Alice and Libby planting vines in 2006.


Starting a vineyard

Site selection and preparation      
Vineyard timeline
Business and finance Nutrient testing
Development of a vineyard and winery Varieties and rootstock

Site selection and preparation

There are climatic benchmarks for grapevines as varieties differ in their time of ripening and their need for heat. The East End of Long Island's growing season ranges from 200-220 frost free days with the season on the North Fork on the higher end of that range. Growing degree days, an agricultural measure of heat accumulation through a season, averages around 3300 in Riverhead (base 50ºF). This is sufficient to grow classical Bordeaux winegrapes such as Merlot. The CCE-SC Insect & Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab records growing degree days, precipitation and evapotranspiration through the growing season. Click here to see current and previous records.

The East End of Long Island offers a hospitable environment for vinifera winegrapes due to its relatively warm winters and long growing season. Many sites on the North Fork are suitable for grapes. The specific parcel under consideration should have a minimum of low spots. Cold air drains to low spots, rendering vines more vulnerable to spring frost and winter injury. Due to erosion, low spots also tend to have deep soils that hold a lot of water. These areas tend to grow rank, unproductive vines.

If looking at property west of Riverhead, consider that temperatures in the more interior areas of Long Island are less moderated by water. These areas warm up more quickly in the spring, causing vines to break bud earlier than those on the Forks. While theoretically a longer growing season is desirable, vines that have swollen buds or that break bud in early to mid-April may be susceptible to frost injury. It is critical to know the date of last hard frost in the spring for areas west of Riverhead and the more interior sections of Long Island. There are wine regions worldwide who deal with the threat of frost with large wind machines (Ontario) and extensive built-in heating systems (northern parts of Burgundy). Without these measures, regular losses to spring frost would occur.

In addition, more interior areas of Long Island will experience lower winter temperatures than along the coast and on the Forks. This is important as vinifera grapevines may suffer injury when temperatures dip to 0-5ºF. Below that range, injury to grape buds and/or trunks is likely. Fortunately, these temperatures are rare on the East End. However, it is wise to determine winter low temperatures prior to choosing a site. It is possible to grow grapevines in cold regions through the use of more cold tolerant varieties and/or through management techniques such as hilling soil around the base of the vine and burying canes annually. These techniques can be costly however.

Typical East End vineyard soils include Haven and Riverhead soil series. Grapevines tolerate a wide variety of soils as long as they are well drained. Heavy, wet soils are not suitable for grapevines. Conversely, very sandy soils present management challenges that must be addressed. Specific soil maps of a property can be obtained from the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Suffolk County Soil and Water District in Riverhead, 631.727.2315. Soil information is also available on-line, see the sidebar on the upper left of this page. It is important to thoroughly understand potential vineyard soils in order to prepare the site and to properly match varieties and rootstocks to the site.

Site preparation is a very important investment in long term vine health. Skimping on good site preparation can cause future headaches. Practices include thorough soil testing to determine pH and nutrient status; subsoiling to loosen soil, particularly any hardpan that may impede drainage; addition of organic matter to sandy soils to improve soil water holding capacity and nutrient retention; addition of lime to increase soil pH to >6.0, absolutely necessary for vinifera varieties; if necessary, addition of potassium and other nutrients; and the planting and maintenance of one or more cover crops the year prior to planting to improve soil organic matter and biological properties.

Business and finance

Three Cornell publications address development of a business plan and costs.

  1. Writing a Small Business Plan: An Example for Small Premium Wineries, 2002, provides a general overview. Note that this addresses the issue from a Finger Lakes perspective.
  2. Writing a Small Business Plan: A Guide for Small Premium Wineries, 2002
  3. Cost of Establishment and Production of Vinifera Grapes in the Finger Lakes Region of New York - 2010

There is a chapter on cost of production in the Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America edited by Tony Wolf at Virginia Tech. Go to the Grape and Wine Resources page on this website for a link to purchase.

