Anyone who’s ever visited wine country will tell you that there are few vistas as majestic as neat rows of beautiful vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. Growing grapes has become a national pastime, as American as apple pie: there are now wineries in all 50 states, growing grapes and producing wine for sale, and there are thousands of private citizens growing grapes for their own pleasure, their own house cuvée.
About three years ago, I looked out the window of my home in suburban Westchester at the adjacent three-acre parcel and realized that it was a perfect place to plant a vineyard just for pleasure. Just to help me jump-start the project and better envision what might come to be, I installed three large wooden pergola, where I thought the center of the vineyard would be. It looked perfect. I was thrilled.
Perfect from an aesthetic standpoint, but was it feasible? I called my old friend Cesar Baeza, owner of historic Brotherhood Winery in New York’s Hudson Valley, and asked him to review this piece of land to see if it was worthwhile to plant in these woods. Cesar introduced me to his viticulturist and winemaker, Greg Esch, who proceeded to plot out the potential vineyard.
The site is level but rocky, with little topsoil, and deer browsing will always be an issue. My pergola face east, toward a road running parallel, beyond which is the Saw Mill River Valley. To the south and north are trees, and to the west is the house. With minimal tree removal to the east and southeast, about six hours of sunlight exposure could be achieved. While not ideal for grape vines, which thrive in full sun, this amount of sunlight was adequate, and the soil is dry.
Now came the really fun part: the selection of the grape varieties. Esch and I selected vines based both on their interest to a wine lover
and for their ability to survive the demanding northeastern winter. These included two vitis vinifera—two of the “noble” grape varieties originally imported from Europe: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also planted principally around the pergolas because of their vigor were four French hybrid varieties: Seyval Blanc, a white that has produced award-winning wines in New York; Traminette, a white with a spicy nose reminiscent of Gewürztraminer; Chardonel, a white variety sometimes used in sparkling wines; and Noiret, a red said to resemble fuller-bodied Pinot Noir, or Syrah. In the spring of 2009, we marked row locations, installed beds of compost and planted and staked the vines. A plastic grow tube was placed around each vine to encourage growth and protect it from deer. In all, we planted about 150 vines. As the first season progressed, trellis posts and wire were installed.
The vines thrived. By late summer, shoots emerged from the grow tubes. In early autumn, the grow tubes were removed and the vines trained to the trellis wires. In late fall, we placed straw around the crown of each vine to protect them from winter cold shocks. The vines survived last winter beautifully. By mid-June, the vines filled the trellises. Vines planted around the pergolas were pruned so as to encourage vertical growth, and in June were in some cases reaching the top of the 10-foot high pergolas! Where once there were buds, we now had fruit.
As a lifelong wine enthusiast, I can’t tell you how proud I was of those bead-like grapes. As someone who’s toured some of the great vineyards and wineries in the world, I can say that this activity has given me an even deeper appreciation of all the care and skill that goes into grape growing. It’s one thing to kick the dirt; it’s quite another to turn it over, to plant it, to nurture it.
Of course, we had to remove most of that fruit to encourage the health of the vines. Next year could be the year I become a winegrower. Stay tuned for my next report from Strum Vineyards.