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About That Vineyard…

Rural Intelligence Food Christopher Matthews, a wine and spirits writer and educator, divides his time between Manhattan and Red Hook, Dutchess County. He has been the wine and spirits columnist for New York Law Journal Magazine since 2004, and has written about food and drink for and the Culinary Institute of America. A member of the Wine Media Guild of New York, he has judged at the Hudson Valley Wine Competition, and has a keen appreciation for local (spirituous) beverages. He reports:

Fancy a vineyard?

You love wine, and know a thing or two about it. Wine country usually figures into your vacations. The sight of well-ordered, hillside rows of vines sets your heart fluttering. 

As it happens, you own some lovely, rolling acreage a couple of hours north of New York City, with similar contours to the handsome, vine-covered ridges of Millbrook Vineyards and Winery nearby (below). Occasional visits to Millbrook’s tasting room with house guests have fed Provençal visions of grape-laden vineyards on your property, set against a colorful, autumnal backdrop. 

Ah, the grape bug has bitten.

Rural Intelligence FoodWine country?

While the Hudson Valley isn’t Napa in terms of vineyard density (or notoriety), it is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the US, dating back to the 17th century. Today, some forty wineries—and even more vineyards—are in operation (with more of both in the works). Demand (and prices) for Hudson Valley wine grapes has grown steadily in recent years; local wineries would readily buy more local wine grapes, if available. There are also now three wine-and-beverage “trails” in the area (Dutchess Wine Trail, Hudson Berkshire Beverage Trail, and, across the river, Shawangunk, important pieces of the region’s healthy agri-tourism sector.  Sounds like an opportunity, no? You already own available land—a good place to start, and one less expense to consider. Just how hard would it be to put in some vines on your back forty, partner with a nearby winery, and achieve that gorgeously cultivated landscape? 

Not as easy as you might imagine. 

“You got to have deep pockets, patience, and attention to detail to establish a vineyard in the Hudson Valley,” said Michael Migliore, owner of Whitecliff Vineyards near New Paltz, President of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association, and vineyard consultant. That’s how he kicked off a recent seminar on beginning viticulture in the Hudson Valley (HV) organized by Steven McKay of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, together with the Hudson Valley Wine Grower’s Association, at Cornell’s Hudson Valley lab in Highland, NY. 

Rural Intelligence FoodThe room for the full-day seminar was packed, indicating a surprisingly robust interest in the subject. By my reckoning, most participants were already involved in growing fruit, some commercially, and looking to diversify or expand operations. A number had already put in test vines, and were now ready to scale up. Others were in various beginning stages of the process, such as testing soil samples. Some, like me, were oenophiles with land…and grape aspirations.

Chatting before the program began, Migliore asked me how many acres I could devote to a site. He smiled politely when I told him “close to three”. We continued to discuss other relevant topics—soil composition, drainage, slope, sun exposure, etc.—and he seemed encouraging. But one minute into his introduction, he said that a commercial wine grape operation needs at least five planted acres to be economically viable. Anything less is “an expensive hobby”.


Nobody bolted, but more than a few flinched, including yours truly.

Migliore’s next point hit hard: not even counting a good tractor (around $32,000 brand new) and a versatile spray rig ($14,000)—both of which are necessary to work a commercial vineyard—you can expect to pay $15,000 to $17,000 per acre to establish a vineyard in the Hudson Valley. And don’t forget: in this three-to-four year process, there is no revenue, because grapes are first harvested only in year three, assuming all goes well.  Financing from local banks? It’s not happening. “You can walk right now,” said Migliore, only half-joking.
The good news? Yes, there is a market for locally grown fruit, explained Migliore, and overall, the quality is pretty high, including the best Chardonnay in the State. But it’s up to the growers to market and sell to the wineries—they won’t line-up for it. While HV grapes are generally more expensive than those available from the far larger Finger Lakes region (between $950 to $1700 a ton, depending on variety), but wineries in the Hudson Valley are willing to pay more because of the shorter shipping distances and more opportunities to meet with local growers during the growing season (what winemakers call “the vintage”) keep them competitive. According to Carlo DeVito of Hudson-Chatham Winery, anything short of a ton won’t do when he buys grapes, so scale matters for growers. Typically, an HV vineyard will yield between 2 to 5 tons an acre.

