Growing quality grapes
Rob Andrews uses irrigation, observation, and skilled workers to grow good grapes.
Rob Andrews’ original Cabernet block, planted in 1980, will need canopy reworking this year to fill in dead areas on some of the cordons. He expects it to take two years to bring canopy uniformity back to the damaged vineyards.
Vineyardist Rob Andrews of Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills has a simple growing philosophy: to grow the highest quality grape possible. He does this by keying in on uniformity.
“After you have a good location and healthy rootstock as the base of your foundation, to achieve quality you need uniformity in the vineyard,” he said, noting that uniformity begins before vines are planted.
Andrews is partner with family members in three vineyard entities and the McKinley Springs Winery and oversees grape production on more than 2,000 acres. Andrews was named the 2011 Grower of the Year by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers in recognition for his grape growing abilities and dedication to producing premium quality grapes.
An important step they took before expanding the family farming operation by some 1,000 acres of grapes was to take soil samples in a 100-foot grid to assess soil depth and profiles. They learned that soil depth varied from 2.75 to 3.5 feet in most locations. “We know that our best grapes come out of the 3-foot range—that’s an area we know we can maintain fertilization and water needed for the vine. So we stayed out of areas that were 4 feet deep, leaving the deeper soils for row crops, and we avoided shallow soils that were only 18 inches deep.”
Once planted, irrigation is the biggest challenge to achieving uniformity, he believes.
With several thousand acres of grapes and row and forage crops sharing wells for water, Andrews must coordinate irrigation schedules. “I don’t have water available every day for grapes and not always when I want it,” he said.
They use capacitance-type soil moisture sensors to help guide when and how much drip irrigation is needed. Sensors are located around the vineyards in 225 sites that are visited weekly, with information downloaded at each site into a laptop.
“Technology is good to a point, but it doesn’t take the place of a personal visit,” he said. He learned a lesson in technology years ago when an electrical storm caused a malfunction in an automatic valve setting in a vineyard, resulting in water running for four days in a block that was ready for harvest. “After that, we made sure that the irrigation systems are manually turned on and off.”
An Excel spreadsheet is used to track irrigation in each block, including such information as when water should be turned off and how much has been applied.
Reading the plant is the next most important component to growing quality, but it’s a difficult skill to teach to the next generation, he said.
“My biggest thing is that you’ve got to be out there day after day. The plant can tell you so much more than a computer printout. With technology, we have all this information in front of us, but you still need to talk to your plants once a week. If you visit them, they’ll tell you a lot.”
His hands-on approach has kept him from being more involved in industry organizations. He served a three-year term on the board of directors of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, but did not run for a second term because he was busy with their vineyard expansion. His remote location turns many industry meetings into daylong affairs.
Andrews believes that his vineyard crew is the last piece to the quality puzzle. In a normal year, he tries to keep a core group of about 40 workers employed year round for pruning, tying, shoot thinning, leafing, and other vineyard tasks. Additional workers are needed for some hand harvest, though mechanical harvesters do the bulk of their harvest work.
His foreman has been there for 30-plus years. “We’ve learned side by side, and he knows what I want in the vineyard,” said Andrews. “If your crew doesn’t have the mental picture of what you want in the vineyard, you won’t have the consistency and uniformity that’s needed for quality.”
Good communication with the crew is critical, as is developing a good relationship. “So much of what we do is hand labor. You need a good crew if you want to survive.”