Finding equipment to fit narrow vineyard rows can be difficult.
There is little room to spare with this sprayer that fits between the six-feet rows at Obelisco Estate Vineyard.
High-density spacing of grapevines can give vineyardists more flexibility in terms of crop size, but it comes with a new set of challenges.
Obelisco Estate Vineyard, near Benton City, Washington, has double the number of vines per acre compared with standard plantings. The estate vineyard comprises Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot, and was planted in 2006 with six feet between rows and four feet between vines—making it about 1,800 vines per acre.
The high-density spacing has worked well, vineyard manager Eric Henriksen said during a summer grape tour. "You get a little bit of yield without sacrificing quality," he said, explaining that while they target yields of four tons per acre, the vines don't have to hang as many clusters to achieve that as those of standard plantings spaced at eight or nine feet between rows and six feet between vines. "We're shooting for four tons but feel that we get the quality of hanging two tons per acre."
Pete Hedges, winemaker for Obelisco, is pleased with the grape quality from the high-density vines thus far. Wine made from the grapes in 2007 was a double gold winner in the Seattle Wine Awards, proving that good wine can be made from young grapes, he said. In these early years of the vineyard, the berries have been smaller and with softer tannins than other blocks on Red Mountain, he added.
The challenge of high-density wine grapes is not so much the spacing but farming the spacing, according to Henriksen. "The challenge is the spacing itself."
With only 25 acres planted, he said they don't yet have enough scale to justify specialized equipment, such as an over-the-row tractor.
But another 130 acres of high-density vines are scheduled for planting next year by Obelisco's owners Dick Shaw, Paul Kaltinick, and Doug Long, which then should make use of narrow-row equipment more economically feasible.
It's been difficult, he admits, to find small, narrow tractors and implements that will fit within the tight rows for spraying and cultivating. "Nothing will fit back here," he said, pointing to the vine rows. "Harvest has to be by hand."
Will Beightol of Double Canyon Vineyards agrees that equipment considerations are a key part of planting high-density vineyards. Double Canyon uses an over-the-row tractor and attachments that can work six rows at a time. But there aren't many such tractors running in Washington vineyards, so proximity to the dealer, service, and parts availability can be an issue.
"You need to be more proactive in what parts you stock and take better care of the specialized equipment than you do with standard equipment," Beightol said.