Tag Archives: Scott Henry trellis

Viniculture in the Niagara Escarpment: Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

First, a story.

I first learned of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards a few  years ago when I was shopping for wine at Empire State Cellars, a wine shop in the Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island (since closed).  Asking if I was interested in trying something new and unusual, I of course said yes and was immediately directed to a section of the shelves that displayed a Pinot Noir from the Niagara Escarpment in Northern New York State.  It was only $17 so I thought, “What the hell can I lose by trying this?”, for though I trusted the recommendation I couldn’t help but be skeptical.  After all, I’d never heard of the Niagara Escarpment.  It certainly didn’t sound promising.

Arrowhead Springs wine dinner, 04The Pinot Noir, a 2009, utterly took me by surprise, with its aroma and flavors of red fruit (especially wild cherries), tobacco notes, already integrated tannins, balanced acidity and the promise of depth that should evolve over the next three to four years; a sapid, well-made wine with real typicity, as good a Pinot as any I’d had from a New York winery.  It was also very good value.  As a result, I began following this winery for a couple of years.  Then, this past June my wife and I went to a dinner held at The Riverhead Project, a Long Island restaurant, at which the owners of Arrowhead Spring were being honored with a dinner sponsored by Empire State Cellars.  As it happens, Vals and I were seated with Robin and Duncan Ross, the owners, and regaled with an excellent dinner by Lia Fallon Stanco accompanied by their wines.

I interviewed Robin at her vineyard in the Niagara Escarpment AVA on a warm August day in 2013 after spending a day in Ontario Wine Country on the other side of the Canadian border, which is to say, the Niagara Peninsula VQA, which includes part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs through there (and terminates some 500 miles to the West).  Indeed, the Escarpment is a geological feature so vast and significant that it is worth some background before I proceed with the interview with Robin.

The Niagara Escarpment

Niagara_Escarpment_mapStretching nearly 700 miles in the shape of a sickle that extends from Wisconsin in the West across Ontario to New York State in the East, and encompassing over 480,000 acres, the Niagara Escarpment—in Canada—is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere site.  Essentially, it is the remnant shore of an ancient sea.  Its name is derived from its most well-known feature, the Niagara Falls.  An escarpment is a type of cuesta—a geological feature defined by an erosion-resistant caprock of dolomitic limestone overlaying fragile shale and other soils that was laid down nearly 450 million years ago.  The result is that differential erosion undercuts the more vulnerable layers under the caprock so that the land slumps more on one side than the other, with steep slopes in some places and more shallow ones elsewhere, depending on the makeup of the layers of the underlying soil.  In the vicinity of the Niagara River the collapse of the undersoil has resulted in the spectacular cliffs over which the Niagara falls.  Because the Escarpment here runs along the south shore of Lake Ontario, there is a pronounced “lake effect” in which the cold air of winter blows off the caprock down to the water and warmer air from the lake rises to the upper layers of the Escarpment, depending on how the winds blow.  The end result is that the Escarpment is warmer, overall, that any other wine-growing region of New York State, except for Long Island.

The North slope of the Escarpment as seen running through the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

The North slope of the Escarpment as seen running through the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

The escarpment is home to two AVAs at either end of the feature—Wisconsin Ridge AVA (2013?) that runs along the Western edge of Lake Michigan and the Niagara Escarpment AVA (2005), which comes to an end near Rochester, NY.  In between them are the Ontario VQAs—Niagara Peninsula’s Niagara Escarpment Region (which also includes the Short Hills Bench, Twenty-Mile Bench, and Beamsville Bench VQAs with a total of 22 wineries).  New York’s Escarpment AVA (at 18,000 acres the third-smallest of the State’s nine AVAs) has been home to wineries since the mid-1800s.  Since the 1990s six resident wineries have been establish in the Escarpment, including Arrowhead Spring, which was founded and opened in 2005 by the Rosses, the same year that AVA status was granted to the region.

The 2005 AVA application for the Escarpment stated that it possessed “‘well drained soils, a steady but moderate water supply’ in combination with the mineral content found in the soils, ‘result in superior pigment and flavor compounds in the resultant wine.’”   (see Appellation America, Niagara Escarpment, description)

Duncan, in a 2007 interview, describes the Escarpment in his area thus:

Escarpment cross-section“The Niagara Escarpment is an uplift of bedrock that runs parallel to Lake Ontario in Niagara County. It’s about a 200-foot drop in elevation facing north, with slopes of one half to several miles long. The underlying rock is dolomitic limestone and – in our vineyard – we have springs where the hydrostatic pressure from the escarpment releases water. This results in a great mineral quality being imparted to the fruit, and wine.

