Wine is an easy thing to romanticize and glamorize: lush vineyards, ripe fruit and, of course, the way a glass or two makes you feel. Every time you open a bottle of wine, though, you’re uncorking three or more years of hard work – including the skilled, labor-intensive agricultural work of grape growers.
“After the vineyards are established, we only get one chance a year – the grapes only come once a year,” says Jacob Holman, winemaker and new co-owner of Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, Missouri. “It’s not like with brewing or distilling, where you can produce year-round; we have from August to October to get the grapes processed properly and make wine. And if we do something wrong, we wait until next year.”
Long before grapes are crushed and their juice is fermented and bottled, it takes diligent care and attention to grow great wine grapes – and that’s with established grapevines. If the vineyard is new, it will take three years before the first grape harvest.
At every stage of growth, year after year, vines require constant maintenance, from pruning and leaf thinning to irrigation and protection from pests and disease. Grape growers don’t simply want to yield fruit: They need fruit with a specific sugar content, also known as a Brix measurement, balanced with acid, to produce quality wine.
That’s where Nick Pehle comes in. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural systems management and agricultural economics from the University of Missouri in 2000, Pehle spent 18 years managing vineyards for two of the biggest wineries in Missouri. His first gig out of school was as vineyard manager at Les Bourgeois, where he worked for almost seven years before moving on to the same position at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann for nearly 11 years. For the past two years, Pehle has been working for himself, consulting with grape growers across Missouri, Kansas and Iowa through his company, Midwest Vineyard Consulting.
Pehle was already regularly fielding calls and questions from grape growers across the state when he left Stone Hill. What started as friendly advice with maybe a six-pack of beer for his efforts has turned into a full-fledged business, servicing 32 local wineries and managing more than 160 acres of wine grapes collectively. His clients are scattered all across the region, from Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann to Aubrey Vineyards in Overland Park, Kansas.
Some of his clients, like Les Bourgeois, are large enough that his work for them is fairly straightforward – schedules and programs for spraying, plans for fertilizing fields and routine pruning, leaf and shoot thinning and shoot positioning. Other clients, however, are new to the grape-growing business altogether and require assistance getting their vineyards established. Pehle enjoys all of the work, but he especially appreciates the opportunity to set new operations up for success.
“It’s super rewarding to me when I can go in, and sometimes in as little as an hour, totally change the vineyard around in a way where they were losing money before and now they’ll be making money,” Pehle says. “It can be just one or two little things that turns their crop around year after year – it’s just that nobody has told them and there’s nowhere to go to learn.”
Like any consultant worth his salt, Pehle brings not just years of professional experience to his clients, but also a personal passion for the work. He’s grown his own Chambourcin and Vignoles – two wine grape varietals that grow exceptionally well in Missouri – on his family farm for 20 years.
Located between New Haven and Hermann in one of the state’s richest wine regions, Pehle and his wife and children live just down the road from his parents and the nearby sheds and hog houses his grandfather used to tend. Inside one of those sheds is where Pehle keeps a crucial component of his consulting business: a blue and white VMECH – which stands for vineyard mechanization – a mechanical grape pruner, leaf thinner, shoot positioner and shoot thinner.
Mechanical vineyard maintenance and grape harvesting have been common practice for decades, yet the sophisticated equipment required is still extremely expensive, making it cost prohibitive for many smaller vineyards. Even larger wineries like Les Bourgeois are just now transitioning their vineyards for mechanical pruning, thanks to Pehle’s mobile services.
“Vineyard mechanization really saves on labor, and when you get the tasks done efficiently, wine quality goes way up,” Pehle says. “What I’ve been focusing on are the four different processes in the vineyard that require the most labor: pruning, leaf thinning, shoot thinning and shoot positioning.”
Not only does Pehle’s business make these essential vineyard maintenance services available to a broader audience, but his machine is rare. Typically, VMECHs must be operated by three people, with one person pulling the VMECH on a tractor and two others running the machine’s arms through the vineyard. Having worked with several VMECH models over his years in the industry, Pehle gained access to a prototype for a new pruning, shoot thinning and leaf-thinning machine that was designed to be operated by one person.
“Mine’s unique because I can drive the tractor and operate the machine all by myself, so it’s a one-man operation,” Pehle says. “I can easily haul it around to vineyards, especially small vineyards, and use it. The machine that [VMECH] commercially sells requires three people, it’s like twice as long and it’s not very easily portable.”
