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Ron’s Top Ten List of Viticultural Mistakes

At least once every several weeks someone inquires about planting a vineyard, or having planted a vineyard wants advice on improvements and/or marketing. I’ve managed to save more than a few people from making grievous mistakes, others have failed or are failing due to their having made irreversible mistakes. The following list is not meant to be all inclusive and it is in no particular order. One error by itself may not ruin your project, but several combined will guarantee its failure.  

  1. Poor Site Selection. Good air drainage is essential for frost avoidance. Ridgetop sites with a slope of less than 15% are excellent as are some hillside locations. Moderate to low fertility well-drained soils having no perched water table are required.  pH should be above 5.0 everywhere in the soil profile. East to south facing slopes are the best in the northern hemisphere, but other slopes with good aspect are acceptable at this latitude (38-1/2 N). The area surrounding the vineyard should be clear of all trees and brush. Don’t even think of planting high quality winegrapes on fertile bottom ground.  


  1. Selecting the Wrong Varieties. Varieties should be chosen based on regional rather than individual winery demand, with price, future demand and site compatibility being other considerations. American (native) varieties are so overplanted with declining demand that new plantings make little sense. Market demand for red hybrids is limited and prices are mediocre. Demand for white hybrids is steadier and the quality of some of the newer releases is excellent, however prices are modest. European varieties (vinifera) have the best profit potential, but should only be considered for superior sites.


  1. Planting Mistakes. Rows should be straight, evenly spaced and oriented N-S to NW-SE. With a single canopy, row width should be no greater than 9 feet. Closer is better down to at least 6 feet, but rows must be 2-2-1/2 to 3’ wider than the tractor. Wide rows waste space, increase vigor, and reduce both quality and yields. In row spacing should be no wider than 8 ft. for cordon pruning or 6 ft for cane pruning. Plants should be carefully and uniformly planted at the correct depth with graft unions several inches above the soil level. Only #1 plants from the best nurseries should be used. All vinifera and many of the newer hybrids must be grafted. Remember that you plant (hopefully) only once and that a planting mistake will plague you for the life of the vineyard.  


  1. Trellising Mistakes. A trellis must be designed to handle the leaf and fruit load of mature vines in rain and high winds. Overdesign is necessary to compensate for aging effects. Posts must be high enough to allow for full support of the vine canopy and yet must be driven deeply enough to resist overturning. In general, steel posts are not equivalent in strength to wooden posts. Anchors and end assemblies must be adequate to resist wire tension. The trellis (and training system) should be compatible with the growth characteristics of the particular variety. Harvesting vines which have fallen over due to a complete trellis failure is no fun at all.


  1. Inadequate spray equipment. Forget “organic” disease control. Plan on spraying early and often for fungal diseases and insect pests. A 100 gal air blast sprayer with a 28” fan is the minimum requirement for vinifera and costs about $6000. A smaller 50 gal. unit with a 24” fan may suffice for row widths of  7’ or less. American varieties can be grown with a special high pressure (300 psi) sprayer with trellis booms selling for about $2500. The different in cost between sprayers is trivial in comparison to one year of crop loss. A modified field sprayer is inadequate. Buy the airblast.   

  2. Lack of vertebrate pest control. Deer, raccoons, birds (including turkeys) and to a lesser extent rabbits, skunks and opossums, left uncontrolled, wreak havoc on both non-bearing and bearing vineyards. A deer fence, trapping, bird scaring devices or bird netting and some shooting where legal is required. Growers who live off site and visit on weekends are the most vulnerable. Deer damage to pre-production vineyards can delay production by years and ruin return on investment. Raccoons and birds left unchallenged can remove your crop in a weekend.


  1. Underestimating Labor. This is often a subset of the phenomenon “Romance of the Vineyard”. People ALWAYS underestimate the labor required for growing premium wine grapes. Most of the work is not done from a tractor seat and much of it is semi-skilled requiring some knowledge of grape growing. Thus much of it will have to be done by YOU if you want it done right, because there is no ready labor pool. The first year is easy. People generally underestimate labor for 2nd year trunk training, weed control and mid-season shoot positioning.. If you get behind you usually stay behind and if you can’t get in to effectively spray then you can lose your crop.