“The Niagara Escarpment also offers natural frost protection. Lake Ontario is a large heat sink and this powers wind towards the lake when the lake water is warmer than the air and away from the lake when it is cooler.

“It’s a maritime climate because the lake is so large. Moderate rainfall and more sunshine than any other major U.S. city in the northeast US contribute to the uniqueness of the escarpment for growing wine. We are the second warmest growing region in New York State.”

 The Interview:

Robin and Duncan had been in the software business, but after Duncan was laid off in a work-force “reduction” they decided to look at another lifestyle and, given their love for and fascination with wine, they decided to buy land in an area they knew and loved to grow wine grapes.  At first they bought their fruit from vineyards in Canada and would have from the North Fork of Long Island, as they’d only planted their own vineyard in 2006.  In fact, Robin recounted, she’d bought–and paid for–several tons of grapes in 2005 in advance of the harvest from Mudd Vineyards.  It turned out to be bad vintage due to the weather around harvest time, and they got a check in the mail from Steve Mudd, who explained that the crop was lousy and he couldn’t keep their money in consequence.  “You have to really admire and respect someone like that,” said she.

Indeed, it was the Canadian winegrowers in the Niagara Peninsula, which includes the continuation of the Escarpment, who helped them with variety selection and advise about growing vines in a cool climate (albeit the second-warmest in New York State).  Robin mentioned, in particular, Kevin Watson, of Watson’s Vineyard, in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario.

When they began looking for a vineyard site they based their search on soil maps that laid out the soil composition of the area.  Having come from a farming family, she knew what she was looking for and understood how to read the maps.  Duncan and she were looking for land that didn’t have too much clay in the topsoil, and they knew that the dolomitic limestone that underlay the topsoil would be especially good for winegrowing.

Since planting the vineyard in 2006 Robin has developed growing experience and knowledge that grows by the year.  She still asks questions of Kevin Watson occasionally.  Another person from whom she’s drawn inspiration is Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate in Long Island, whom she has found unstinting in helping her with advise and insights into issues of organic and Biodynamic viniculture.

Syrah is one of the varieties that have been planted, and Robin remarked that the only problem that she has with it is the uneven berry size, but that has not had any effect on the quality of the wine made from it.  The Syrah is on a Scott Henry trellis, which allows for two lines of fruit, one over the other, but they’ve been having some trouble with it this year, given that the season started very wet.  The thing is, Scott Henry allows for two wires for fruit, one above the other.  The lower line of fruit, however, can be covered over by very heavy foliage, which increases the disease pressure, especially from mildew.  Despite regular leaf pulling, the foliage “grows gangbusters,” as Robin says, due to the varieties high vigor.

When I asked her why they had decided that the particular mesoclimate of the vineyard, as well as soil and aspect (the terroir) was suitable for growing Syrah, she explained that while they are the first on the U.S. side of the region to plant Syrah, on the other side of the border there has been some success with the variety.  One thing that is important to understand about Syrah is that once it reaches ripeness it must be picked or the berries will begin to desiccate.  “If you have the grapes at 23º Brix and you hope to let them ripen to 25º Brix, forget about it, the grapes will start desiccating,” Robin warned.

Given the vigor of the vines on the vineyard, before they can run a tractor through the rows for a Spring spray, for example, they first have to go into the vines and spread apart the tendrils that have intertwined, lest they get caught in the tractor.

Arrowhead Spring, 14For ground cover the Rosses first planted clover for its nitrogen-fixing qualities, along with a broad-leafed orchard grass.  They need to plant cover that would not be torn up by the tractor, given that soil erosion can be a problem in the vineyard, since parts of it are very steep, what with the amount of rain that they get there.  They also planted rye, as it is so fast-growing, and one other fescue.  Robin is especially pleased that so wild plants have germinated in the cover as well, such as dandelions, which have deep-tapping roots that bring nutrients up to the surface.  One of the issues with farming a monocrop is that there isn’t much bio-diversity, which is something that one wouldn’t find in nature, so the diversity of the cover crop is important—for instance, in some of the alleys wild sweet-pea is growing, which attracts beneficial insects such that the pests are not a big problem in the vineyard.