Ultimately, the prototype wasn’t refined and taken to market, but Pehle saw the potential, and asked to buy it from VMECH. He has since been able to retrofit his machine with an arm that fits his tractor for shoot positioning in addition to the shoot-thinning, pruning and leaf-thinning arms, building a grape maintenance machine unlike any other out there. “No one sells that,” he says with a smile.
With so many clients spread out across the region and limited time in the growing season to address each cycle of maintenance in the vineyard, Pehle spends a lot of time on the road. During pruning season, from late winter to early spring, he sometimes works 12 hours a day, seven days a week for almost a month straight. If he’s working a job somewhat close to his home, he’ll drive back at night. If not, he’ll sleep in his truck, spending the hours before bed answering consulting questions over email. Pehle works with two full-time employees and a few part-timers to help him plant and install vineyards, build trellises, install irrigation, help with harvest, mow grass, work on equipment, remove diseased vineyards and touch up pruning. But when it comes to his VMECH, given the cost and value of the unique piece of machinery, he wants to be the one driving it.
Vineyard mechanization and the ability to customize it to different client needs makes up the majority of Pehle’s consulting business; his other big focus in the spring is installing and planting new vineyards. Sometimes this is the result of Pehle putting together a prospectus on the cost and labor associated with opening a new vineyard. In those cases, he arranges a site visit for the land intended for the vineyard and estimates what it will cost to get off the ground.
“Most people pay me my [initial] fee and are like, ‘See you later!’” he says with a laugh. “But it’s much cheaper to pay me a couple thousand dollars up front than to invest $80,000 and realize that it’s a nightmare. Always get your consulting before you start, because once the vines are planted, it’s too late. If it’s a bad site or if your soil needs a lot of fertilizer, it’s too late, because all the posts are in and you can’t incorporate organic matter. It’s hard to adjust your pH. For a lot of people, it’s their retirement, but [grape growing is] a terrible retirement plan. They’ll say, ‘We had no idea it was so much labor.’”
Pehle emphasizes that he doesn’t want to scare people away from growing grapes, but rather, make sure they have no illusions about the cost, labor and time investment needed to maintain a successful vineyard.
“A lot of people get into the winery or vineyard business because they think it’s something that it’s not,” Pehle says. “No one would retire from a factory and say, ‘I’m going to be a row-crop farmer,’ because there’s a ton more information about being a row-crop farmer out there than there is for being a grape farmer. Most row croppers, their dad was a row cropper; [growing grapes] isn’t a skill that’s been passed on from their dad, granddad. And growing grapes is 10 times harder and 10 times more labor intensive.”
If clients aren’t scared away by the work and expense, Pehle says that installing a vineyard is fairly straightforward: site selection, pre-planting ground work, soil amendments, trellis installation, planting, ground cover and installing drip irrigation. He also works hard to connect new growers with wineries to buy their fruit, as Pehle’s reputation and recommendation goes a long way in the local industry.
“I’ll call around to the wineries and say, ‘Hey, do you need any Norton? Because this guy I’m working with has 10 extra tons. It’s someone I worked with all year and a vineyard I’ve been in four or five times and the fruit looks great,’” Pehle says. “I’ve been telling all of these smaller grape growers, ‘You need to grow the best grapes you can, and then after harvest, follow up with a winemaker and ask them how your grapes were and what can I do differently?’ I’m trying to build relationships between the wineries and the vineyards, and that’s how everybody gets the best of what they want.”
For established vineyards like Les Bourgeois, Pehle’s work is often focused on vineyard renewal, which typically means working on soil health and applying fertilizer, in addition to retraining trunks, cordons and trellis work. In winter, old existing trunks and cordons are cut down and replaced with new ones saved from the previous summer. These shoots, called suckers, were purposely placed near the ground to avoid trunk diseases and help rejuvenate old, crooked vines. At Les Bourgeois, Holman has been working on and off with Pehle for more than a decade. When Pehle began consulting full time, Holman was one of his first calls.
“Our vineyards are aging, and it was time to do a bunch of renewing,” Holman says. “And I know that Nick is not only talented at viticulture, he’s also talented at logistics and how to get things done in a timely manner, so I knew he’d be a perfect fit for what we were trying to do. Now he comes every Tuesday and basically sets the workload for the week, checks on progress from the previous week, and then the bigger picture stuff, as far as looking at our soil samples and providing schedules, and then it’s up to the vineyard staff to carry that through. We meet and go over the plan, where he’d like to be, and if we don’t get there, we reconfigure.”
