Know Before You Grow

Texas A&M brings top Texas viticulture and enology experts as presenters at the Sixth Annual Vines and Wines workshop for grape growers across the Heart of Texas at the Valley Mills Vinery & Winery

VALLEY MILLS – Horticulturists, like grape growers, live in the intersection of the Venn diagram of Romantic Notion, Science and Reality. In that center, imagination and inspiration, armed with courage, perseverance, knowledge, and experience merge into optimism – optimism on reaching a profitable harvest. For some, having their own vineyard in their retirement is the ultimate dream. They dream of serene sunsets over the green vines as butterflies and bees dance around on the evening air, watching their healthy crop blossom and grow.

There is something fundamental in growing your own food, and in this fast-paced world it also holds the romantic notion of a simpler time in which we were more connected to nature. Not wanting to burst their bubble, but growing grapes is just another form of horticulture, and like all farming endeavors, growing crops is hard, often backbreaking work, and Mother Nature offers some nasty surprises every now and then.

During the Sixth Annual Central Texas Vines and Wines program May 23, the McLennan Agrilife Extension Office – in collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension committees from Bell, Bosque, Coryell, Falls and Hill counties – welcomed established and prospective grape growers and wine makers from across the state. The workshop helps meeting the needs of a growing and largely successful industry, with more and more customers asking for the bold Texas wines.

The Valley Mills Vineyard and Winery’s Bagnasco family hosted the event and shared their first-hand experiences related to owning and running a vineyard/winery. A highlight was the comparative tasting of the winery’s award-winning 2019 and 2020 Tempranillo vintages. Because wineries buy grapes from other vineyards too, Valley Mills winemaker Charlie Walker added very useful information regarding “What a Winemaker Looks for in a Vineyard.”

Growing grapes brings with it a specific knowledge requirement. There is so much more involved in growing grapes than just cultivating and harvesting crop. A successful commercial vineyard requires significant planning, and critical decisions must be made way before the first vine is planted. Prospective grape growers must also realize that vineyards usually do not produce a sellable crop until their third year after planting. That is a lot work and headaches about expenses without any income before the first harvest is in the buckets. And once they have established their vineyard, it is important to keep informed of the field, networking with fellow grape growers.

To aid the established and new grape growers and winemakers, Texas A&M AgriLife provides science-based information to address grower issues. The viticulture and enology programs are based in the Department of Horticultural Sciences within the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – viticulture and enology are simply the scientific names growing grapes and making wine.

“The mission of the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University is to address the needs of the state’s horticulture industry,” said Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., department head. “Viticulture in the entire state is a priority area for us, and we are committed to supporting the growth of the Texas wine industry.”

In the past years Country Spring Vineyard and Garden, Lorena, Latimer Vineyard, Riesel and “work in progress” East of West vineyard all hosted the Annual Central Texas Vines and Wines workshop.

Many of the program’s experts like Fran Pontasch, Michael Cook and Justin Scheiner were in Valley Mills providing useful and very practical information on the financial side of growing grapes, the challenges and obstacles facing grape growers like annual climatological forecasts, interpreting and addressing nutrient deficiencies.

Testament to the presenters’ quality, a pioneers of the Texas wine industry and veteran viticulturist Pontash received the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association’s 2023 T.V. Munson Award. One of Texas A&M’s original vineyard advisors prior to 2010, Pontash dedicated her entire career to supporting the Texas wine industry – from her master’s degree at Sul Ross focusing on Pierce’s Disease – to being the vineyard manager for Messina Hof, to her 13 years with Texas A&M Horticulure.

Grape-growing, like all agriculture is a pivoting business, constantly assessing the pros and cons of different aspects of their farming, and constantly fine tuning to match the challenges of their grape varietals, the terroir, the animal and disease pressure and weather. The red thread between all the presentations was to find the balance – balance with nature, balance between enough and too much water – enough rain in the spring, but not too much in August; balance between enough canopy and too much; balance between the cost and use of enough herbicides and insecticides and not enough; the balance between enough but not too much added nutrients; closer spacing for efficiency and competition for nutrients; the balance between cost versus profit.

