I attended a lecture the other evening on the history of growing wine grapes in the Santa Clara Valley foothills. It got me rethinking about my desire to own a vineyard, even a mere 1 acre, which could produce anywhere from a few tons to six tons depending on the year. I work in vineyards and have taken many courses on establishing a small vineyard, and thus have no illusions about what’s involved. At this point, it’s just a matter of deciding whether to plant one or buy a vineyard that’s already established.
Not everyone, however, is at this stage. After the lecture, a woman raised her hand, asking the guest speaker what it would cost to plant a vineyard and what type of return on her investment she could expect. The speaker sort of chuckled, commenting first on how much it would “cost” to invest in manpower—that is, how much of her own blood, sweat, and tears she was willing to put into it just to break even, because it would cost too much at first to hire a vineyard manager. Then another person suggested not planting a vineyard unless you “are a Getty.” Not much encouragement.
Finally though, someone from the industry did offer some encouraging words: He suggested she join the local viticulture association where she could network with other growers and gain access to other resources.
I’m often put aback when people make quips about another person’’s dream—in this case, plant a vineyard. Perhaps it’s because they would like a vineyard of their own and cannot afford it, or maybe they are just the type who feel the need to play the devil’s advocate. I don’t know. Not to say that the guest speaker or other attendee who voiced their opinions that evening were trying to be cynical or discouraging. They seemed genuine in their attempt to heed the warnings of viticulture. Perhaps they could have softened the blow simply by encouraging her to go for it and then pointing out some of the realities.
Growing grapes is farming; there’s nothing romantic about it. Unfortunately, the growing popularity of wine lures many into the false reality of viticulture. For starters, it’s hard work—vineyards need constant tending year-round. There’s pruning, pest control—against sharpshooters, deer, rodents, and other elements—ground-cover maintenance, and more.
Owning a vineyard requires putting in long hours, especially during harvest so forget about going on vacation. There’s also uncertainties caused by Mother Nature, such as frost and disease. And, if you like furry animals, you may want to rethink your dream: gophers are a farmer’s nightmare. Establishing a new vineyard often means killing them.
Now let’s talk money: Vineyards require much capital, especially for planting one from scratch. And, you’ll need to buy all of the farming equipment that goes along with it. If you plan on selling your grapes, you’ll have to find buyers and then work to maintain those relationships for the long term. Also, keep in mind that you will likely be in the red for some time before breaking even, and ultimately showing a profit. (My cousin who owns a vineyard/winery once lovingly referred to it as the “money pit.” Fortunately, her husband, the winemaker, still has his day job.)
My words are not meant to discourage you; they are meant to educate you on some of the realities of viticulture, which does have its upside. One is the beauty that is unveiled during the growing season—from flowering, to bud break, to harvest. Even the dormant season can look like a picture postcard: Envision bare vines against the backdrop of a clear, starlit night. Or a vineyard floor covered in a dusting of snow, a veil of fog shrouding the tops of the vines on a blue-gray winter day. The life of a vine is something to behold. It’s a living, breathing thing with its own “personality”. Some vines are young, some are old, and some are ancient. Some are gnarled—almost arthritic looking—while others have more proportionate lines. Some bare dark-skinned fruit; others bare light-skinned fruit—grape varieties seem endless.
If you want to plant a vineyard—or even buy one that is already established—then I say go for it. There are a plethora of resources such as viticulture course and regional viticulture associations to help you decide if it’s the right thing for you. Just do it for the right reasons, not because you think it’s romantic or cool. I believe that a passionless endeavor only leads to hardship and even failure.