The "Craziest" Vineyard Manager I've Met is Also One of the Smartest
“That man is crazy.”
Admittedly, this comment intrigued me enough to distract a near devouring of lunch. It’s not often that you hear a sales and marketing representative say this about a vineyard manager. Typically, it’s all sunshine and rainbows and a font of positivity. Trying to put their best foot forward in front of a sea of journalists, winemakers and other influential industry reps, marketing directors don’t usually say that the man in charge of producing world-class grapes is a little nuts.
I lifted my head from the flake steak and potatoes, completely forgetting my meal, and turned to him with a quizzical look, waiting for him to elaborate.
“He convinced the owners to replant 500 hectares of the 600 hectares in five years.”
Well, damn. That is crazy. How on earth did he manage to do that?
The basic principle of any vineyard business is that you tend to the grapes the best you can and, to make enough money to foot the whole venture, you either sell them to a winemaker, hand them off to an in-house winemaker, or you make the wine itself. It’s simple. To do this, you have to have a good supply of grapes. Ripping out 83 percent of your vineyard seems a bit counter-intuitive to a sound business model. I can’t think of many owners or presidents willing to do such a thing unless there was a very, very good reason.
So what was Eduardo Alemparte’s reason?
Well, it’s not the only reason, and Alemparte is quick to thank this tiny little pest for helping him discover that his vineyards were in need of a very drastic refresh. Because of the bug, which actually did very little harm to the plant, he discovered vineyard soils were too heavily compacted and that, coupled with a desire to fix row orientation, do cover crop trials and replant to more profitable and better-suited grapes, was reason enough to begin a five-phase and more than $20 million project to replant more than 80 percent of Vina Santa Rita’s vines.
About five or so years ago, Alemparte was studying his soils and found a very tiny, very dormant bug. It burrows in it’s <1 cm orange cyst cocoon for up to 20 years, comes back up to the surface to breed and then burrows again for another decades-long dormant period. When it’s crushed, a very strong burnt hair aroma is emitted. It’s native to the area, and by all accounts, it is impossible to eradicate.
In the Alto Maipo Valley Santa Rita has more than 3,000 hectares planted, but it was a section of 600 or so hectares that consistently underperformed. When the pest was discovered, many thought that it was the reason for the less-than-optimal quality of its grapes. Alemparte started digging soil pits, trying to discover just how far the Marigadores has spread.
What it revealed was even more concerning: soil compaction and poor rootstock. It also revealed an opportunity; the chance to create healthier soils, find suitable cover crops and plant varieties and clones that were far better matched to the region.
This was Alemparte’s chance to become a true master of his vineyards. Once he convinced the owners that it was necessary to pull the vines, he got to work studying cover crops, rootstock, how water moves through the soil, how deep the roots will penetrate, etc.
Soil compaction stirs fear in viticulturists hearts because it creates tight, dense soils which stop roots from driving deeper into the ground where they can soak up natural nutrients and groundwater. This, especially in drought years, can affect water storage and lead to poor berry development. In wet years, there isn’t enough air in the soil, leading to increased loss of nitrate-nitrogen to the atmosphere—Nitrogen is something vines desperately need to correctly develop.
After finding some new rootstock, one of the first steps Alemparte took to fix the issue was dig soil pits across the property to watch how far below the surface roots reached. These ingenious soil pits had glass windows which allowed him and his team to actively watch growth.
Cover crops were the next step in fighting compaction. Part of the reason why mustard is so commonly seen in vineyards is because it does a great job of creating organic matter, breaking up hardpan and suppressing weeds. Once mustard roots dig far enough, it releases sulphuric acid, which is a great, organic way of controlling and killing nematodes, another common vineyard pest. But it isn’t necessarily the best cover for every vineyard. Alemparte planted nearly 20 different varieties of legumes, mustard and oat to see which had the best effects on root depth and how much compaction was reduced.
The Future of Grape Growing in Chile
Like wine-growing regions around the world, Chileans are concerned with the future of labor. When thinking about how to replant the vineyard, Alemparte was quick to make sure that rows were spaced at least 2 meters apart—the perfect distance for mechanical farming equipment to make passes each season.
Part of the effort to reduce labor was changing the row orientation with a 45-degree turn to the west on a north-south orientation. By doing so, grapes were given even sun orientation and vineyard workers would not need to perform canopy leafing.
It will be five years before the vines are mature enough to produce high-quality grapes, and six years before the vineyard is fully planted again. Until then, Santa Rita will purchase grapes for its larger brands, waiting for the fruits of its labors are ready. While the decision to replant such a large number of vines will affect production for years, ultimately the decision is well worth it, according to Alemparte. His only goal is to tend to a healthy, happy vineyard that will produce outstanding fruit for many years to come.