Because of the 2023 winter freeze, the Valley Mills vineyard had to plant new Tempranillo vines to replace the damaged vines. They chose to plant closer together this time around.

Quality wine starts in the vineyard, and growers focus their efforts in two principle ways – by planting grape varieties best suited to their vineyard location. Texas’ diversity in climate and soils across the state makes best management practices dependent on regional conditions and the varieties grown. The Valley Mills Vinery and Winery are a full production “grape to glass” vinery, established in 2007, with the vinery created in 2009. They produce traditional wines, including an award-winning 100 percent Texas grown Tempranillo.

“To me, the vineyard is the fun part,” Bagnasco said after his welcome. “And I’m still learning every day, like everybody here. The site selection and rootstock are the foundation of any vineyard, and need to be a crucial consideration. The site selection sets you up for success or not.”

Key factors in site selection include accessibility to water and irrigation, drainage, air flow through the vines and sunshine. Water quality is also important because grapevines are sensitive to high levels of salt. Soil quality, depth and nutrients are also key. Planting a vineyard on higher elevation generally avoids root rot, freezes, fungus and Pierce’s disease.

“Everything at the vineyard affects the wine-making,” Valley Mills co-winemaker Walker summarized in his presentation. “It takes a couple of years to produce the product, so do it right from the beginning.”

As a grape buyer, he talked about the grapes’ required Brix index – measuring the sugar content – the preferred acidity, a low percentage of harvest affected by fungus, bird and hail damage, and the necessity to have a contract with the winery’s producers.

While a drought lessens the fungal pressure, 2021 and 2022 were tough growing seasons because of the lack of water. This year, though, is looking to be an exceptional year with local small-acreage Tempranillo-grower Ed Rieser in Cranfills Gap is seeing some of the best crop ever. While a more seasoned grape-grower, the workshop’s very practical information offered several “Aha” moments, refreshing knowledge and offering a new perspective. Networking with other vineries and wineries was also important to him.

In her presentation “Obligations, Money, Time and Labor,” Bryan-College Station AgriLife Extension viticulture specialist Fran Pontasch, stressed that growing grapes is labor intensive and costly. She therefore stressed “Know why you grow,” and “Know your soil,” were important questions to answer before embarking on the vineyard endeavor. Pontash said to expect an investment of around $18,500 per year in site preparation, planting costs, trellis construction, drip irrigation materials and installation, pruning when establishing a vineyard. And that amount does not include the cost of fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides, other equipment or maintenance and harvest labor costs.

Furthermore, grape variety is an important factor with regards to yield and quality. And after establishment, you have constant maintenance year in and year out. Another thing to take into account when planning long-term, is that while vines are productive up to about 20 years, and then replacement needs to be considered.

“You need 20-30 people for harvest, because it is no fun doing it alone,” Pontash said. “Paying skilled labor has become cost-prohibitive, so get volunteers, family and friends. Ply them with food.” With that said, unskilled labor harvests about half the amount of fruit in the same amount of time.

According to Denton’s AgriLife Extension viticulture specialist Michael Cook in his presentation “Challenges and Obstacles to Seasonal Vineyard Management” a grape grower has to be an accountant, a weatherman, a pest control specialist, a sales and marketing expert. And taking a break from it all is only possible in the fall after harvest or in January. Maybe most important of all, it’s important to be an optimist, with the knowledge that Mother Nature is going to throw curve balls left and right along the way like extreme Texas weather conditions like intense cold snaps, and hail in the spring.

“The only consistency in Texas is that the weather is inconsistent,” Cook said. “Even though Texas has a lower latitude, the artic blasts in Texas are harder for the vines than constant cold in Washington or Oregon State. Rapid oscillating temperatures are especially harmful for young vines.”