Rural Intelligence FoodLocation, location, location 

At 42 ° N, the HV and southwest New England share the same latitude of great wine spots like Rioja and Tuscany (right), but the similarity ends there. Although not far from the ocean, our’s is a cold-temperate region with a continental climate largely unmitigated by either the Great Lakes or the Atlantic. Minimum winter temperatures, we locals know, can plunge well below zero, threatening vines (especially European vinifera varieties) with cold injury…or even death. Late spring frosts and early autumn freezes are not uncommon, potentially shortening the growing season.  With such a short season, achieving adequate ripeness can be an issue

According to Cornell’s Senior Extension Associate Stephen Hoying, identifying a site in this marginal climate where vines can grow and mature consistently is the most crucial decision you’ll make, even trumping factors such as soil and grape variety.  Given the expense and time involved in establishing a vineyard (and its longevity), you want to make sure your place is suitable for grape production. This entails researching the history of winter low temperatures at the prospective location—and actual field measurement with thermometers. Another critical concern: good “air drainage.” Like water, air flows and pools. Where it pools, hard freezes are more likely. So, some sloping is highly desirable, because it allows the cold air to drain away from the vineyard. Hoying advises avoiding air “dams,” such as stone walls or hedge rows that cause air to pool. Naturally, optimal sun exposure is key, as are sufficient length of season and “growing degree days.” (This site-specific data is available on-line via the Cornell Extension website.)  If hail is a common occurrence, “reconsider your site, because it will cause you a world of problems,” said Hoying. Other considerations: proximity to markets, zoning laws, and wildlife (e.g. hungry deer and birds could make expensive deer fencing and bird netting necessary). 

“Don’t be afraid to reject a site,” he added.       

Rural Intelligence FoodTerra cognito

Based on Cornell’s computer data, my location has a long enough growing season with an average length of 185 days, and its growing degree days are on par with Bordeaux. So, it’s not Siberia. 

Soil is important, for many reasons. “You’ve got to know it thoroughly, and you can’t only rely on soil surveys and computer models, as good as they may be,” stressed Hoying. That means digging a test pit, field observation (in particular, looking for wet spots), and preparing and sending scientific soil samples to the Cornell Extension. The most important soil attribute: good drainage, as “ponding” water or a high water table restricts root growth and respiration, making winter injury much more likely. On paper, my soil is “well-drained” (Dutchess County silt loam and rocky Cardigan), but, to my surprise during the March rains, I observed a few soggy spots on the ridge which could require improved drainage. Adequate depth of soil, at least 36 inches (preferably deeper) before reaching bedrock or fragipan (a layer of super-dense soil) is essential for good root distribution and penetration.  A soil test identifies the pH level and nutrient profile of the site, and whether soil amendments to correct its deficiencies are necessary. Often they are. In most wine education courses, the adage you’ll hear is “poor soils make for better wines;” because they force the vines to dig deep and struggle for nutrients.  This results is lower yields but more concentrated fruit. 

In other words, you shouldn’t grow grapes where you would grow corn. But, Hoying reminds us, vineyards and vines do have nutritional needs, such as adequate phosphorous, additions of which can only be made before vines are planted. From the grower’s perspective, yield is not a dirty word—it’s how one gets paid—but to be salable, grapes must be neither “over-cropped”  or “thin.” Overly fertile soil results in high-yielding, excessively vigorous vines that produce flavorless, or “thin,” wines.  Better flavor comes from vines that have had to compete for nutrients.  It’s a fine balance.

Apparently, my pH is on the low side (5.3), at least for vinifera grapes, such as Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. This would probably require working some lime into the soil before planting to raise the pH level.  I have yet to do the tactile soil test, but I’m sure, when I do, I’ll find other problems.  And I don’t need a soil test to know that my ridge is full of rocks, shale and pudding stones, courtesy the a glacier, which would make plowing, planting, fencing and setting posts much more difficult and expensive. 

The Cornell folks advocate two years of site preparation—soil testing and amendment, plowing, and cover crops (to adjust nitrogen levels)—before planting vines and putting up expensive and indispensible trellising. Migliore called this 2-years-of-prep scenario “ideal,” but pointed out that many don’t have the luxury of waiting an additional year before commencing a project, especially when the return on investment (ROI) for a Hudson Valley vineyard, even under optimal conditions, is 9 to 13 years!