With respect to disease pressure, for example with spores, it seems that the cover holds the spores close to the ground and they do not reach into the fruit zones.  In the space within the vine rows they actually weed with a hoe rather than use herbicides.  Essentially, it is apparent that this is very much an organic approach, though they are not certified nor are they seeking to become so.  Given that on the Canadian side there are two vineyards that are certified Biodynamic (Tawse, in the Niagara Escarpment VQA, and Southbrook, in the Niagara-on-the Lake VQA), they had looked into pursuing certification for either organic or Biodynamic farming, but they couldn’t find useful guidelines for going about it in their area on our side of the border.  Indeed, it was while doing research into the certification guidelines that she learned that copper, sulfur, and lime are all acceptable inputs that she thought, “Oh, good.  I can use Bordeaux mix on my vines.”  Then she realized that the sulfur she was using wasn’t approved for organic use, even though it was produced organically.  She found these kinds of things frustrating to deal with.  So they just go ahead and they follow the standard, but they remain.  For Robin it’s enough to be “clean and green.”

Thus, for instance, they have a windmill generator for electricity and they are trying not to have too much of an adverse impact on nature.  So, the fact of the matter is that they would like to be certified from a commercial point of view.  When people come to taste the wines one question that they often ask is, “Are your wines organic?”

The thing is, when people drive up to the tasting room they pass the vineyard and they can Arrowhead Spring, 03see how the Rosses farm.  It’s pretty obvious.  Also evident are their chickens, which they keep “as a last line of defense” against insect pests.  The chickens are kept in a fenced area because they would otherwise be lost to predation.  In a bug-heavy year they do let them loose in the vineyards where they are especially effective against Japanese beetles.  As Robin explains, “I rise at sunup and go shake the vines, and as the beetles don’t yet fly in the morning they fall on the ground and the chickens would eat them.”  This way they can have a few vines done one day and another few the next day and so on.  To do this, they invested in a mobile chicken house that can be towed behind the tractor—not a unique idea, farms with other crops may use one, but new to NY vineyards, I suspect—so that they can get the chickens to range where they want them to.  The only problem is that though the chickens are very effective at eating bug pests, if the coop is moved too far to the next place they often go to the last location they remember coop had been set, so they need to be directed to where the coop has been moved.  Sometimes at night she can be chasing the chickens around the vines—some of them will roost in the vines— which can take some time, so it can be very frustrating sometimes.

For mammalian pests like rodents and raccoons they have hawks and owls that nest and roost around the vineyard.

The vine rows not only run along the Escarpment North-South, which means that the northern rows  catch the sun at an advantageous angle but also towards the West, as the Escarpment has a shape not unlike an aircraft wing, with a sharp slope forward from the apex, and a shallow slope from there back to the trailing edge.  Here the trailing edge slopes to the West and catches the afternoon sun.  It makes for interesting driving on the tractor.

In describing the dominant aspect of the vineyard, Robin says, “Most of the land tilts—the hills run South to North and the vineyard actually slopes slightly to the West—you can notice this particularly when you’re driving a tractor, because you can be tilted in two directions [driving back and forth], which is interesting—but what it means is that we get a lot of Western sun in the afternoon.”  She goes on to explain, “I guess that it’s because that’s the way that the water drains.  My grandfather had it drilled into my head at a young age—my grandparents were fruit farmers—when he said, ‘You always plant north to south; that’s the way water flows.’ So that was in my head when we put the vineyard in.”

I asked Robin about what they do as the grapes get to veraison, given that birds will then be attracted to the fruit as it begins to develop sugar.  She explained that rather than use bird netting, they go out as the fruit changes color and attach glittery ribbon to the vine posts and pretty soon the entire vineyard looks like it’s festooned with these ribbons, which serve to dissuade the birds for a few weeks.  Later on they set up speakers in the vineyard that are attached to solar cells.  At sunup they turn on, at sundown they turn off, so during the day they play bird distress calls.  So that works pretty well for them, and they also put up balloons that look like owl eyes.  When all else fails, they put out propane cannon that make a loud boom and run on a variegated pattern.  They go off roughly every twenty to thirty minutes and go off from sunup to sundown.  But as Robin says, “That’s a last resort.  Obviously no one likes hearing cannon going off on the hillside, but sometimes it’s necessary, not to lose a crop.”

When I pointed out that in Long Island bird netting is used predominantly, she responded that one of the advantages of their site is that there aren’t a lot of power lines on which birds can roost.  In fact, towards the tree line behind the vineyard there are many birds of prey and the hawks also helping discourage birds from going into the vineyard.  I also mentioned how Carol Sullivan, owner of Gramercy Vineyard, has a dog that takes care of the raccoons that can decimate a vineyard; Robin told me that they once had a dachshund that had the same effect of driving raccoons away.  They now have a border collie, Ian, that does the same thing.  “In fact,” she said, “just the other day I saw him chasing a skunk.  He’s learned his lesson because last year he got sprayed by getting too close, but now he keeps about twenty feet away, but he continues to go after the skunk until it disappears into the tree line. . . .  As far as rats, mice, moles, we have an army of three cats, so from the bodies I find I can tell that they’re quite successful.”  Indeed, Robin hasn’t seen any raccoons in the vineyard since the dachshund first went to work.

