The Hard Truth About Owning a Vineyard

Autumn vines in the vineyard
Autumn vines in the author's Cawston, British Columbia, vineyard

Follow the winding path of Canada’s Similkameen River, just north of the Washington border, and you’ll find the Okanagan Valley’s quieter cousin: Cawston, British Columbia.

That’s where my husband Deacon and I found ourselves, standing next to a thicket of purple lilacs, peering into the vineyard that we had just purchased.

“We’ll be lilac millionaires,” I said with a laugh, as we entered the jumbled front of the property. A flock of quail rustled out of the bushes and settled inside the old farmhouse foundation. The house itself was long gone.

Anyone who buys a vineyard has to be a bit of a romantic. Our dream was of a place in the country and some wine grapes to share with friends and family. We’d found it here on five organic acres.

Sure, the place needed a little work. We were up for a challenge, but looking around, I was beginning to wonder if we knew exactly what we’d undertaken.

Undiscovered Wine Regions

Our first weekend, the plan was to “glamp” among the vines with a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. I ordered the largest tent I could find, comforted by online reviews of two women who lived in one for a whole summer.

That day, we wandered the vines to the peaceful sounds of leaves rustling in the wind and the pleasant chirps of yellow finches. Some vines looked worse for wear, having received no irrigation all year. Others were a jungle, with hundreds of ripening clusters and tendrils spilling into the rows. It looked more like an overgrown pumpkin patch, only with grapes instead of gourds. We pulled out our pruning shears, ready to trim back the overgrowth.

Standing in an overgrown vineyard
The author surveys the situation

Warnings about spiders and snakes had been mentioned casually by locals, but too often to ignore. We were told things like, “Rattlesnakes like to hear you coming, so tread heavily” and “Black widow spiders are everywhere, but don’t worry, they’re shy.”

I looked down the rows and realized there were dozens of nozzles left to fix, likely a spider in every one—an arachnophobe’s nightmare.

I won the job to repair the irrigation line, replacing any clogged spinners on the hose that runs along the bottom branches of the grapes. I set off down the first row, gloves on, stomping loudly in my new rubber boots and thinking about Champagne.

Black widows like to hide in irrigation nozzles. I found my first one quickly. It was as dark and gleaming as obsidian, with a true crimson hourglass. No one had told me how beautiful they were.

I looked down the rows and realized there were dozens of nozzles left to fix, likely a spider in every one—an arachnophobe’s nightmare.

Neighbor Sam's peach orchard
Neighbor Sam’s peach orchard

Our neighbor hopped off his tractor and waved hello to us from near the fence. Sam owned the apple and peach orchards next to us. Unlike our vineyard, his trees were enviably manicured and healthy.

“Looks like you need to mow the grass and spray for powdery mildew,” said Sam. “It’s been a while since this place was maintained.”

We nodded in silent agreement.

“Around here, neighbors help each other out,” he said. “I’ll mow and spray for you this season.” He got back on his tractor. “Oh, and you should watch out for those yellow birds. All they do is eat grapes.”

That night in the tent, my husband, Deacon, was sound asleep when I heard a strange noise like thunder. Drowsily, I watched some earwig silhouettes climb the tent. Another crash, and then, lightning. The patter of rain followed, which quickly intensified into a storm. Then, the rain stopped and the wind kicked up.

Bird eggs in nest in vineyard
Some of the author’s new roommates, nesting amongst the Gewürztraminer

I remembered that my boots were still outside. I unzipped the tent and ran through the now muddy grass, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight above me. Millions of stars, constellations galore, a sky like nothing I’d ever seen. Maybe everything would be O.K. after all.

Deacon was already up when I awoke the next morning. I found him in the Chardonnay, our most valuable crop. “I managed to get most of the vines trimmed back,” he said. “They’re looking great for our buyer. Can you turn off the irrigation while I finish this up?”

I hesitated. The farmer who sold us the land had mentioned that a family of black widows had taken up residence in the pump house. They were all over the ceiling when we first toured the property and only scattered when the owner used a shard of mirror to shine sunlight at them. Going in there had become my nemesis, and there was no mirror around.

Thankfully, our buyer, a local winemaker, arrived just then with his son in tow. We walked together to the Chard.

“These are good grapes, but it’s going to take way too much time to harvest them the way they’ve overgrown,” the buyer said. “I’d like them for next year, but I’ll have to pass on these.”

Mystery grapes in an still-untamed vineyard
Overgrown Marechal Foch in a yet-to-be-tamed vineyard

Now there was no buyer, and I had to face the spiders, too. It was time to head home. Dejected, we locked up the gate and were headed back to the city when we received a call. It was the buyer’s son.

“I can’t pay much for the grapes, but I’d like to make a sparkling wine,” he said. “Would you take some of the wine as payment?”

It didn’t take long for us to say yes.

We harvested those grapes together on a sunny September day. I’ve come to learn a vineyard isn’t perfected in a season. It’s never really perfect, only improved, so there’s no point in being impatient.

After all, a vineyard is a living thing and home to many creatures, not just a place where wine comes from. Nature is both aggressive and resilient, and if you’re comfortable with giving up some control, there are rewards like a sky full of stars and the anticipation of some very local bubbly with new friends.

And, yes, even the beauty of spiders.

Published on December 1, 2016
Topics: Wine Culture