Q&A: Starting a Vineyard
Wine Access judge and contributor Rhys Pender discusses starting his own vineyard
Allison McNeely: Why did you choose to start a vineyard?
RP: When you become fascinated with wine there is something about having your own vines to work that is very desirable. Even though having worked in a vineyard, I knew how much work it was, and how much bloody hard repetitive work it is. But I did it anyway.
AM: How much does it cost to purchase the land and start a vineyard? Investment costs?
RP: It is very expensive to buy vineyard land in BC. Some parts of the world you can buy existing vineyards for nothing but it is very hard to sell the grapes and wine. In BC land prices range from about $100k to $200k per acre and then it costs another $20-25k to establish and plant a vineyard. Then you work for free for 3-4 years until you get some crop.
I was only able to afford the land because the Similkameen is still a lot cheaper than the Okanagan so we sold our house in the Okanagan and were able to get a house and 5 acres in Similkameen for what would have been just a small house with no land in the Okanagan.
AM: What tools and infrastructure do you need?
RP: You need a bit of cash flow, generally a loan through someone like Farm Credit Canada who allow you to not pay back the loan until the vineyard is producing fruit. You still need to pay for the ongoing management of the vineyard over the few years until you get a crop.
You then need to prepare the land, put in posts, anchors, wires, vines, irrigation systems. You need a tractor, a sprayer and a mower at the very minimum. That is what I have, the very minimum. We did also buy a ‘grape hoe’ to mechanically remove weeds as we intend to farm organically.
AM: What are the day-to-day tasks associated with the vineyard?
RP: It is very seasonal. You prune in the winter, usually starting around February for a small operation like this.
Then when the buds burst, there is lots to do. Spraying against mildew, controlling weeds, managing irrigation, checking for pests, managing the soil. Once there is more growth you have to keep spraying, keep weeds under control, thin excess shoots and bunches. This goes on throughout the season until harvest. Then you have to get the vineyard ready for the winter.
AM: What is your favourite part of owning a vineyard? Least favourite part?
RP: The best part is being outside in the fresh air, stopping to look up at the mountains, the sky, seeing birds and the life that exists out there. It is hard work but relaxing and rewarding. It can be very stressful however as you can get overwhelmed with what needs to be done at times.
The worst part is spraying. You have to put on a spray suit and spray things like sulphur against mildew. It is very hot and uncomfortable. You may need to do this 7-10 times a year too.
AM: What grapes did you plant and why? How long until they are able to produce wine?
RP: I planted Riesling and Chardonnay because they make great wine and they are also very winter hardy. I didn’t want a whole lot of risk. Even so, the year I planted we had a freak -12C frost on Thanksgiving which is like a 100 year event and it killed a lot of the vines. The vines will typically take 3 years to produce their first small crop. Then the crop increases in size in years 4 and 5.
AM: Do you have any suggestions for those wishing to start their own vineyard?
RP: You have to know what you are getting in to. It is not as romantic as it might appear from the outside. Go and do a few weeks work in a vineyard. And make sure to get good consulting help to make the right decisions at the start both financially and from the standpoint of what to plant and where.