The varieties that they grow on their property include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot , Malbec, and Syrah.  They make a Meritage wine from a blend of their red Bordeaux varieties.  All the varieties’ vines are spaced at 8’×4’6″.  The grapes for the Pinot Noir that I mentioned that I like so much they buy from a vineyard five miles to the West on the Escarpment.

While most of the vines are on Scott-Henry trellis, some, like the Merlot, are clearly not doing well on it, so Robin is converting the Merlot over to VSP, because the variety isn’t not particularly vigorous, and Scott Henry is meant for vigorous growth.  The Cabernet Sauvignon is already on VSP trellises.

Cab Fran grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Cab Franc grapes at the beginning of veraison.

Last year the Cabernet Sauvignon hit 26° Brix and was picked in October, the day that the first frost came to the vineyard.  Typically they harvest the Cab Sauv and Cab Franc around November 4th.  That they can pick so late is due to Lake Ontario, which, given its enormous size, is a heat sink that provides a long autumn for the vineyard, which lies about eight miles away.  The lake is, in fact, a body of water even larger than Long Island Sound, and it also provides an early spring, thus prolonging the growing season.

Robin has one full-time employee, Tim, who helps her with leaf thinning and green harvesting by hand, as well as doing the spraying and driving the tractor, and Ryan, who now works full-time assisting Duncan in the cellar, can also give a hand when needed.  At harvest time, when they need more hands, they can call in professional apple-pickers who come in to help out, as well as customers who like to pitch in.  Harvesting can be a tense time for Robin, but it’s always worked out.  Furthermore, given the range of varieties, they tend not to all ripen at the same time, and with only seven acres of vine, it isn’t as though they have to race to pick all the fruit in a day.  The first thing that comes in is the Chardonnay, then the Merlot, followed by Syrah.  Then comes the Malbec, but there are so few vines that Robin could pick them by herself in less than an hour.  Unfortunately, the Malbec doesn’t do that well, and she’s essentially told it, “If you can’t do better than that, you’re gone!”

The issues with the Malbec have led to discussions about what to do about it.  Part of the problem is that it has been planted on an edge of the vineyard where it catches a lot of wind, which it apparently doesn’t like—it’s too rough.  Even the Cab Franc doesn’t care much for a lot of wind, but it’s terrible for the Malbec.  If Robin were able to do it over again, she’d plant the Malbec in a more sheltered location and move the Syrah to less vigorous soil and replant the less vigorous Cab Sauv to where the Syrah is planted now.  Grafting is an alternative to planting new vines, but she’s leery of grafting because it is prone to go badly if people don’t know what they’re doing—even grafting houses have graft failures.

Up until mid-August the 2013 season has been very difficult, thanks to too much rain along with high humidity and elevated temperatures—conditions that are mildew’s delight.   When I suggested that the spray schedule on the Escarpment must be less than it would be on Long Island, Robin pointed out that they’ve had to spray every week to ten days so far this year.  In fact, Robin keeps meticulous records after each spray, and when she reviewed them she found that it rained every single day after the vines were sprayed—“pretty awful.”

As we were walking the vineyard we came upon a patch of stunted vines where, it turned out, in 2007 a neighbor had been applying herbicide in his field in preparation for planting corn.  Apparently the spray boom hit a rock and lifted, pouring spray into the vineyard, wiping out a number of their vines.  The vines have still not recovered, with many killed and the rest have not recovered, as she’d hoped, even to this day.  When I asked her about whether or not Arrowhead had received compensation, she said that she turned the offer down—she’d rather have good-neighbor compensation:  were she to need help, they’d be more likely to lend a hand.  When they next buy new vines for the vineyard, they’ll replant this patch.

As it happens, after such a bad beginning to the season, the harvest on the Escarpment, including for Arrowhead Spring, was very good indeed.  By October 28 they had harvested seven tons of Cab Franc from a two-acre parcel—that’s 3.5 tons per acre on Scott Henry, which makes possible from 3 to 4.5 tons per acre; a lot of grapes.  In fact, it was good on both sides of the Niagara River.  We can look forward to some excellent wines from that part of New York and Ontario for 2013.

