Growing a Better Grape
Whether your goal is the perfect bottle of pinot or simply a refreshing afternoon snack, the advice is the same: success starts from the ground up. Ray Massaro grows grapes for wine and fresh fruit on 10 acres in the Napa Valley.
He shares some of his techniques:
Soils that are ideal for grapes don't have to be ultra-fertile. Massaro's soil has only 12 to 18 inches of topsoil; below that is clay. His grapes love this "heirloom soil."
Remove the suckers that grow at the base of the vines. If left on the plant, suckers rob the grapes of nourishment. Most of the time, the suckers can be pulled off, but you may have to use shears. Also prune back the top spindly growth of the grapevine. Topping the grapevines will encourage more vegetation and enhance flavor in the grapes.
Whether you buy grapes from a nursery or mail order sources, chances are you'll probably be buying at least 2-year-old rootstock. Then, it may be another two years before you get fruit to set well. If you see fruit setting the first year, remove it. By doing this, you'll promote root development and a healthier plant. The following year, you can harvest and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Grapevines require support to mature properly and to allow for easy access for ongoing care and harvesting. There are many types of supports that you can use ranging from small trellises to fancy arbors. One common and effective trellis method is to string wires between poles. Massaro sandwiches poles in the vineyard with two strands of wires running down the rows. He has three sets of double wires approximately 12 inches apart for his vines. With this trellising system, all you have to do is periodically tuck the vines underneath the wires. Pull them up underneath to hold them up so the sunlight gets to the vines where the main part of the grapes are growing.
A pond on Massaro's property serves as a home for geese and black bass, but it is also a source of irrigation for his vineyard. Massaro gives each plant about 45 gallons of water during the growing season — or about 4 to 5 gallons every other week.
Drip irrigation is the ideal way to water homegrown grapes. Drip irrigation systems are inexpensive and easy to install, and they don't require a lot of water pressure. You can run lines along the wire trellis, or you can run them on the ground and direct water to the root zone even more. To conserve moisture and suppress weeds, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings. Drip irrigation also helps to prevent fungal diseases; however, as a routine precaution, Massaro sprays organic sulfur onto the vines every seven to eight days during the growing season. To help guard against mildew, he created plenty of space between vines for better air circulation. This could be helpful if your area experiences high humidity.