Betsey Wittick of Bainbridge Vineyards shares guidelines for creating your own backyard vineyard.
GROWING GRAPES for wine at home might sound like a quixotic adventure, and maybe it is. But if you’re ready for a new gardening exploit, this one is worth your consideration.
You might have difficulty launching your own wine export business from the backyard, but a single grape vine can produce enough juice to fill two to three bottles of wine, and a small vineyard of four to five vines should provide a case of wine for your cellar each year. While this might not slake the thirst of a daily drinker, you still could open a bottle of your own wine every month.
You can assess the sanity of the endeavor; I’ll be outside setting up my new trellis.
As a novice viticulturist and enologist, I needed some keen insight to write an accurate and worthwhile article on wine grapes. Fortunately, I was able to track down Betsey Wittick, the owner/grower/winemaker at Bainbridge Vineyards. Betsey manages 7 acres of vines and somehow also manages to oversee the vineyard’s winemaking process.
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Bainbridge Vineyards is somewhat unusual in that it sells wines produced exclusively from its own grapes, all grown on Bainbridge Island. This makes it a good place to sample Western Washington wines, and makes Betsey uniquely suited to help us find answers to our questions.
Can we really grow wine grapes in Seattle?
Historically, there has been a stigma against growing wine grapes in our rainy part of the state. However, like anything else, it’s all about selecting the right varieties for the climate. As Betsey explains, the low-humidity summers in our region make this area superior to many other parts of the country for organic wine production.
So yes; it is possible to create your own healthy and productive vineyard in Western Washington, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines:
• Focus on white and light-bodied red wines. The vines that produce heavy, full-bodied red wines prefer hot temperatures, and do not perform well in our area.
• Prune and care for your vines every season. Grapevines require significant thinning and training in order to produce quality grapes.
What kind of grapes can grow here?
Most traditional wines are made from the European Vitis vinifera species of grapes. Today, there are many hybrids of European and American species (Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia). Hybridization with American grapes can impart disease resistance and increased productivity to vines. However, this might come at the price of less-desirable flavor profiles for the resulting wines.
Vitis vinifera plants can be propagated directly from hardwood cuttings, or grafted onto American species rootstocks. The majority of vines available for sale have these grafted rootstocks, which impart some pest and disease resistance to the resulting plants.
Fortunately, Bainbridge Vineyards has decades of experience experimenting with wine grapes for our region. The vineyard was created after a lengthy exploration of European winemaking and a partnership with Washington State University Extension. The vineyard has collaborated with WSU to test and introduce new wine grapes especially adapted for our climate.
What are the best varieties for Western Washington?
Betsey recommends a few varieties for first-time wine-grape growers:
• Madeleine Angevine. This is one of the longest-running producers in our region. Originally from France, this white-wine grape grows well in cooler climates. It is a productive vine and perhaps the easiest candidate to grow for a dry, white wine. The flavor has been described as similar to a floral sauvignon blanc and a great pairing for seafood.
• Siegerrebe. Another white-wine grape that prefers cooler weather and ripens early. It is often compared to Gewurztraminer.
• Regent. A hybrid variety that might be the best bet for a cool-weather, red-wine grape. Also makes a great rose.
How do wine grapes grow?
Vines should be ordered and transplanted during the winter, while dormant. Transplanting can happen anytime between November and March. Wine grapes want a warm spot with well-drained soil and full sun exposure. Because heat is almost always a limitation in our region, look for a microclimate at your site, such as a south-facing wall that can help retain extra warmth.
Install your trellising before planting, and prepare the soil by loosening and amending it with compost. Space plants 4 to 6 feet apart. Wine grapes will need irrigation for the first two summers while the vines are establishing. To encourage healthy root structures, water the vines deeply and infrequently. Once established, vines perform best without irrigation.
Don’t expect to harvest any fruit from your vines until their third year. Once they’re mature and productive, you can expect to harvest wine grapes sometime in early to late September. At that point, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to turn them into wine, but that’s a column for another day!