As for the Arrowhead Sprint Vineyard wines, I tried several in the tasting room, and ended up buying a number of them to take home:  Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Vidal Blanc Icewine, and Chardonnay.  No wonder:  the list of prizes that the wines have won is impressive, and not just from local tasting contests:

  • 2008 Estate Syrah
    87 points from Wine Spectator Magazine. Highest scoring Syrah from New York State in the history of the magazine.
  • 2008 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    89 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
  • 2007 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    92 points from Wine Spectator Magazine (highest in New York).
  • 2006 Chardonnay
    86 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
  • 2005 Vidal Blanc Icewine
    90 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.

awardsIn fact, Duncan first won a prize for his 2002 Pinot Noir, made years before he and Robin had purchased the vineyard or built the winery.  An inspired amateur then, who has since become a dedicated professional, along with Robin–his partner in wine–she runs the vineyard with considerable skill and aplomb, learning as she deals with each season, with some help from a dog, an army of cats, an occasional owl or hawk, and a very small but hard-working staff.

  •  2005 Gold – WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition. American Wine Society Quality Award.

Quite a track record for such a new and very small winery in so seemingly improbable a location as the Niagara Escarpment.  (Psst!  In Ontario they’ve been doing it for years.)

Since the 2013 interview,  a May 2016 article in the May 2016 issue of BizJournal.com reported that Arrowhead Springs is expanding its operations significantly, a clear indication that it has enjoyed significant success:

“BeauVine Vineyards LLC in Lockport is spending $1.3 million to add a 14,000-square-foot grape processing/retail facility, new harvesting equipment and purchase nearby land for more farming.

“Plans call for expanding juice production not only for its own use, but also for other wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and in other parts of the state.

“’As we plant more vineyards, that will allow us to have more grapes for our winery, but also to have more to sell to expand our presence as a wine-growing region,’” she said. “’Then with the equipment purchase portion, we’re hoping to get harvest equipment and other equipment we can use as a vineyard services company.’”

“In addition to crushing grapes for its own wines, the production equipment will be available by contract for other growers who need their grapes crushed on a custom basis, or those who want to buy bulk juice to finish at their own facility. The vineyard is also buying new harvesting equipment with help from a $370,000 grant from Empire State Development through the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

“The project supports growth of the wine sector in Niagara County, where more than 20 wineries make up the Niagara Wine Trail. The ESD grant will pay for harvesting equipment, which will also be available for lease to other vineyards in the region.

“Prior to last year, the company had 8,000 vines planted on seven acres. That’s now up to 20 acres, with more than 20,000 vines planted, including nine varieties of grapes. A land purchase now pending will allow the company to add more acreage nearby and grow even more. Meanwhile, the company broke ground this week on the building that will replace the existing 2,000-square-foot production/retail facility built into the hillside on the property.”

 Further to that, a June 2016 article in the Buffalo News reports that:


“Arrowhead Spring Vineyards . . .  has acquired 23 acres of additional land just a half-mile west of its property on the Niagara Escarpment, doubling its size as part of a larger $1.6 million expansion that includes vineyards and a new facility.  . . . It bought the land at 5126 Lower Mountain Road in Cambria from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Lockport. Cornell had received it from George Kappelt of Flavor Farm, a produce grower for restaurants in the Buffalo area. The purchase price was $80,500.

“Duncan Ross, who co-owns the vineyard with his wife, Robin, said they plan to “prepare the land for planting in 2017, and then begin planting in 2018,” reflecting a typical two-year advance period for vineyards.

“’There is a lot of work to do in clearing some brushy areas and amending the soil with compost,’” he said. “’We will install many miles of drain tile under the surface to drain excess water, which improves quality and longevity for vines on the Niagara Escarpment.’”

“The purchase comes just after Arrowhead finished planting its current 23 acres with a mixture of Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo grapes.

“The winery also hired Molly Crandles as assistant winemaker and Molly Baillargeon as assistant vineyard manager.”

 4746 Town Line Road (route 93), Cambria, NY 14094

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards

 For a 2007 perspective on Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, see Lenn Thompson’s interview with Duncan Ross, Appellation America, Niagara Escarpment

 Arrowhead Spring Vineyards interview with Robin Ross,  14 August 2013, updated 5 November 2013; added material on 10 August, 2016.

Wölffer’s Trellis Sampler

I suspect that few people know of Wölffer’s trellis sampler, but I’m sure that it’s unique on the island, perhaps in all of New York State.  Located on the south side of the winery in the main building, it has examples of eight of the principle trellis systems used in vineyards around the world, only one of which is widely used in Long Island.  Viewing them is almost like taking a vineyard tour around the world with regard to the different ways that vines are trained.  There are compelling reasons for using one in preference to another, depending on the country, the climate, the prevailing laws of a region, and custom or tradition.

Needless to say, the trellis sampler inspired me to look into the trellis and training systems more deeply, because they are central to what a wine-grape vineyard is all about.

