Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From Plant to Bottle: The Grapes – Part 1

You are likely aware that wine is made from fermenting grapes (although, as I discussed previously, it could be made from a wide variety of things besides grapes), but there is a bit more to the process if you are to achieve a fine wine.  Considering that most wine is made from grapes and, in particular, vinifera grapes, I will discuss the process of making wine from these grapes first.

In order to make fine wine, you must start in the vineyard.  It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make fine wine from mediocre or bad grapes.  Growing high quality wine grapes is hard work, though, and not for the faint of heart.  I tried it once many years ago when I was a budding amateur winemaker and I did a pretty lousy job.  I didn’t really know how to prune them, nor did I have the time to take care of them despite having only 20 vines. Grapes must be sprayed with the proper products to prevent various diseases, such as black rot and various mildews, and it is critical to do this at proper intervals.  If you have a lot of rain, it stands to reason you must spray more often.  In addition, care must be taken to ensure the grapes receive the proper amount of nutrition.   If you don’t want or don’t have the time to grow your own grapes, it is entirely possible that you can buy some good quality grapes someplace within reasonable distance of your home.  Some wineries and vineyards will sell to – and some even cater to – amateurs.  Two come to mind that I know well. One is Presque Isle Wine Cellars in North East, PA (ironically located in northwestern PA near Erie) and the other is Debonne’ Vineyards in Madison, OH.  You simply need to ask around.

While grape growing is not my area of expertise, I can tell you that the care and feeding of grapes varies depending upon where they are grown.  Different grapes are susceptible to different problems depending on the year round climate, elevation, rainfall, and soil conditions in which they are grown. The collective term for all of these things is “terroir” (pronounced tare-wahr).  Consulting your local Agricultural Extension Office for information will help in this area considerably.  These offices are state maintained and are responsible for providing information about growing various plants in the different areas of the state.  Some of them even have booklets available that will tell you a bit about pruning grapes and may even have pictures of how they should look.  They should also be able to tell you which grapes are growing well where you are.  In addition, it doesn’t hurt to check out your local wineries to see what is growing well for them.

In order to get a true replica of a grape plant, cuttings must be used because seeds often produce a plant that does not resemble the parent and are often not even fruitful.  The best thing to do is to get your plants from reputable nurseries, of which there are many in the United States.  The standard is to buy two year old plants.   You generally don’t harvest any fruit until the third year after planting because the plant needs to produce a proper canopy (leaves) to keep the plant fed and growing before it can support fruit.  In fact, if there is any fruit forming on these vines those first two years, it should be cut off.  The exception I have seen to this is in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, where I now live.  The soil is so rich that the vines grow very vigorously and we can actually harvest a small crop in the second year they are in the ground, as the canopy is large enough to sustain the plants.  I have never heard of this happening elsewhere, although I imagine it is possible.

Grapevines live a long time.  There are many century-old vines in California, in particular zinfandel grapevines.  North Carolina has a grapevine called the “mother vine”, a 400 year old Scuppernong supposedly discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh’s Colony on Roanoke Island in the 16th century.  Cuttings were taken from this plant and put into vineyards all over North Carolina, making it the first cultivated grape planting in the United States.

Next Week: Pruning Does Not Mean Making Raisins


  1. Dear Lady
    Love your site and intend to seek it out often. Just bought a great home in Western North Carolina whose previous owner made wine as a hobby. He grew his own vines which have not been touched in the last 3 years. I do not know if I would make wine but I would love to bring this area back to life if it is plausable. I really have no idea where to begin. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Welcome to North Carolina, Patty!

    The best person I could hook you up with would be Sara Spayd. She is the head viticulturalist for North Carolina. Her e-mail is I would just e-mail her and ask her opinion as to obtaining some information on pruning and care of your vines. If you have some idea what kind of grapes they are, mention it, because it makes a difference in pruning technique.

    Best of luck!

  3. Bill, first I would like to apologize for taking so long to answer your questions. It has been a long and busy harvest season.

    Shuster Cellars closed in 1993 and all of the equipment was sold to various wineries. The building itself was next to the family home and so it was converted into some other use.

    My best advise to you, given the fact that you have no winemaking or viticultural education, would be to start gathering information on both. Read some books, make some wine at home, talk to people at local wineries, and get a feel for what you are wanting to get into. If there is anyplace near you that offers some classes, take them. The amount of work involved in owning and running a winery is staggering. It is a 7 day a week proposition and, if it is a fairly small operation, and you want to have functions too, you will be doing most of the work. Working part time at a winery would be very helpful.

    Planting a vineyard and/or building a winery is a very expensive investment. I believe it is about $12,000.00 an acre to establish a vineyard. Winery equipment is also very expensive. Besides the fact that there is lots of stainless steel involved, French oak barrels now cost about $1000.00 each, not including shipping. It is a very long time before you might see a profit.

    Hiring a consultant would be a good idea so that you can actually get some figures on how much investment this will take.

    I am not trying to discourage you but I do believe that you need a lot more research before you take the plunge.

    Good Luck,