Establishing a vineyard and bringing it to full production requires a large investment in money, time, and labor. Estimates vary widely and depend on circumstances specific to the site and the individual choices that are made, but development costs for the first three years can be from $15,000 to more than $20,000 per acre, not including land costs. Significant negative cashflow will occur for at least the first 3 to 5 years until the vines are established enough to produce a marketable crop. Vineyards are expensive and grapevines require frequent and intensive management, much of which is done manually, not with equipment. Therefore, careful consideration should be taken of the financial and labor requirements before proceeding with plans for a vineyard. Risk assessment is a critical consideration. Significant crop losses, and sometimes vine damage or death, can occur due to freezes, frost, hail, diseases and other pests. Market risks should also be considered; winegrape supply and demand fluctuate and prices move along with them.
A market outlet for the grapes should be confirmed with one or more wineries, or if your development plans include a winery, a wine market analysis and business plan should be prepared before committing to the venture. Familiarize yourself with the California wine industry and investigate marketing opportunities and obstacles. Visit existing vineyards and wineries and meet the owners and managers; they often are quite willing to share their knowledge and experience. Develop a vineyard business plan to help you understand the economics of your operation and guide your decision-making.
There are numerous viticulture texts that offer methods and guidelines for growing grapes, but none can offer a recipe to be followed for success. Commercial grape production requires an integration of knowledge of climate, site characteristics, grape varieties, production practices, personnel management, economics, and marketing. Those are just the main categories of expertise required; numerous skills and abilities are also necessary. Volunteer to work in a neighbor’s vineyard to learn production practices such as training and pruning. Finally, if you lack experience in grape growing, it is strongly advised that you start conservatively with only an acre or two. After a few years experience with a small vineyard you should be able to assess the feasibility and desirability of expanding the vineyard.
Once a commitment has been made to develop a vineyard, many decisions must be made in developing the vineyard plan. These decisions include: selection of a suitable site for your vineyard (and winery, if applicable); choice of grape varieties, clones, and possibly rootstocks; selection of a training and trellis system, and vineyard size and design (row and vine spacing).