Cook discussed resources like phenology monitors, spring leaf indexes and the drought monitor to facilitate the best possible scheduling on the start of the season necessary to plan pruning, spraying and canopy management. This year was the earliest spring on record in some Texas locations; and Bosque County is still in moderate drought in spite of good spring rains. And while drought and the lack of water is a serious challenge, it did decrease the disease and fungus pressure.

Cook also discussed prevention of major risk factors like diseases which include the incurable Pierce’s Disease, Phylloxera, Cotton Root Rot, Grape Berry Moth infestation, fungal Downey and Powdery Mildew and Black Rot. Choosing location and pest-resistant varietals help mitigate the risks.

The Valley Mills winery is a big cheerleader of the Spanish Tempranillo and the Italian Sangiovese, because they favor Texas’ soil and hot summers. Thanks to its thicker skin, the Tempranillo is more resistant, and its early ripening is conducive with Texas’ compressed growing season. While susceptible to late freezes, the vines do have good secondary buds after a freeze affects them. “Tempranillo and Texas go together like apple pie and ice cream,” Vineyard and Winery owner Dr. John Bagnasco said. “The only other grape that compares is the Lenoir.”

The drawback of using Texas conditions-tolerant grapes is the lack of market recognition and differing wine flavor profiles compared to the more well-known grape varieties like the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Lenoir, though, is less known and brings in a lower price per ton. Another grape well-suited to Texas is the lesser known Mouverdre – also known as Mataro and Monastrell. A late-budding varietal, it skirts late freezes. Two, hybrid grape varietals Camminare Noir and Paesante Noir were also named. The Camminare Noir is 97 percent V. Vinifera with characteristics of Zinfandel and the popular Cabernet Sauvignon, and it remains highly resistant to Pierce’s Disease. The Paesante Noir has characteristics of Cab and Petite Sirah and is resistant to Pierce’s Disease.

Birds, squirrels, deer and feral hogs just love the sweet fruits too; according to Bagnasco, nets and high fences are non-negotiable in Texas. Squirrels apparently do not like to cross a bare area of more than 50 feetso, a large empty strip of land between brush and tree cover and the vines should keep those bushy-tailed rodents at bay.

In a very interactive presentation, Bryan-College Station’s AgriLife Extension viticulture specialist Justin Scheiner discussed Petiole sample testing and interpreting results, recognizing and addressing nutrient deficiencies. The workshop also offered excellent resources with back ground material, practical check lists and additional resources. The AgriLife Extension publication “Starting a Vineyard in Texas,” 2020 edition supplies a wealth of information for prospective grape growers.

Many growers’ knowledge stemmed from experience in growing other agricultural crops before venturing into the vineyard business. Former irrigated corn farmers from Dalhart, Bill and Sayra Schartz recently bought land in Bosque County. They considered the Vines and Wines workshop a great first step in determining whether they would want to try their hand at growing grapes for profit. So far, they know they have a favorable slope, and water from Paluxy and Second Trinity wells. And while grape-growing would be new to them, as experienced farmers they did not see insurmountable challenges.

Since rebirth in the 1970s, the Texas wine industry’s has continued to grow, with its most rapid growth in Texas taking place in the last two decades. In the year 2000, Texas had 40 licensed wineries, but now the number has grown to nearly 600. Grape acreage more than doubled over that same period, with approximately 6,000 acres of grapes in 2019, including over 50 different varieties grown. While most vineyards in Texas are small – less than 10 acres in size – large vineyards of up to 1,000 acres can be found, particularly in the High Plains.

The Texas grape-growing and wine-making industry is well on its way to a bright future and wine tourism is growing. Many vineyards/wineries have adopted the agritourism model of conducting business and the Texas hill country is ranked second in the U.S. most popular wine tourism destination behind Napa Valley, in California.


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