Local consultants are the best source of information on costs associated with starting a business. There are several vineyard management firms as well as individual consultants that can provide assistance. Generally, an acre of grapes will cost >$15,000 to prepare the site, plant vines and install a trellis. This figure does not include the cost of the land. The exact cost will vary widely depending on degree of site preparation necessary, the density of the planting, variety/rootstock, and the type of trellis materials chosen. Note that drip irrigation, which is highly recommended, and deer fence represent additional significant costs. While it is sometimes difficult to understand why vineyards are so costly, consider that for 8x4 spacing, more than 1300 vines are required per acre. The cost of vineyard posts, wire, anchors, irrigation supplies, ties, grow tubes and other supplies is substantial.

Development of a vineyard and winery plan

Those interested in planting a vineyard can obtain basic information from Cornell Cooperative Extension. They then typically hire an industry consultant to discuss their specific interests and to visit other businesses. Sometimes people visit other wine regions for inspiration. After digesting all of this information, it is essential for those without agricultural experience to work with an experienced vineyard manager or consultant to develop a specific technical plan for the vineyard. This will help to avoid many of the pitfalls that can occur. For example, rows must be straight to accommodate the many implements that are necessary to manage a vineyard. This is accomplished with a laser planter. If rows are jagged, damage to vines and/or the implements will occur as vine trunks and posts protrude. Another common mistake is to avoid addressing soil problems such as compaction, erosion and low soil organic matter. Once a vineyard is installed, it is more difficult and expensive to correct some of these soil problems.

To develop a thoughtful winery plan, the advice of an experienced winemaker is essential. The making and marketing of wine is very complex and involves a great deal of regulatory compliance. In addition to having your own vineyard and winery, there are several additional options for winemaking on Long Island. Existing wineries frequently make one or more wines for another producer. Many businesses also make wine at Premium Wine Group, a custom winemaking facility in Mattituck. They have clients with very small to very large vineyards and can provide a full array of consulting and services. The advantage to the latter two options is economics - the cost of properly constructing and outfitting a winery can be substantial.

Too often grape varieties are chosen, then years down the road, decisions are made on the types of wine that can be made. The selection of a variety should be made in tandem with decisions on the types and styles of wines that one desires to make. The two are inextricably linked, it is common sense to coordinate these important decisions.

Beyond winemaking goals, there must be sufficient heat to properly ripen the fruit. Varieties suited to warm regions of California and the Mediterranean, for example, may have difficulty reaching their full potential on Long Island.

Merlot and Chardonnay are currently the two most widely planted varieties on Long Island. Increasingly, growers are diversifying their vineyards in order to explore new wine styles and blending options. The range of varieties planted locally can be viewed on the website of the Long Island Wine Council, or by visiting the websites of individual wineries. In addition, a variety trial has been in place at the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center since 1993. The most current research report on this trial may be accessed through the section on this website titled Grape Research on Long Island.

The purchase of vines is best done with the advice of a consultant. They have experience dealing with grapevine nurseries and often have established relationships with these businesses. Commercial vineyards order vines primarily from well-established nurseries in upstate NY and California. Ordering vines must be done as far ahead as possible for several reasons. First, budwood (the desired variety) is grafted onto a rootstock and field grown for a year. After that season, the baby vines are dug, put into cold storage then shipped to their destination the following spring. Also, it is likely that the order will be custom grafted for you, requiring the nursery to source both budwood and roostock. Sometimes 2-3 years is required to get specific plant material. Very rarely, a quantity of vines may be available if someone has recently canceled their order.

