What It’s Like to Plant a Backyard Vineyard

Painful scars, stinging yellow jackets and a marauding groundhog dispel any romantic notions surrounding turning a Davenport, Iowa, backyard into a vineyard.
Planting the author's Davenport, Iowa backyard vineyard / Photo by Kate Peragine

I once had a romantic notion of what it would be like to own a vineyard. From my back porch, I’d see a perfectly manicured vineyard as the last rays of the sun glistened off the Mississippi River. I’d sigh with contentment about my magically self-maintaining vines while I drank deeply from a glass filled with last year’s vintage.

The reality is full of hard, downright painful farming, and I have the scars to prove it.

Since the early 1990s, I’ve been a home winemaker who’s produced enough wine to share with friends and family, though I’ve never reached the maximum 200 gallons allowed by law. As much as I enjoyed this hobby, I always used someone else’s fruit.

So I thought it time to make wine starting from the vine.

In the spring of 2015, I waited with my wife, Kate, for a realtor to show us the house we were destined to own. As we stood on the large wraparound porch of the century-old home, rain clouds dispersed to reveal a perfect rainbow that reached to the garden below us. Did we need any further sign?

A rainbow in a Davenport, Iowa backyard.
Is it a sign to plant a vineyard? / Photo by Kate Peragine

It seemed I had purchased an ideal south-facing property on which to plant a vineyard. My first task was to remove all the Trees of Heaven, a rather tenacious and invasive species that spreads and grows quickly. We hired a landscaping company to clear the 200 or so saplings that choked the property.

Unfortunately, the three-man crew ran into a nest of yellow jackets that stung them a number of times. Little did I know that this would foreshadow one of the less-than-thrilling moments I would endure as a vineyard owner.

I threw the weed eater into the air and ran while being stung repeatedly in the leg. It took two days before I could muster the courage to retrieve the weed eater, which was tangled in the trellis wires.

With the help of my mother-in-law, a local historian, I discovered that our land once contained 6,000 vines owned by the son of Col. George Davenport, for whom our town is named.

Posts in the backyard vineyard
Posts in the backyard vineyard / Photo by Kate Peragine

In late 2015, I connected with George Walker, co-owner of Mountain Vista Winery and Vineyards in Rancho Cucamonga, California. George sought to write a book about the history of Rancho Cucamonga winemaking, and so we brokered a deal.

I also had to contend with “Papahog,” a fat, unapologetic groundhog that set up a labyrinth of burrows in the center of the vineyard. One suggestion to rid myself of the varmint was to shove used cat litter down the entrance of his burrow. Papahog had none of that and kicked it right back out.

George also owns My Home Vineyard, a company that installs vineyards. I offered to co-write the book in return for help in building my vineyard.

The author with the tools to clear his yard / Photo by Kate Peragine

George visited the property in 2016, and he helped draw up a plan for the vineyard and the types of grapes that could be grown in this cold-weather climate. We agreed on a combination of white and red grapes: Himrod, Golden Muscat, Buffalo, Neptune, Einset, Fredonia, Marquette, La Crescent and Catawba. We would plant 138 vines, broken into 12 rows.

The Hard Truth About Owning a Vineyard

Before the crew arrived, my job was to clear the property. Though the small trees were gone, a lot of thick weeds and high grass remained.

Rows being prepared for planting
Rows being prepared for planting / Photo by Kate Peragine

If you ever want to know who your truest friends are, ask them to help clear briars and brush from the side of a hill. My friend, Darren, and his two sons worked with me for two days with a sod cutter, weed eater and sharpened axes. I was sore in places I never imagined, my arms shredded by briars and branches.

George passed the vineyard building business to his 21-year-old son, Clayton Walker. Tall, lanky and tanned, Clayton hauled treated wood logs, 50-pound bales of wire and tools up and down the hill for eight days. A few volunteers helped for a couple of days, and I did what my out-of-shape writer’s body could, but the credit of building and planting 138 vines goes to Clayton.

I also had to contend with “Papahog,” a fat, unapologetic groundhog that set up a labyrinth of burrows in the center of the vineyard. One suggestion to rid myself of the varmint was to shove used cat litter down the entrance of his burrow. Papahog had none of that and kicked it right back out.

If you’re imagining Caddyshack, you are right on target.

A groundhog in a cage.
“Papahog,” finally behind bars / Photo by Kate Peragine

Papahog developed a taste for the blue tubes that protected my young vines, so he had to go. I used a live trap baited with pineapple, and Papahog was soon relocated to a nice private island near the Mississippi River.

Iowa weeds grow higher than cornstalks, and to cut them is sweaty process. During one particularly humid day, my weed eater hit the entrance of a newly developed yellow jacket nest. I was surprised at how high a pitch that my voice could reach. I threw the weed eater into the air and ran while being stung repeatedly in the leg. It took two days before I could muster the courage to retrieve the weed eater, which was tangled in the trellis wires.

Damaged grapevines in backyard vineyard
Insect damage on the vines / Photo by Kate Peragine

My greatest challenge was the horrible infestation of Japanese beetles that made lace out of the grape leaves. Every morning, I took my bucket of soapy water to pick bugs and drown them. I feared my vineyard was done. However, by September, the bugs were gone and the vines were six feet high.

As fall now descends on the vineyard, I dream of next year when I will have some grapes to harvest. I have learned a lot, and I have a new plan of attack for spring to keep the vineyard alive and thriving. With it, I have a new appreciation of what wine truly is: a miracle, born of labor and love.

Published on November 2, 2017
Topics: Essays


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