The panel agreed that, if you aren’t in a hurry, test plots are a sound idea, but they should be at least half an acre to be worthwhile.

Rural Intelligence FoodGrape Contenders

There are many choices of grapes to ponder, but the overriding concern for the region is winter hardiness. Another is the vine’s resistance to disease, especially the many rots, mildews and fungi that abound in the HV’s humid spring/summer climate. Though sustainable and organic viticulture in the HV (a topic for another feature) is an appealing idea, a disease called black rot makes some spraying virtually unavoidable. “If you don’t spray for black rot, you don’t get a crop,” said Ray Tousey, of Tousey Winery in Germantown. 

The heartiest, least sexy grapes are native American varieties, like Concord or Delaware, though given the lack of a market for them, not many are grown and vinified in the Hudson Valley these days. Least hearty, and most susceptible to indigenous diseases are vinifera grapes. These, however, are well known and marketable—it’s what we know and drink—and some varieties are grown quite successfully here. Again, choice of site is critical, as well as which clones and rootstocks are employed. In terms of whites, nearly all wineries work with Chardonnay, a proven, stalwart performer in the Hudson Valley. Riesling, the most cold-tolerant of vinifera grapes, has tremendous potential here—and attractively high yields—but the site must have good air drainage, because the Riesling grape is susceptible to bunch rot. The “hot” white vinifera grape of the moment is the early-ripening Pinot Gris. For reds, late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon are not well suited to this region, but its parent grape, Cabernet Franc, has exhibited consistent excellence and gets my vote as the HV’s best all-around red vinifera grape. In warm, dry vintagge, Pinot Noir, the “heartbreak grape,” has won HV accolades—including last year’s Cornell Cup winner at the Hudson Valley Wine Competition (Millbrook’s 2007 Block 5 East)—but it is prone to fungal diseases, such as botrytis. Gamay Noir, the fruity grape of Beaujolais, has shown encouraging results.

Most suitable for this challenging climate, however, are the French-American hybrids—crosses between American and vinifera species that offer native-like winter hardiness and disease resistance (thus lower spraying costs), but with more vinifera-like flavor profiles. Traditionally these have been hard sells outside of local tasting rooms, but in the right hands, they make interesting wines on their own, or valuable additions to blends. Accumulated experience with the best of these varieties has led to improved wines, and an embrace from newcomers, such as Hudson-Chatham. Seyval Blanc is the white workhorse of the region; some three-quarters of HV vineyards plant this versatile, apple-scented variety that produces drier wines, according to Migliore. Vidal Blanc is also common and extremely versatile, with a range from bone dry to dessert wine.  Cayuga is most often used as a fruity blending partner, while, in warm years, Vignoles yields vibrant, tropical fruit-flavored dessert wines. Up and coming is Traminette, a hardier version of Gewurztraminer (one of its parents) that retains that grape’s attractive rose petal, lychee and spice qualities. Baco Noir is easier to grow than any of the vinifera reds, and gives some nice tannin and peppery, briary fruit. Similarly, Noiret, a newish hybrid created and released by Cornell, is getting some play. There’s also excitement with test results from a yet-to-be-named Cornell hybrid, Red Wine No. 95.301.01, which is highly disease-and-insect resistant, suitable for organic viticulture, and exhibits a lovely blueberry character.

Rural Intelligence FoodHow to make a small fortune…?

Invest a large one in a vineyard!

That was certainly part of the session’s takeaway.

After Migliore’s painstaking presentation of actual cost spreadsheets for a 10-year vineyard project, including things like the cost of triple-galvanized wire for trellising, my head was spinning. For now, I would have to defer my vineyard dreams.

If money is no object, for a hefty fee you can hire an outfit to come in and establish a vineyard.  Unless you intend to be hands on, there are also the costs of a vineyard manager and workers. Why not throw in wine-making equipment and a tasting room, too?  Still, no matter how deep the pockets or great the ambition, if the vineyard site isn’t right, you’ll be courting expensive failure.

In the end, the tough love from Cornell was eye-opening and useful—there is no room for romantic illusions about HV viticulture, and I’m the better for it.

Nevertheless, on a beautiful May afternoon, my sun-drenched ridge freshly cut for hay, I visualize those green rows of vines hugging the undulating contours.  Grape dreams do die hard. Maybe I’ll just start with that soil test… —Christopher Matthews

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 06/06/10 at 12:28 PM • Permalink