Regardless of the trellis used, the vines must be trained to it, and there are two kinds of training:  spur and cane.  Some trellises are more amenable to one or the other.  This will be indicated below.  The entire point of the training and trellis systems is that they significantly aid in helping the vines’ canes and shoot develop in a way such that the amount of light and air can be controlled.  In addition, trellises allow for effective canopy management.  Vines leaves need sunlight for photosynthesis and the grape clusters benefit from solar exposure as well, but not too much.  Typically, the vine rows will be oriented to catch the maximum sunlight early in the day (so facing east), in the afternoon (facing west), or for the fullest amount of sunlight, by facing south.  Much depends on matters of aspect and slope of the land and finding the optimum exposure.

The movement of air should be facilitated so as to avoid the development of different molds, fungi, and rot and to dry the grapes after a rain.  The amount of shade can further be controlled by pulling leaves if needed.  Finally, the trellis and training should provide a fruit zone for easy maintenance and harvesting.

Not to add to the confusion, but one must bear in mind that a spur-trained vine is cane-pruned, whereas a cane-trained vine is spur-pruned.  (Vine pruning deserves its own explanation, but not here.)

Alberate training: vine and oliveVine training, which is what trellises are for, has been around since the beginning of viticulture, and was employed by the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, the Romans, and medieval monasteries.  Without trellising, grapevines will climb and cling onto anything that can be reached by their shoots, or tendrils.  Nevertheless, this is a kind of rudimentary spur training called Alberate.

The result can look like a mess, as in the case of this Sangiovese vine climbing into an olive tree, and it can be difficult to harvest the grapes or effectively treat the vines with chemicals to control pests and disease.  Nevertheless, it is very easy to maintain.  This example was found in a small vineyard-cum-olive-grove in Strada-in-Chianti, just outside Florence.

Wine produced from these grapes is, needless to say, no better than ordinary table wine at best.

Bushvine (viña en vaso)Another ancient and still widely-used untrellised vine training is called Gobelet (“goblet” or vase”), also known as bush vine (Australia). It’s history can be traced back to the ancient Romans and even the early Egyptians.  It was widely employed in California in the 19th Century and some vineyards there still carry on the practice.  It is especially popular in Spain, where it is called en vaso.  Gobelet-trained vines are head trained, which is to say spur-pruned close to the ground, as can be seen in the photo above of a 100-year-old Tempranillo vine in Rioja.  It can be either staked or allowed to grow free-standing.

One ought to bear in mind that the vine-training system does not necessarily follow the design of the trellis so much as the trellis should be selected for a given training system.  Often the training system takes the name of the trellis, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.

The trellis is merely the arrangement of the posts, stakes, and wires, while there can be multiple variations to how a given trellis is used for training.  The trellis, in other words, is merely a support for the training system.   The very simplest trellis is merely a stake in the ground to which a vine is tied with minimal training; the simplest training system is the Gobelet or vase, discussed above, which requires no trellis.

One more factor to be taken into consideration is the species and varieties that are to be trellised.  Native American vines (e.g., V. labrusca) and hybrids (vinifera x non-vinifera) tend to be down-growing, whereas V. vinifera varieties grown naturally upwards.  The training should therefore follow the natural inclinations of the vines and trellises should be chosen for their suitability to the variety.

Getting back to Wölffer’s, if one walks around the building from the patio, the first of the seven trellis samples encountered is the pergola, the origins of which are Italian, shown below:

Wolffer trellising sampler, 01The Pergola is largely found in Argentina, Italy, and Spain.  The sign tells us that its advantages are, “Shades ground in hot, arid climates to preserve moisture.  Shades fruit from direct sunlight.” (The word comes from the Late Latin pergula, or projecting eave, but comes into English usage via Italian.)  This kind of pergola (closed) is also called tendone.

It’s also good for picnics and as an ornamental device to provide shade, cover a walkway, or offer a processional path for a wedding.  Usually, for that kind of function it’s referred to as an “arbor”.

The pergola is designed for making the vines grow well in hot, arid climates, Pergola mechanical harvesterand the fruit grows directly overhead, awkward for harvesting by hand—imagine how tiring it would be—but if the fruit has been trained to hang down far enough, it is also amenable to machine harvesting, as can be seen in the diagram opposite:


Wolffer trellising sampler, 03Next is the Geneva Double Curtain / GDC (above), which, according to its sign, is found in “New York State [originally for] Concord grapes, and for table and juice grapes worldwide.”  Actually, the GDC can be used for wine grapes, but its special advantage is that grape bunches can hang free, which is desirable for table grapes.  Table grape clusters are also larger and heavier than vinifera ones, so the GDP makes more sense for those grapes.  (It is called Geneva because it was developed at the Geneva–New York–Agriculture Experimental Station in the 1960s.)

