Suitability for Viticulture
The designation of the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 2016 has created new economic development opportunities and land use alternatives in north-central Idaho. In response, University of Idaho Extension educator Bill Warren created a program, Evaluating Your Land’s (and Your) Suitability for Viticulture, to educate citizens on what it takes to develop and sustain a successful vineyard.
Establishing a vineyard is an expensive undertaking that involves extensive time and labor. It also requires land that is suitable to growing wine grapes. Warren teamed up with Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn to sponsor an onsite workshop in 2017 and 2018 to educate citizens about vineyards. Pearson and Sanborn are owners of Colter’s Creek Estate Vineyard in Juliaetta and have firsthand knowledge of the hard work that goes into a successful operation.
“There has been a lot of publicity with the new AVA and people are looking for new economic opportunities for their land, but we want to make sure that people don’t shoot themselves in the foot,” Warren said. “If they don’t have the right type of site or aren’t committed to it, they could actually produce poor grapes and increase the likelihood of bringing in a wine-grape disease that could threaten other vineyards as well as making a bad investment decision for themselves.”
The workshop involved a classroom presentation by Sanborn, including the business aspects and investment required for a vineyard, the type of site required and how to figure out if a property is conducive to producing quality wine grapes.
“Not every site within the AVA is suitable for viticulture. There are a lot of microclimates in this area and you can have a site that is a frost pocket or doesn’t have the right soil needed for growing wine grapes,” Warren said.
Looking Before You Leap
The second part of the program involved a hands-on demonstration at a Colter’s Creek vineyard on irrigation systems, pruning, different types of grapes and trellis systems that need to be installed.
“They got to see, directly, all the work that is involved,” Warren said. “Hearing from people who are actually growing the wine grapes and producing the wines gave them a good introduction so that they can make the most informed decision.”
Nineteen landowners representing 1,406 acres of land attended the first program in 2017, and 33 landowners representing 5,313 acres attended in 2018. A survey of participants indicated that only 12 percent have decided to move forward with establishing their own vineyard.
“We want to protect the individual landowners to make sure that they look before they leap and really know what’s at stake and secondly, to give those that do want to go forward the information they need to be successful,” Warren said. “If we have people coming away saying, ‘Wow, there is no way I’m going to do this,’ then the workshop is successful because it’s helped people from making a bad investment decision.”
Warren sees labor and startup costs as the biggest deterrents for landowners.
“It’s not only the expense of putting in a vineyard, I think it’s the labor,” Warren said. “Wine grapes need constant care, pruning and tending.”
Answering a Growing Need
For those landowners who decide that a vineyard is worth the cost, Warren suggests hiring a vineyard consultant who can help them identify exactly what type of grapes, irrigation and equipment they need to get started. As the industry grows in the region, UI Extension programs could be tailored to support growers by providing workshops on pruning and other common topics.
Warren is considering hosting the workshop again in the future and potentially involving other vineyard owners to offset the burden on Colter’s Creek.
“There is a strong demand for the program,” Warren said. “We had to turn away 20 people the first year that wanted to attend for lack of space. The second year we were able to double our capacity and had 40 people registered. We had one couple that said they had gone to a similar program in California and they said the program we did at Colter’s Creek was far superior to the one that they did in California. People were very happy with it.
“A big thanks goes to Mike and Melissa of Colter’s Creek for making this happen.”
Landowners interested in learning more about viticulture can contact the UI Extension, Clearwater County office for more information.
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in December 2018.