Fieldma’am Joan Johnson talks with Tom Garrison during the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers’s summer tour.
In the 30 years since the wine industry began to flourish in the Pacific Northwest, growers have become knowledgeable and quality-oriented, but many still turn to independent vineyard consultants for advice on everything from irrigation to canopy management.
"A really smart farmer is out in his vineyard, he’s watching over the crop, he’s talking to his crew leader, he’s talking to the crew and asking what they’re seeing out in the field," says Joan Johnson, an independent consultant. "But the bottom line is the more eyes you have in the vineyard, the better off you are. I’m another pair of eyes."
A second opinion, an expert insight, another set of eyes—whatever you call it, the advice offered by vineyard consultants can mean the difference between a good crop and a great one. Vineyard consultants help growers with a range of issues, from nutrition to crop load and everything in between. Topics addressed by consultants include irrigation; pesticides, herbicides and fungicides; canopy management; soil content; disease; pruning; and crop estimating.
But the issue most commonly cited by vineyard consultants is water control. Wade Wolfe managed Chateau Ste. Michelle’s vineyards from the late 1970s until 1985, when he became an independent winemaker and viticultural consultant. Today, he spends most of his time operating Thurston Wolfe Winery, but still consults with a small group of vineyards, including Alder Ridge and Hyatt. When he began working in Washington’s wine industry in 1978, most vineyards had been replanted to wine grapes after years of producing row crops or Concord grapes. Growers had to scale a steep learning curve before they understood how to limit fertilizers and water. "They were unfamiliar with wine grapes," Wolfe said. "Typically, they treated them the way they did row crops—they overwatered, overfertilized, overcropped, and oversprayed."
That has changed as wine grape producers move into their second and third generations. In fact, "probably the biggest single change that’s led to an improvement in fruit quality is the change in irrigation strategy," Wolfe said. "There’s no doubt that growers are a lot more sophisticated than they were when I arrived here thirty years ago."
Other consultants echo Wolfe’s observations about the growing sophistication of Washington wine grape growers. Johnson, who named her business Fieldma’am to distinguish herself in a job dominated by fieldmen, is a University of California-Davis graduate. She began working in Washington State in 1984 as a viticulturist with Chateau Ste. Michelle. From 1987 to 1997 she worked with Ste. Michelle’s contract vineyards, a job that took her from Boardman in Oregon to the Tri-Cities, Mattawa, and the Wahluke Slope in Washington. Today, as an independent consultant, she continues to work with clients across eastern Washington.
"Most growers have a firm grasp on water management, so we don’t get the jungle vines we used to get in the old days," she said. "The canopies are open, the fruit is moderately exposed, the flavors and the colors are enhanced."
But she added that growers can go overboard on these improved techniques. Johnson cited studies conducted by Washington State University researchers showing that too much sun can bake the flavors out of grapes. "As a viticulturist, I worry about those baked flavors," she says, and she helps her clients guard against that.
Johnson also delivers advice on crop estimating, a difficult art to perfect in the science of viticulture. And she is looking more at issues surrounding the expanding field of organics and biodynamics. "Organics require more frequent input than the typical chemical commercial product," she said. A commercial treatment for powdery mildew can remain effective for up to three weeks, she explained, while an organic sulfur treatment gives only seven to ten days of protection.
Managing those kinds of applications is where the expertise of traditional field representatives shines. Representatives of chemical manufacturers traditionally have worked closely with growers to prevent problems in the vineyard. Don Waddle of Bleyhl Farm Service, Inc., a cooperative providing agricultural and technical services to its members across the Yakima Valley, says pest management is an ever-evolving topic. As chemical applications become more advanced, problems solved by an application used in the past have been replaced with new issues.
"Pesticides are so specific, we’re not picking up the secondary pests," Waddle said. In addition, timing of sprays is more important than in the past, as well as managing the applications to prevent pests and fungicides from developing resistance to available treatments.
Soils and their suitability for wine grapes is another area where growers seek expert advice, frequently before the first vines are planted. Alan Busacca, a soil scientist formerly with Washington State University, owns a consulting operation called Vinitas.
He works with both large and small growers to find sites appropriate for their different goals. With large corporations, it often means simply locating land where wine grapes can thrive. But small growers, or winemakers who want to operate a tasting room as well as a vineyard, might have more complicated needs.
"They may need a location that is beautiful physically, that is near transportation corridors and established wine touring routes, as well as having good soil conditions for growing grapes," he said. "The landscape, its position relative to cold air and cooling, whether it creates a freeze hazard or not, the water drainage in the soil—the smaller the parcel of land, the more these things matter."
Busacca often works with people just entering the grape business, the group most obviously in need of consulting services. He worked several years ago with a couple who was on the verge of buying a 28-acre parcel of virgin land, complete with water rights and panoramic views of the Yakima River, until he convinced them to let him evaluate the property. After spending an afternoon on a backhoe, he reported that he couldn’t find more than one-and-a-half acres with soils any deeper than six inches. "It was scab land, pure raw bedrock with just a skiff of dust over the top, just enough to support some grasses and some sagebrush," he says. His clients wisely passed up the purchase.
But even experienced growers benefit from a consultant’s expert advice. After researching and studying nearly every corner of Washington State for 27 years, Busacca can quickly direct large growers who are expanding their holdings to appropriate sites. And Wolfe points out that well-established growers as well as those just entering the field are always looking for ways to improve their product.
"There’s always the quest to see what growers can do to maximize fruit quality, particularly in reds," he said. "The challenge now is trying to balance crop load with ripeness. There’s this whole issue of delayed harvest and very ripe fruit, and high sugars resulting in high alcohols. That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out right now."