It always seems to me that the more you learn about something the more you realize you don’t know. Preparing to plant our first vineyard at Timber Butte has been another one of those humbling experiences. Over a year ago I decided to prepare a series of terraces adjacent to our root cellar for a future vineyard (see entry #106). I realized at the time that we knew nothing of grapes and vineyards except for the fact that they needed plenty of sun to thrive. Just as the many things we have been learning to do at Timber Butte Homestead, I decided to cross the “vintner” bridge when I came to it – which I figured would be the following spring. As always, time flies and the following spring has now sprung upon us so Nancy and I took a two day road trip to central Washington to visit “Inland Desert Nursery.” We went there to buy grapevines and get a few basic pointers from a real vintner named Tom Judkins. Our experience was far beyond our expectations.
Nancy had called ahead and shared our need with Tom’s son Jerry who was more than helpful, especially considering the size of our order. Taking into account our elevation and climatic zone as well as our desire to grow both table and wine grapes Jerry suggested the hardiest varieties for our area. After their short conversation we concluded it would be worth our while to make the five hour drive to pick up our small order so we could get a little more firsthand instruction on planting and care. Inland Desert Nursery generally only deals with larger commercial operations but was willing to sell us just thirty bare root vines.
Following our GPS we were led several miles out of Benton, Washington through acres of vineyards and fruit orchards until we were told by the mechanical British voice on the GPS (we fondly refer to as Roger) that we had reached our destination on a dirt road in the middle of a vineyard. There wasn’t a building in sight. After a quick phone call Tom Judkins’ daughter Kim guided us to a series of structures where dozens of workers were industriously preparing what looked to be hundreds of large commercial orders for the spring planting. In the scheme of things we felt really insignificant knowing how small our order had been.
The morning air was cold and breezy as we stepped out of our car and I think we must have looked a little disorientated as we tried to figure out where to go and who to talk to. It was then that a kind Hispanic lady approached us and asked us if we were there to pick up an order. Realizing our confusion she led us into a nearby green house where we met Tom for the first time. He immediately recognized us as rookies but treated us as if we were buyers preparing to plant a hundred acre vineyard. We weren’t expecting anything like the help and attention we received for the next hour. He took us all through his operation showing us the different growing techniques and new types of grapevines his family was experimenting with. He had a passion for his work and his easy manner gave us an appreciation and excitement to learn as much as we could in our short time with him. He loaded us in a pickup with his chocolate lab, Harvey, and drove us out into a young vineyard to teach us about constructing trellises and irrigation systems. He patiently answered our plethora of questions concerning soil condition, vine planting, pruning and watering. Had I realized we’d be having such a great educational experience I would have brought a notebook to take notes or figured out some other means of retaining all that we were learning. As it was, I made a simple diagram that evening in hopes of reminding myself of some of the simple things I observed.
I can’t imagine Tom would have the time to spend with every customer that he did with us that morning, but for Nancy and me the time he gave us was a rich blessing. We headed back to our home in Idaho with our heads full of new information and our hearts enriched because of the time we experienced with someone who loved working the land as much as we do.
Arriving back at Timber Butte that evening we were welcomed by Lily, our golden lab, and Sally, a young friend from England who had been watching the homestead in our absence. After hearing of our adventure Sally volunteered to stay over and help us plant these first vines the next morning.
In the days to come I will chronicle here on the Timber Butte Homestead site our step by step progress growing this first small vineyard for anyone who may be considering doing the same. I will share as well as I can the experiences we are having and the few things we have learned which are basic and crucial to the success of a productive vineyard.