The system shown in Fig. 1 (below) utilizes a 4-foot cross arm on the trellis to double the amount of canopy per row and a single wire about 3 feet high to support the trunk. Vines are trained to alternVine training on Geneva 2-curtainate sides of the 6-foot high trellis.  Each vine has a 6-8 foot cordon (a permanent branch on either side of the main trunk, or trunks that are secured by two to four wraps around the support wire with a wire tie at its end. Each cordon has 10-12 short (4-6 bud) canes evenly spaced along its length. A renewal spur should be kept as next year’s replacement for each of the short canes.

Wolffer trellising sampler, 05The Lyre trellis is a variation on the Geneva Double Curtain and the Scott Henry (spur-training).  As the sign tells us, its use is rare (and confined to the New World), but it has the advantage of opening up the canopy.  It accommodates overly-vigorous vines that would have problems with respect to shade, by allowing good air circulation and sunlight penetration.  Vine vigor, by the way, refers to the growth of foliage or canopy.

Wolffer trellising sampler, 08The Hill Post/Mosel (or Mosel Arch) trellis is very simple.  As the sign says, “Found:  On the steep slopes in Germany and the Rhône Valley of France.  Advantage:  Supports vines on terrain that cannot be trellised [otherwise].”  Each vine has its own stake and two canes bent into a heart shape.  Cane training is used with this.

Wolffer trellises, Hi-wire cordonThe High-wire Cordon is a very simple stake-and-wire system in which the shoots are draped over the top wire to hang over and allow the fruit to hang pendulously.  It is fine for table and juice grapes and native American wine-grape varieties.  Its primary advantage is low cost and maintenance.

Wolffer trellising sampler, 13Pendelbogen (aka European Loop or Arch-Cane) is a training system that is used in Germany and Austria as well as the Northwest of the US.  It offers the advantages of easy tying and of condensing the number of shoots.  A variant of the Guyot Double system, it promotes better sap distribution with more fruit-bearing shoots consolidated on the center buds.

Wolffer trellising sampler, 12Scott Henry/Smart-Dyson are two variations on a training system that’s used most widely in Oregon and Australia.  Its advantage is that it “Opens up the canopy and improves fruit quality and yield from over-vigorous vines.”  The names are as interesting as the systems, which differ significantly from all the other trellises in the Wölffer sampler.  Smart-Dyson (S-D) is named after international viticulturist Richard Smart and John Dyson, a well-known grape grower with vineyards in New York (Millbrook) and California. Scott Henry is named for the Oregon grape grower and former aerospace engineer who developed it. Henry’s technology is basically a system of two vines in one location, one high, and one low. Smart-Dyson uses the same high-low approach, but with a single, spur-pruned cordon-trained vine.  The differences are shown in the diagrams below:

Vine trellis Smart-Dyson explained




Vine trellis Scott Henry diagram




Wolffer trellising sampler, 14

The three rows shown above represent the Meter by Meter trellis, which is found in “Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other regions of France.”  These are used for high-density (1 m. x 1 m.) plantings that are required by the AOC laws that define almost everything that is permitted in the vineyards of the various regions of France.  Such density would be highly problematic for machinery but works well for manually working the vines.

Umbrella Kniffin diagramBefore Long Island vineyards began to use Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP, discussed immediately below) most used the Umbrella Kniffin system to train the vine with a single or double trunk extending to the upper wire. After the second growing season, the vineyardist would select two or four canes growing from near the top of the trunk for arms and prune them to 10 to 20 buds. That was followed by cutting back two other canes to 2 or 3 buds for renewal spurs. The arms would be looped over the top wire, bringing them down obliquely to the bottom wire and tied. Each following winter the arms would be replaced by canes from the renewal spurs.  The system proved not to be good for harvesting the grapes, for the bunches would not be hanging at a uniform level.

The training system used in the Wölffer vineyards is called VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning)  Virtually all the vineyards in Long Island use it.  It employs a Vertical Trellis, which is essentially three wires running the length of a row.  The bottom wire is called the cordon wire, to which the trunk cordons or arms of the vine are tied, and the upper two wires are used to tie the vertical shoots.  This is ideal for vinifera varieties as they tend to grow upwards.   In the picture below, the bare canes and shoots make it easy to see how the vines are trained, in this case a double cordon, with all the shoots rising vertically.  While the VSP can be either cane or spur-trained, the version we see here is spur trained.