Vineyard timeline

A year or more prior to planting, the following should be accomplished:

  1. Prepare the site - Lime in particular requires time to change the soil pH. Major nutrient imbalances will occur if vines are planted immediately after a large application of lime. Cover crops and/or organic matter additions should be done. Subsoiling is best done at this time as well.
  2. Decide on variety/rootstocks - Determined by the characteristics and soil of the site, owner interest, marketing plan.
  3. Design the vineyard - This determines the number of vines and amount of trellis required. The density of the vineyard planting is both an economic and a wine quality consideration. Densities used in recent plantings have 6-8 ft. between rows and 3-5 ft. between vines within a row. Site and soil characteristics and variety/rootstock factor into density decisions.
  4. Order vines - Note that almost all commercial vineyards are now planted with a precision laser planter to ensure straight rows.
  5. Order trellis materials - Costs have escalated in recent years, it pays to shop around.
  6. Plan for irrigation and deer fencing if necessary - Even if permanent irrigation is not installed, there must be some type of irrigation available to water young vines. As deer populations continue to increase, many growers have installed deer fence. Neither of these items should be considered frivolous, they are required for economic yields of high quality fruit.
  7. Work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District(both at 631.727.2315) on a conservation plan including any erosion control issues. They also facilitate a number of cost sharing programs though the exact offerings vary from year to year. They can provide a detailed soil map of a property. Alternatively, soil information can be accessed on-line at NRCS's Web Soil Survey.
  8. Join the Long Island Farm Bureau (631.727.3777) and the Long Island Wine Council (631.722.2220), the local advocacy groups for vineyards and wineries. The NY Wine & Grape Foundation and NY Farm Bureau represent growers statewide.
  9. Research and invest in vineyard equipment - It is highly worthwhile to purchase exactly the right equipment needed, to research what can be shared with other businesses or what can be rented locally. The minimum required would include a narrow tractor of sufficient horsepower to run implements, a sprayer for pesticide application, another for under trellis herbicide application (currently, several vineyards are mowing under the trellis as an alternative type of weed control) and a row middle mower. Established vineyards also regularly use implements that hedge the tops and sides of the canopy, implements to remove leaves in the cluster zone, one or more golf carts or ATV's for in-vineyard transportation and an implement for application and removal of protective bird netting. Some implements may be rented locally and/or shared with a neighbor. Thoughtful planning is essential to find the most useful equipment and avoid costly mistakes.

Nutrient testing

Thorough soil analysis of the prospective vineyard site is absolutely necessary to determine the need for lime, organic matter and nutrients. This involves multiple samples of the unique areas of a site (different landscapes, different soil types etc.). Some managers like to take both topsoil and subsoil samples. Thereafter, soil analysis is done every few years or more often if necessary. After vines are planted, one method used to monitor grapevine health and vineyard performance is nutrient testing of tissue. There is disagreement as to whether petioles (leaf stems) or leaves should be sampled for nutrient testing. The testing lab will specify which one to collect.

There are several labs used by commercial growers and advanced home growers. Dairy One provides soil and tissue testing. Results are accompanied by recommendations from Cornell. At the Dairy One website, look under Analytical Services then Agronomy Services for more information. Other labs commonly used by grape growers include Waypoint Analytical Lab (formerly A & L Eastern Laboratory). Samples are commonly sent to the Richmond, VA location. Some growers use the testing services of Kinsey Agricultural Services, Charleston, MO. We offer these as suggestions only, no endorsement is implied, nor have other labs been intentionally excluded.

Varieties and rootstocks


Merlot and Chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties in the industry. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are also popular. Recent plantings have been in Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Ottonel, Albariño, Gruner Veltliner, Malbec, Petit Verdot and others. See the Long Island Wine Council website, for a complete list of varieties grown on Long Island. In the LIHREC research vineyard, we are evaluating a hybrid, Marquette, and a numbered selection from the Cornell University grape breeding program for their degree of disease tolerance and fruit quality under Long Island conditions.

Exploration of alternative winegrape varieties is discussed in the following articles.
Alternative white winegrape varieties Updated 2020
Alternative red winegrape varieties Updated 2020

 The National Grape Registry contains information about varieties of wine, juice, table grapes, and grape rootstocks available in the United States. Growers can find background information and source contacts for varieties.

The most commonly used rootstocks for winegrapes are C3309, MG101-14, Riparia Gloire, 5C and SO4. Matching the scion (variety) to the rootstock to the site is very important as vine performance is heavily influenced by the site.


Alice Wise
Viticulture Research

Last updated May 1, 2020