Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Saturday

December 8, 2012

Growing grapes can pay off in more ways than one

Growing grapes can pay off in many ways

Growing grapes can be a rewarding pursuit.

They're appealing to the eye, pleasing to the palate, a profitable sideline and a reason for parties and neighborhood togetherness. Small wonder so many vineyards are cropping up in people's yards.

"The idea of having a landscape that produces something is one of the attractive issues," said Tom Powers, a winemaker who has designed and installed more than 100 small vineyards, mainly around the Alhambra Valley of Contra Costa County, Calif., near where he lives. "The other thing is the lifestyle of being in wine country is attractive to people and they want to be a part of it."

Property owners often install vineyards when renovating unsightly or underutilized land, said Powers, author of "The Organic Backyard Vineyard" (Timber Press, 2012).

"It's less expensive to do grapes than traditional landscaping like shrubs and flowers from an investment viewpoint," he said. "The trade-out is that you have to put in more maintenance time."

Make no mistake: Vineyards require attention. Rootstocks must be chosen, the soil prepared, trellises and fences built, vines pruned, canopy leaves thinned, nets strung to discourage predators, grape clusters harvested and processed.

But the work can be worth it economically. Grape growers from New York to California profit by selling their crops to hobbyists or to wineries that don't have enough tonnage to meet production demands. Other growers, including those who grow table grapes, enjoy exceptional flavors from fruit seldom found in markets.

The small acreage required for a vineyard can generate surprisingly high earnings.

"Up to $3,000 to $7,000 per acre in gross returns," according to the Upper Shore Regional Council in Chestertown, Md.

Grapes also are a smart environmental choice given their modest water and fertilizer requirements, plus low soil runoff, the council said.

It doesn't take many vines to start a rewarding grape-growing venture.

"A 100-foot row of vines can yield up to 175 bottles of wine," Powers said. "With a one-acre vineyard, you could make more than 5,000 bottles."

A mild climate is not required for growing grapes. Many varieties can be grown anywhere there is an ample amount of sun and an abundance of nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. Grape-growing regions in the United States include Virginia, upper New York, southern Illinois, and extensively in California, Oregon and Washington. Many other small pockets lay elsewhere.

"It's a difficult thing to do if you live in an area where spring weather is wet for many weeks," said Gary Gao, a small fruit specialist with Ohio State University. "In Ohio, springs are so wet that you can get all kinds of fungal diseases."

Vineyard design varies greatly, but must accommodate climate and lay of the land.

"You try to match the personality of the place," Powers said. "The vineyard becomes the centerpiece of the spot you're landscaping."

Powers, for instance, built his home toward the back of the property and planted the vines up front.

"You have to drive through the vineyard to get to it (the house)," he said. "When I built one for a neighbor, we were able to wrap it around his house. It visually fit in with the house, and then we laid a trail so people could stroll through and see how they (grapes) were doing. It also incorporates a small lawn for parties."

Margot and Mario Corona live on a "very generous size lot" near Martinez, Calif. Much of their hillside property was undeveloped when they purchased it, giving them a variety of landscaping options.

"We're not in a neighborhood where we're allowed to have animals," Margot Corona said. "We didn't want some complicated landscaping. So we bought hundreds of vines — some 650 plants. With an acre of land under cultivation, it turned out to be much more than a hobby."

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