Wolffer Estate, VSP vines

One can see that the cordon, or part of the trunk that is trained horizontally in two directions, is tied to the bottom wire, while the shoots are trained to go vertically up, tied to the send and third wires, the topmost having been set at a height of between 60” and 70” (150 to 175 cm.)  This makes it easier to pull leaves and thin the clusters, while the fruit zone will run along the cordon level, at a level that makes it easy to either hand-pick or machine-pick the clusters at harvest time.

Wolffer VSP fruit zone The picture above shows the fruit zone as it looks when the first buds appear.

VSP is used primarily in coastal regions like Long Island where the expected vigor of the vines is low to moderate.  However, it is widely used wherever vinifera is grown, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, and New Zealand.  Nevertheless, with a bit of effort many hybrids can be trained to VSP as happens in the Hudson River Region.

As shown in the diagram at right, the fruit zone can be shaped hVine trellis diagram, VSPorizontally just above the cordon wire, with the shoot growing straight up above them so that their leaves get the best exposure to the sun, while trimming back some of the leaves that might otherwise cover the bunches in the fruit zone so that the grapes get some solar exposure.

Mechanical harvesting is possible with VSP systems and special machines are designed for this.  They are virtually the direct opposite of the pergola harvesters, which fit beneath and within the pergola.  Harvesters of this kind require very taut wires to keep the fruit at an even level; there are even computerized wire tightener machines.  (These, of course, are very expensive in the aggregate, as there must be one for each row; only very large mechanized operations can afford them).

For VSP, the machine straddles the rows and can be adjusted for the height of the fruit zone (this machine illustrated below is not used at Wölffer’s, which only uses hand harvesting):

Palmer, Merlot harvest, 14The spacing between rows is critical for using machinery.  But it’s very important for a number of other reasons.  For optimum exposure to sunlight, the height of the vines will affect the amount of sun that falls on the rows behind.  Therefore the spacing should be such that the vines’ shadows never cover the canopy or fruit zone.  Another determinant for row spacing is the use of machinery.  Rows should be wide enough to accommodate a harvester, a tractor, or any other machinery that may be used in a vineyard.  The meter by meter system is scarcely amenable to machine work, whereas the VSP system clearly is.  (Note: in Europe and elsewhere, this is usually known as the vertical trellis.)

Wolffer Estate, views, endpostsAn important part of nearly all trellis systems is the end post, usually of wood, about 4 to 6” in diameter and about 6 to 7 feet tall for VSP.  As can be seen in the picture, the end post is put in the ground to a depth of about three feet and canted away from the row it ends.  This is one approach.  The post is given further rigidity by the use of a guy wire the terminus of which is staked deeply into the ground, the better to resist the very strong pull of a properly-taut series of shoot and cordon wires.  The posts are also used for identifying the variety planted in a given row, usually with just the initial letter or two, as in CH for Chardonnay, CB for Chenin Blanc, etc.

At Wölffer’s roses are planted at the ends of each row, not merely for the obvious aesthetic result, but for the very practical reason that roses attract not just bees but other insects that also prey on vineyard pests.

The wires running from post to post and to the stakes in between will slacken and need to be tightened from time to time—to the end posts, not the stakes.  There are even special tools for that.  The vines are then tied to the wires—trained vineyard workers are needed for that.

It should be apparent that the preparation and planting of a vineyard is very demanding of time, expense, and labor.  Preparing the ground first is a topic worth discussing separately, but it isn’t necessarily visible to the casual eye.  The trellis, laden with its vines and fruit, is the most visible component of the vineyard.  The maintenance of the vines is itself only visible when a visitor sees workers or machines in the rows, spraying, thinning, harvesting, and so on.  It is one of the most demanding forms of horticulture that there is, but the rewards, in the form of the wine made from the fruit grown in the vineyard and the money to be made from its sale make it all worth the effort.

It is for these reasons that a skilled and experienced vineyard manager is needed to obtain the best fruit possible from so elaborate a system.

While the trellis and training systems shown and discussed above include the most important and widely-used, there are far more than this.  Others are, for the most part, merely variations on the themes set out above.


Cornell University Cooperative Extension Nassau County, “Home Grounds Fact Sheet-Grapes:  Culture and Pruning.”  January 2009.  This is a downloadable PDF that focuses on using the Four-Armed Kniffin and Umbrella Kniffin systems.

Cox, Jeff.  From Vines to Wines:  The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine.  North Adams, MA:  Storey Press, 1999.

Robinson, Jancis, MW, editor.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Stevenson, Tom.  The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia:  The Classic Reference to the Wines of the World, 5th edition.  New York:  Dorling Kindersley, 2011.

See also my post on Wölffer Estate, published in July 2013.