When you think of Arizona, I doubt that wineries and vineyards come to mind.
However, in the last decade, Arizona has gained recognition for its award-winning vineyards and wineries. Believe it or not, we already have over 60 wineries in our state, up from nine in 2000. We still trail California, Oregon and Washington, but we are an up-and-coming state in this specialty industry.
Vineyards can be found in south-eastern Arizona in the Sonoita-Elgin area; in Cochise county around Wilcox; and in Verde Valley near Cottonwood. Most are small, family-run vineyards whose owners enjoy the challenge of creating good wines.
At Vail, Ariz., 30 minutes south-east of Tucson on Highway 83, Charron Vinewards is nestled between the Empire and Santa Rita mountains.
“Our winery was established in 1995,” said owner Susan Craig. “We produce six distinctive wines and grow Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo varieties. My husband makes the wine and I manage the vineyard. In August, when our grapes are ready to pick, we post the harvest dates on our website, and volunteers arrive from all over to help us.”
This new industry is creating income not only from wine sales but also from tourism. According to a 2011 study done by the Arizona Wine Tourism Industry, winery tours brought an estimated $22.7 million into the economy and an additional 405 jobs. As growth continues, the wine industry will become an ever-increasing source of revenue for our state.
Most wineries in Arizona are owned by families who enjoy the creativity wine making offers and also enjoy sharing that love with the public.
Thompson seedless, a green grape, and Flame seedless, a red grape, are popular table grapes that grow well here. Our warm weather encourages production of sugar in table grapes, making them sweet and juicy. Their vines will climb a fence or trellis and produce large amounts of grapes each summer.
When choosing a location to plant a grape vine, find a spot near a fence or build a trellis for the vines to climb. Choose a spot that will receive at least 6 hours of sunshine daily. The trellis can be made of metal posts driven in the ground at eight-foot intervals. Using heavy gauge wire, string a lower wire 3 feet off the ground along the posts and a second wire 6 feet off the ground. One cane is trained along each wire, requiring 4 main canes.
Once your location is chosen and a trellis built, if needed, you are ready to purchase plants. Container grapes can be planted in spring or fall, and bare-root grapes can be planted in winter. One plant will cover a minimum of 10 feet in each direction from its trunk. You don't need two plants for cross-pollination.
Dig a hole in front of one post in the center of the trellis. Dig the hole as deep as the grape's container and twice the container's width. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with soil. Form a slight basin around the plant to help retain water during irrigation. Do not add fertilizer.
After the first year, apply ½ pound of ammonium sulfate, to provide nitrogen, around the plant and work it in the soil. Water well to move the fertilizer down to the plant's roots. Fertilize once a month during its growing season, March-June. If leaves turn yellow with green-colored veins, you probably have an iron deficiency. Iron chelate can be applied twice during the growing season to correct this soil deficiency.
A grape vine has a deep root system and requires thorough watering to maintain good soil moisture around its roots. When watering, do not wet the plant's leaves because this will encourage powdery mildew, a fungus disease which attacks the leaves and lessens the plant's vigor.
Once your grape is planted, allow the canes to grow freely the first year. The second year, choose 4 strong canes to train along the trellis wires; 2 canes to the left and 2 canes to the right. Lightly attach the canes to the wires with plastic ties, or wire, and prune other canes away. As these four canes lengthen during the growing season, continue attaching them along the trellis wires. The vines will grow at a rapid rate until fruit begins to form. At this point, vine growth slows and fruit production increases.
Grape clusters need to be thinned to create nice-sized fruit. If clusters are not thinned, you will have grapes that are half the size of grocery store grapes. Clusters that are left after thinning are covered with paper bags to prevent birds from eating them. Another method is to cover the entire vine with bird netting. Birds love grapes and will devour the clusters as fast as they become large enough to eat.
When you are ready to pick the grapes, taste test to check their sweetness. Immature grapes will have a tart taste.
When winter arrives and the plant goes dormant, prune all extra canes away, leaving the 4 original canes to make next year's vines. Traditionally, these four canes are pruned back so that each cane has 6-8 bud joints and is about two feet in length. On my own grape vine, I don't prune back the 4 canes that much. I prune all shoots and extra canes from the main canes and then prune the main canes back to about 8 feet in length. Whether my method is correct or not, it works well and I always have plenty of grapes.
Once spring arrives, the vines will sprout an abundance of leaves and begin growing rapidly. It takes 3-4 years for a grape vine to mature enough to produce grapes. It doesn't require that much care and will provide lots of tasty grapes each summer.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.