rabbits or deer.
Pestering the pests
Fencing is the best long-term solution to keeping rabbit and deer damage to a minimum in your vineyard, but it is costly for more than a small garden-sized plot. Multiple-line electric fence or 10-foot-high predator-safe fence are the only secure methods of keeping the four-legged critters in check. But even a Fort Knox-worthy barrier might allow a determined animal in. What to do?
A number of spray-on repellents on the market today are effective if used religiously during the growing season and reapplied after any heavy rains. These repellents are somewhat expensive, but, compared to the cost to secure one acre with predator fencing, they may provide protection without a huge initial investment.
Birds and other fruit-loving animals might view your vineyard as a late-season smorgasbord. You can cover the vines with a light mesh designed to protect fruit from aerial attack, install any manner of scarecrow device, attract hawks and other bird predators to your vineyard, or share the bounty.
Training those vines
To get the most of your planting and to keep the grapes healthy, you need to train them to a trellis. Most trellis systems involve a combination of high tensile steel wire and wooden posts. All trellises provide stable vine positioning and promote optimal fruit development.
The two-wire Kniffen trellis system is one of the most popular because it is easy to install, relatively economical, and it works well. Wooden posts support horizontal wires at about 3 feet and 6 feet off the ground. As the vine grows taller, it is first attached to the lower wire and then the top wire. At that point, the main stem is secured and pruned, which allows shoots to branch out horizontally in either direction along the two wires. These shoots will produce the vine’s future fruit.
Pruning is one of the most important skills you will need to learn in order for your grape vines to mature and produce a crop year after year. Pruning is necessary to shape the vine, maintain it on the trellis, and it allows you to control the number, position and vigor of the fruiting canes that will produce grapes. Plan to prune your grape vines heavily during the dormant season before their buds begin to swell in spring. Careful growing season pruning and selective fruit cluster removal can also improve grape quality. Check with a grape grower’s guide or your local extension office for detailed instructions.
Watering and weed control are essential to give first-year vines a good start. The goal of that initial growing season is to establish a healthy root system and prepare the vine for winter. In late fall, the plant will “harden off” as it enters winter dormancy, which sets the stage for the next spring’s clean up and pruning. Under no circumstances should grapes be exposed to broadleaf herbicides such as 2, 4-D.
A matter of time
It takes up to three years for newly planted grape vines to produce their first crop. Even then, in most cases year three’s production will be light. If you follow recommended pruning strategies, keep on top of any fungal disease (such as black rot, downy mildew and powdery mildew) and animal pests, your vineyard will soon hit its prime and deliver a broad bounty well into the future.
Tim Nephew is a freelance writer living in northwestern Minnesota where he and his wife manage their 80 acres of wildlife habitat, with a few acres set aside for growing grapes.
Whether you plan to have 10 grapevines in your backyard or thousands on five acres nestled in the back 40, your financial investment will be significant. Here are some rough estimates of upfront costs for one acre of grapes. Remember, once you have made the initial investment, your vineyard will continue to produce for decades.
Vines: About 500 @ $2.75 per vine $1,375
Trellis Materials (wire and posts), Soil Preparation: $6,000
Total Cost: $7,375*
* Actual start-up costs will vary based on local material costs.
In Minnesota, your vineyard can produce up to four tons of grapes per acre by its fourth or fifth year. Selling your bounty at an average price of 70 cents per pound will yield a gross return of up to $2,800 per acre.
United States Department of Agriculture: www.USDA.gov
University of Minnesota Grape Program: www.Grapes.UMN.edu
Minnesota Grape Growers Association: www.MNGrapes.org
Missouri Grape Growers Association: www.MissouriGrapeGrowers.org
Iowa Grape Growers: www.IowaWineGrowers.org