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Making the Grape Grade - Growing Grapes for Wine

Southern States Serves Farmers of Every Commodity and Size

Great grapesWine is flowing in the South - and we're not talking about the south of France. Vineyards and wineries are springing up all over the state of Virginia. With the number of farms declining, land deeply rooted in agriculture is up for grabs for development. Southern States is embracing this new industry, just as it has always played a vital role in more conventional agriculture.

According to the old adage, it takes good grapes to get good wine. But it also takes good soil to get good grapes. And when it comes to soil, Southern States' advisory services are top-notch.

"Growing grapes for wine is probably the most complex form of farming," says Jim Elmore, viticulture program director for Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Va. "It involves rain, sun, soil-erosion control and pruning. For the best wines, you need the ideal situation: a vineyard manager who really knows his agriculture and a wine maker who knows the exact time to harvest: when the sugar in the grapes is just right."

Jake Bushing shares his vinyard needsFor the vineyard man who knows agriculture, grape farmers in Virginia are turning to Chris Hill, a vineyard consultant and grape grower. Thirty years of observation, trial and error have made him a leading specialist in the industry, points out E.N. Garnett, a Southern States Certified Crop Adviser who works closely with Hill and services soil needs for Virginia vineyards.

"I've killed more vines than anyone," jokes Hill, who says that makes him an expert. Although his clients are not obligated to abide by his instructions, his counsel is generally followed. Hill advises vineyard owners and managers on vineyard design, ideal grape varieties, how to put up trellises, what and when to spray, how to prune and when to pick.

He often serves as a middleman, marketing a client's grapes to winemakers of the area. But when it comes to agronomics, Hill directs his clients to Garnett, based in Charlottesville, Va., for soil assistance. "E.N. is my go-to guy for soil," Hill says. "He takes soil samples for me and makes the right recommendations."

Southern States can blend fertilizer specifically for the soil needs of individual vineyards. "We'll send soil samples to a professional lab," Garnett explains. "Then we'll use a recipe to supply the vineyard's nutrient needs and sell it to them in bulk form."

Soil tests play an important role. "You always need something," Hill says. "With rainfall, nutrients are leeched out."

Weather is one of the biggest challenges for vineyards in Virginia. Intense rainfall in a short time period can lead to a botrytis fungus or cause the grapes to split and turn to vinegar. These ruin the crop for winemaking.

"Ideas from around the world have to be adapted to here. We don't have the arid climate of Napa Valley or the Mediterranean," Hill explains.

Good wine isn't about the fancy wineries but about agriculture and science, Hill adds. He credits the state for allocating funds toward research to help ensure the industry continues to grow.

Piedmont Virginia Community College responded to the industry demand as vineyards increased across the state. Jim Elmore instated a certificate program in viticulture and enology, or winemaking, to address the area's needs.

The program includes hands-on seminars by local industry professionals. "Southern States is on board as a new partner in the program," says Garnett.

"We show students how to begin with building trellises, setting up wire, soil analysis, herbicide use and what equipment to use to run a vineyard."

Southern States is working toward ways it can serve grape farmers--both backyard vineyards and larger commercial operations, Garnett adds. The co-op's fertilizers, lime applications, grass seed to prevent erosion and fence supplies will help keep the wine flowing in the South.

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