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Growing grapes in Northern Nevada can be fruitful

Posted 6/1/2009

By Leslie Allen

Grapes being clipped from vine at Churchill Vineyards.

It appears to me that many Northern Nevadans are establishing vineyards. Grapevines are a beautiful plant that can be easily integrated into your home landscape and a few grapevines in a small home vineyard can yield enough clusters for many tasty delights or several bottles of quality homemade wine.

Growing productive wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) in Nevada is not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, University of Nevada, Reno’s test vineyard in Reno and Churchill Vineyards in Fallon demonstrate that grapes grow quite well in our arid climate and produce a nice quality wine. Good viticulture practices are the key to successfully growing grapes in Northern Nevada.

Good viticultural practices begin with the soil. Most grapes thrive in well-drained soils that have moderate amounts of organic matter. Since Northern Nevada soils tend to be very low in organic matter, you will need to add compost or humus to your soil. If you plan to make wine, get your soil tested to help you determine if you have nutrient toxicities or deficiencies as these may affect the yield and vigor of the vines.

Grapevines for winemaking produce best when grown on long trellises, whereas table grapes can be trained to cover an arbor, a covered patio structure or a fence. If you want to stick with the traditional vineyard look, you’ll probably want to install a few rows of long trellises, about 4 to 6 feet high, made of posts and wires. If it better suits your landscape design, you can also just plant one long row.

The most important viticultural practice in our region is our reliance on nongrafted vines. These are vines that grow on their own rootstock. Vines grown in our area may die all the way to the ground in the winter, or get severely injured by a late spring frost. Vines on their own rootstock will re-sprout true to type. Grafted vines, when killed back to the ground, will re-sprout with the undesirable graft variety. These root grafts are varieties generally not suitable for winemaking and, in some cases, eating.

Plant your grapevines after the last frost in late spring. Plant them in 14-inch-deep holes that are about a foot wide. Mound about 1 inch of soil in the bottom of the hole and place the vine in the hole. Backfill the hole with a few inches of soil and give the cutting a gentle upward tug to make sure the roots are pointing down and are not kinked or twisted. Finish filling the hole with the remaining soil.

The best way to ensure your vines get adequate water is with a drip irrigation system. Install a two-gallon-per-hour drip emitter on each side of the vine and irrigate weekly for about one hour during the first two years.

After the first two years, irrigate only as needed. A common mistake is to water too much. Grapes hate wet feet! To judge when plants need water, watch the tendrils. Very long ones indicate overfertilization (especially nitrogen) and overwatering. If the tendrils start to dry up, the vines are becoming water-stressed. However, some water stress is good. It produces better quality grapes with fruitier wines.

It is worth a trip to our local research vineyard at the University of Nevada, Reno Agricultural Experiment Station on Valley Road in Reno or to Churchill Vineyards in Fallon. There you will see how truly productive wine grapes can be in Northern Nevada.

For more information on growing wine grapes or gardening issues in northern Nevada, contact University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, (775) 784-4848 or e-mail me.

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