Another challenge for established vineyards is transitioning from manual labor to mechanical. Pehle and the team at Les Bourgeois spent this past winter preparing the vineyards for just that, and will continue throughout this year so that come next summer, the vineyards will be fully transitioned. Pehle has also updated and refined the spray and fertilizer schedules for Les Bourgeois, which Holman says should also help yield healthier vines and soil.
“If the vines aren’t getting the proper nutrients, then no matter what you do, training-wise, they’re not going to be as fruitful,” Holman says. “I think Nick’s knowledge in that is going to be the most beneficial to us, and we can already see that it’s helping.”
Driving up to Pehle’s property, the first thing you’ll notice is one of his Chambourcin blocks. Unfortunately, the vines in one block will soon be uprooted after two decades, as they’re infected with red-blotch virus. Grapevines are vulnerable to more than 20 untreatable viruses, and if they catch one, the best solution is to pull them up.
“Red-blotch disease results in delayed berry ripening, altered berry color and a smaller berry size,” Pehle says. “It adversely affects pH, anthocyanin levels, tannin levels and other factors that reduce the quality and market value of grapes. Sugar accumulation may be significantly reduced, typically dropping by three degrees Brix and dropping by as much as six degrees Brix in some varieties.”
Most grape experts believe that, in general, the majority of grapevines infected with viruses were likely sold and planted this way. Growers aren't always aware of the diseases, though, as it can sometimes take years for symptoms to present themselves, and even then, tissue samples must be sent away for testing. Virus diagnosis occurs in the summer, and removal is performed in the winter. Before more was known about viruses, grape growers would commonly attribute these symptoms to other causes, becoming increasingly frustrated when no solution led to improvement.
Diagnosing viruses and removing vines is a small part of Pehle's work for growers through Midwest Vineyard Consulting; it’s usually how he spends the month of November, his one “slow” time of year. The ability to diagnose these diseases is valuable to growers and winemakers, even if the solution – uprooting the vines – is not ideal.
“I like the diagnostic part because it’s a challenge,” Pehle says. “People call me like, ‘Hey Nick, so-and-so has looked at it and we don’t know what it is.’ And I go out there and kind of play detective; I look at the leaves, the ground. Sometimes I still have to Google stuff. Other times, I just know that it’s downy mildew, and tell them, ‘You need to spray this.’ I love going around and helping people.”
Although there’s no cure for vines infected with viruses, researchers in the National Clean Plant Network are currently working on a solution: certified virus-free grapevines. These vines are currently being presold to growers and will be available in 2020; Pehle has already steered several clients in that direction.
Pehle will soon replace his infected Chambourcin block with Aromella, a varietal developed at Cornell – a likely but not yet certified virus-free vine – with floral aromas and flavor characteristics similar to Muscat. This is another facet of his consulting business: Researching new and native grapes to recommend to clients. For decades, grape varietals like Chambourcin, Chardonel and Vignoles have dominated the Missouri wine industry, as they grow well in our climate. Most of them, like Aromella, are hybrid grapes: crosses between more sensitive European varieties and hardier American native grapes.
Native vines like Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia are naturally resistant to harsh temperatures, rain and other weather conditions and pests. Grapes with these vine parentages like Wetumpka, with a grapey aroma and high acidity, and Cloeta, jet-black in color with soft tannins, are rarely grown in the U.S. today. Vox Vineyards in the Kansas City area has pioneered reviving these grapes for winemaking in Missouri, and soon, Bourgmont Winery in Bucyrus, Kansas, will be doing the same. Pehle has been researching native varieties as well as rarer varietals from around the world for Bourgmont, which had been growing grapes for almost a decade before halting operations to shift to this new focus.
“[Planting unusual and native grapes is] something these small wineries can do and adapt a lot faster than large wineries,” Pehle says. “I’m excited that some of these smaller guys are going to get a little more of an edge and can maybe be a little more competitive.”
And Pehle knows what it takes to be competitive. During his time at Stone Hill, the winery won numerous Governor’s Cups for wines made with grapes grown by Pehle and his team. With his consulting work, he wants to improve the quality of fruit for all of his clients, and in turn, for the local wine industry in general. Awards aren’t why Pehle loves the work, though. At heart, he’s a farmer, and his passion is growing exceptional wine grapes, no matter the vineyard.
“He took a leap of faith – it’s not the same kind of work as just taking a paycheck at an established winery,” Holman says. “He has to put a lot of hard work in and a lot of long days, but he’s been able to do that, and I think he’s making a big difference in the industry.”
Midwest Vineyard Consulting, midwestvineyard.com