  1. Underestimating Cost. Viticulture has been referred to as “boutique farming.” Establishment costs for vinifera can run more than $10,000 per acre if you have to hire it all done. Hybrids cost less but likely will run $5,000 or more. This of course doesn’t include land, buildings or equipment. Yes, you can reduce the cost somewhat by doing the work yourself, but don’t underestimate the challenges of farming. All too often people plant with no appreciation of the total pre-production cost, cut corners, fail to harvest economically sound crops and then run out of money.


  1. Over reliance on “experts”. How many times have I heard “But “X” told me to plant “Y””. Yes Y is disease resistant, but brings almost no market value. What a deal! There is an incredible amount of bad advice being propagated and in many cases it is disseminated by extension and university personnel who should know better. There is no excuse for ignorance. Excellent references exist, attend conferences in other states, educate yourself. Travel is expensive? How much does failure cost? Make your own informed decisions.


  1. Philosophical Mismatch. This is more important than it may sound. If you are interested in quick returns or have what I call an “annual crop” mentality, grape growing may not be in your best interest. Financial returns, planning and satisfaction are all long term. As with any pursuit, it helps immensely if you have a passion for growing grapes and perhaps making and consuming fine wine. Passion will drive you over and through the inevitable rough patches. Yes, you can do this just for the money, but you probably won’t be satisfied with the results.


If after reading this you have no interest in pursuing grape-growing further, I understand. But if you still want to proceed then do so with your eyes open realizing that careful application of good viticultural practice and sound financial judgment can lead you to realizing gross returns of up to $10,000/acre under optimum conditions. In addition you will be joining the lineage of wine growers stretching back millennia.


Suggested Varieties


I often get asked the loaded question: What should I plant? There are so many variables at play that any definitive answer is difficult. Site characteristics, market considerations and even equipment limitations and grower experience come into play. Still, I have spent some time and considerable expense evaluating potential varieties and rootstocks. So perhaps it’s time to share some of my results.

I have decided to summarize my conclusions without comment in four classifications from highly-recommended to not recommended. Potential quality, cultural characteristics, winter damage susceptibility, and marketing price and demand were all considered in assembling this list.

The list is applicable only for southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and likely northern Virginia. Any varieties at the questionable level or higher are probably worth considering.

Highly recommended:

Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc

White: None



Red: Syrah, Petit Verdot

White: Viognier, Roussanne, Riesling



Red: Gamay Noir

White: Chardonnay, Semillon, Pinot Blanc


Not Recommended:

Red: Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Merlot, Nebbiolo

White: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Scheurebe, Melon


Sprayer Recommendations

For Premium Winegrapes


In my experience, the most neglected element in the cultural management of grapes is disease control. Good disease control is impossible without the proper equipment. Investment in better spray equipment is often quickly returned by increased yields, improved quality and reduced chemical usage. The following guidelines should be considered to be minimum requirements.


Less than 1 acre: For extremely small plantings, a Solo Model 450 power assisted mist blower is feasible. With care, adequate coverage is possible, but the process is labor intensive and lack of tank agitation prevents the use of some crop protection chemicals. Cost is about $550 (A.M. Leonard).


1 to 10 acres: Row widths of 5 to 7 feet.

In the special case of narrow rows with an airblast sprayer with a smaller fan can provide adequate coverage. A 50 gallon unit with a 24” fan costs about $4000 (Ackerman) and requires a tractor with 20 minimum PTO horsepower. Spray volumes of 55 to 70 gallons per acre are typical at these spacings and refill and reformulation time becomes problematic as acreage increases.


1 to 20 acres: Row widths up to 12 feet

A three point mount 100 gallon airblast sprayer with a 28” fixed or variable pitch fan is recommended for general applications. Many sources exist including my favorite, Rears (Ackerman) at about $6000. A 30hp (PTO) tractor is required. With wide rows, spray volume can be reduced to as low as 40 gallons/acre, but even so refill time becomes burdensome at 20 acres.


20 acres and above. At this level a 300 gallon or larger trailer mounted airblast with the same 28” fan can be justified. A minimum of 40 PTO horsepower and preferably 4wd is recommended for the towing tractor.


A final note: Winegrapes do vary somewhat in disease resistance, but all vinifera and most high quality hybrids are highly susceptible to disease and must be protected. American varieties such as Concord and Niagara cope better with disease pressure, but even they need to be sprayed several times a year.


Ignore these suggestions and you may get by for a year or two given benevolent weather. Meanwhile disease inoculum will be building, a year like 2003 will come along, disease will compromise your crop, weaken your vines, and worst of all leave you with  a tremendous amount of carryover inoculum to deal with for years to come.  




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