WINCHESTER, Va. — When most people think of grapes, especially wine grapes, places like California, the Finger Lakes and Tuscany, Italy, will likely come to mind.
But Virginia? The industry is bigger than you think.
“As of 2015, the economic impact of the Virginia grape industry was over a billion dollars,” said Tony Wolf, professor at Virginia Tech.
He talked about the state’s wine grape industry during a June 6 workshop at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
Wolf said there are between 3,500 and 4,000 acres of vineyards in the state. The industry’s economic impact is doubling every five years.
“Many people who put in a vineyard will put in a winery as the value added with the wine is much greater than the value of the grapes,” Wolf said.
While bearing acres of wine grapes has grown 40 percent the past several years, the number of wineries has increased by 200 percent.
“Growing 5 to 15 acres of wine grapes is a marginal income at best and you have to get above a certain point, around 20 acres, to be profitable on the grapes, but the value-added benefits of a winery can make the difference,” he said.
“We can grow varieties here that may be challenging to grow up north in the Finger Lakes, and here we have had excellent support from Virginia Tech,” he said.
Like any other industry, the challenges of growing wine grapes are numerous.
“Trained labor is in very short supply and this is a very labor-intensive vocation,” he said. “There are areas of mechanization that can be done in larger vineyards, but they are expensive and generally unavailable to the small grower. It takes a long time to recover your cost of implementation and there are environmental factors particularly as to site evaluation. “
Tremain Hatch, a viticulture research associate at Virginia Tech, said it takes a lot of work and capital to start a vineyard.
“The financial expectation is closer to the model of building a factory, and you will recoup your money a little at a time over the life of the factory. You will not be pulling your investment out in two years,” Hatch said. “Make certain you have a market for the grapes you want to grow. We have a free vineyard calculator online to help you estimate your investment, but every farm is managed differently.
“You can’t do everything at once, and if you start a vineyard, it will impact your lifestyle as the costs will tie up your resources,” he added. “Just because you can pay for something doesn’t mean you can afford it, especially large equipment.”
The initial installation — grapevines, trellises — is where a lot of the money goes. He said the average cost is $22,000 per acre, broken down for trellis installation, materials and labor. The trellis posts can be metal or wooden and cost around $3,000, but it will take 450 hours of labor to install them.
“You can average 700 to 800 vines per acre and although the price will vary with volume and variety, around $4 per vine is a good estimate,” he said. “It will take about 250 hours of labor to plant 1,000 vines and deer fence could cost $7,000 for a 1-acre perimeter.”
While the majority of acres in Virginia are not irrigated, Hatch said it’s a good insurance practice.
“You will have some revenue in years three and four, but if there are really dry conditions that can set you back a year or two. The vines need a lot of water,” he said.
Annual costs also need to be factored in.
“You will need to spray the vineyard and mow the grass,” he said. “That can vary from a hand sprayer and a push mower to a 60-horsepower tractor and an air blast sprayer. You also need to figure in some repair and maintenance costs. Pruning can average from 40 hours in a large vineyard with mechanization to 86 hours in a small vineyard manually with an average of 300 hours of labor per year per acre, and management costs can be $1,000 per acre.
“Skilled labor for mowing can be 50 hours per acre and about $1,000 for sprays,” he added. “There are really busy seasons in the vineyard and times when there is little to do, and so it is really hard to sustain full-time labor all year.”
Hatch said most vineyards average between 3 and 5 tons of high quality fruit per acre. Prices have been rising to around $2,000 per ton, he said.
“There is not a spot or commodity market for grapes so everyone knows everyone and prices tend to be based on their reputation,” he said. “Your costs are about $7,000 per acre and grape revenue is $8,000 per acre, so we are making a profit on an annual basis but (that) does not cover the costs of the initial installation.”
Where to plant grapes is also a critical decision and one not to be taken lightly.
“We have an online tool that is www.geovine.org that allows you to go in and evaluate a site before you plant it,” Wolf said. “You can get a good idea whether it is a good site or not.”
He said vineyard growers should be flexible in the spot they pick for their vines.
“Spend as much time as possible to evaluate to find a site perhaps farther from residential areas with more elevation. There will be compromises,” he said.
The biggest concerns are temperature and local weather.
“Climate governs what we grow and where we grow it,” he said. “Cold air tends to move down a hill and pond at the bottom, which can cause the grapes to either get frosted or cause winter injury to dormant vines. Up the slope can be better.”
Wolf said that relative elevation can cause variations within the vineyard at lower spots, so getting out of that “wintering injury” area depends on location. In Frederick County, Virginia, for example, the range is between 700 and 1,800 feet.
“There is benefit to having slope than being on flat land, but you can go too far when you get to 15 or 20 percent slope,” he said. “We would like grapes in a hilly area where there are at least 165 days frost free.”
Choosing a good location is important as sub-zero temperatures in winter can cause damage to overwintering buds. Wolf said minus 5 degrees is the threshold for grapes.
Ryan Clouse, Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit, said prospective growers should not go into the business undercapitalized.
“The business plane is incredibly important. We as a lender will look at it from all of the cash flow generations — off-farm income, W2s and outside investors,” Clouse said. “You look at the specifics from the marketing and from the production values, and then we will look at the framework, the revenues from the winery and agritourism.”
Hatch said that row spacing should be determined by the widest piece of equipment “you need to take up the row with an extra 3 feet beyond.”
The preferred row orientation is north to south.
“If you are forced to plant east and west it will work, but one side will get more sun than the other,” he said. “One of the hottest topics is vine spacing, which can be between 4 or 5 feet. If you plant farther apart, the more trellis you have to fill. We have more water in Virginia so we grow larger grape vines and that causes more labor to reduce that vine size.”
Virginia Tech plant pathologist Mizuho Nita talked about current diseases affecting grapes, including powdery and downey mildew.
Sylvia Liggieri, graduate student at Virginia Tech, said canopy management starts at bud break when they are 6 to 8 inches “by thinning to three or four shoots per linear foot of canopy.”
She said vine size and vine balance are the key factors to ripening fruit.
“The microclimate in the immediate vicinity of the cluster is what we are trimming for,” she said. “We want air movement to avoid too much humidity. We train the vines vertically to give you a homogeneous and evenly distributed canopy.”