WCBN-50-3-Managing-vineyards31by Sally Colby
From the time she was in high school, Sadie Drury knew she wanted to work outside. She trained horses for a while, and then decided to pursue another career path — one that would allow her to work outdoors.
“I was born and raised in Walla Walla, and had done a little bit of wine tasting,” said Sadie. “I thought, ‘I could do this’. It was through an enology program that I fell in love with wine and the art of growing wine grapes.”
Today, Sadie works as a viticulture manager for North Slope Management, and manages five of the 10 vineyards associated with SeVein Vineyards. “SeVien is a trademark name for a project here,” she said. “We have grape land for people to purchase and develop into vineyards. Everything for the infrastructure is in place.”
Since water is a critical aspect of growing grapes in the west, Sadie explained that once water rights are in place for a property, it’s important to continue using water for crops so that those rights are not forfeited. “Any land that isn’t planted in a vineyard has other crops on it,” she said. “If the ground was left barren, we’d have a lot of weed problems, and the crops help improve the soil. This year we used Austrian winter peas and triticale. We’ve also grown wheat, alfalfa, squash, pumpkins and safflower. We might use mustard because it’s a biofumigant for nematodes, but I want to find out more about it first.”
The concept of using a biofumigant is important because the vineyards are all certified sustainable and no chemical fumigants are used. Alternatives such as biofumigants are the next best option to manage nematodes or soil-borne pathogens. Sadie says many of the grape cultivars that produce high-end wines grow well in the Walla Walla AVA and in Washington State. “Cab is king,” she said. “We also have quite a bit of Merlot, some Syrah and some other varietals.”
Prior to establishing vines, soil tests determine what kind of amendments should be made. Drip irrigation and fertigation keep young vines growing consistently. “We apply all of our nutrients through fertigation unless we’re doing some micronutrient sprays,” said Sadie. “We do that shortly after bud break and before bloom. It depends on the needs of the block or the vineyard.”
Irrigation is one of the most important tasks for Sadie to manage. “2015 was really hot and dry,” she said. “Between May, June and July, we had more than 21 days over 100 degrees. That makes for a challenging year because we couldn’t let our guard down and skip a watering day if the grapes needed it. We practice deficit irrigation, and our goal is not to overwater. But when it’s 100 degrees, we can’t skip a day and get behind. We also had to deal with the pests and weeds that come with high heat.” Weather conditions throughout 2015 meant that harvest started about two weeks early. “We had never harvested before Labor Day,” said Sadie. “This year we started on September 24.”
One vineyard Sadie manages includes 170 acres of vines and markets grapes to more than 30 wineries. She says some winemakers like to be involved with vineyard management decisions and remain in close contact with her throughout the growing season, while others wait until harvest to work directly with her. “We have winemakers who come out to the vineyard twice a week, and are involved in every aspect of growing, and some who say ‘grow me the best grapes and I’ll see you at harvest,’” she said. “Everything I do out here is mitigating; making it happen for the winemaker.”
Sadie explains that as harvest approaches, she tries to schedule picking about a week out. “I have a good idea of what we’ll be picking on a certain day,” she said. “During the growing season, I can have a great plan, but it doesn’t take much to change it. Equipment breaks down or the weather doesn’t allow us to go out and work. But we always try to adjust to what the winemaker needs.”
Throughout the year, Sadie works closely with vineyard foreman Lupe Gomez, who has more than 20 years of vineyard experience. “He’s the person I rely on to direct the crews working in the vineyard,” she said. “I walk around and talk with the crews in the vineyard, but I don’t get involved in telling anyone what to do. It’s a lot easier if I can take my questions and concerns to Lupe. They (the workers) respect him and it’s easier to not have two voices out in the field.”
As part of her formal education, Sadie served as a viticulture intern at Ciel Du Cheval, a vineyard on Red Mountain. “I ended up staying there for five years,” she said, “learning as much as I could about growing very high-quality grapes, managing people and working with winemakers.” Sadie credits mentors, including Ciel Du Cheval owner Jim Holmes, for teaching her so much about the industry and preparing her for the work she’s doing today.
Sadie realized that some of the work she’d do as an intern might be boring and repetitious. “But that’s what internships are,” she said. “I did a lot of crop estimates, I dug a lot of holes, worked on site soil projects, and did a lot of scouting. It was everything I wanted it to be – being outdoors and dirty, and learning how to farm.”
For someone considering a career in vineyard and/or winery management, Sadie suggests starting with a good enology and viticulture program. “What I’m seeing is that there are not a lot of vineyard jobs, but there are a lot of winery jobs,” she said. “I think education is more and more important to be competitive in the market. It’s important to go to school and get a degree in viticulture, but I also think it’s important to do as many internships as possible. Get out and work, get your hands dirty. If you just have a viticulture degree but haven’t done the work, you aren’t really hirable. You have to be involved in every aspect.”
Despite having both an education and experience in viticulture, Sadie realizes that learning about the industry is an ongoing pursuit. “The thing about ag that’s so awesome is that it’s constantly growing and getting ‘smarter’,” she said. “Farmers are learning how to farm more efficiently and do a better job for the land and more economically. I don’t think any farmer is ever finished learning.”