Washington State’s wine industry has built a solid reputation for producing premium wine, but there is always room for improvement. Many of the educational sessions at this year’s annual wine grape convention sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers focused on improving wine grape quality through canopy management, irrigation, and other techniques. We asked a handful of growers how they planned to improve their quality.
Kevin Laurent of Champoux Vineyards is working to convert a remaining pivot, used to irrigate 60 acres, to drip and microsprinkler irrigation. The conversion from an all-pivot vineyard to drip has been a slow one because it is a costly change, but drip irrigation allows for more accurate watering and scheduling and eliminates potential for disease problems. Laurent believes that more precise water management will help them improve their grape quality.
Wine grape and apple grower Roy Dobson answered that he is in the process of changing his vineyard’s rill irrigation system to trickle or microirrigation. He uses aerial mapping technology called NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) to differentiate between low- and high-vigor areas of the vineyard. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates recently began using NDVI and Global Positioning Systems to harvest low- and high-vigor areas separately in Dobson’s Rosebud Vineyard.
Dobson believes that soils play a major role in final grape quality. Much of his Mattawa land—at one time composed of ravines and slopes—has been cut and filled, which he knows has affected the topsoil. With the upgrade to his irrigation system, he will be able to better manage and apply micronutrients through the drip system.
Another practice he is implementing is the removal of 80-feet-tall trees that were originally planted as windbreaks. He learned the hard way that the windbreaks competed with the vines for water, while creating unwanted shade.
Dobson said that he would like to give more management responsibilities to the next generation, a generation he believes has energy, fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and passion to push wine grape quality to the next level.
Milo May sees uniformity as the key to wine grape quality. "I would like to make my vineyard more uniform," said the wine grape grower who has a five-year old vineyard of red wine grape varieties in Alderdale, in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation. May has taken soil samples to learn of differences in the water-holding capacity of his 25-acre vineyard and will be monitoring the vines more closely for balanced cropping.
He uses both drip and microsprinklers in the vineyard for irrigation and to grow a cover crop down the row middles. Last year, he planted a perennial bunch grass to help anchor topsoil from wind erosion. Although initially the stand looked poor, it is looking better now, he said.
Todd Newhouse, who farms a variety of crops with his family, believes that retaining skilled workers is part of the quality equation. "If we could retain more workers every year, that would go a long way. Once they are trained, they know how we want things pruned and managed," he said. "If we could use the same work force year after year, we would only get better."
Newhouse noted that they employ about 50 workers year round. Growing tree fruit (apples, cherries, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and prunes) and grapes allows them to utilize their work force longer and keep workers busy from pruning through harvest. However, they still must hire seasonal help for harvest. Mechanical harvesters are used to pick their grapes, but they use hand labor for all other vineyard tasks—pruning, shoot thinning, leaf removal, and crop load management.