BLACKSBURG — Growing grapes for winemaking isn’t easy.
The vines have to be planted at the right time, in the right place and with the right weather. An unprepared grape grower and winemaker soon will become a failed one.
But in Virginia, winemakers have a tool they can utilize to be better prepared: GeoVine, an online resource developed by Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology that helps people to identify good places to locate vineyards and provides data-driven methods to help maintain them.
Virginia is full of complex sites for growing grapes, said Peter Sforza, director of the center that developed the tool. “We’re getting people a little more situational awareness.”
The tool takes data scraped from dozens of sources. It analyzes land elements such as topography, landscape, soil and climate. Those elements are critical to recognizing whether a vineyard can be successful, said Tony Wolf, a Tech cooperative extension agent who specializes in viticulture.
Below-ground features such as soil composition and texture are important to recognizing if it’s even possible to grow grapes in a location, Wolf said. Above the ground, how the land is shaped will determine where water will drain and where frost, which can damage vines, will settle, he said.
People interested in starting a winery can then use that data to see where grapes will grow. The database is also commonly used by consultants and even real estate agents who want to get land characteristics, Sforza said.
This is the second evolution of the grape-growing tool from Tech. The first only featured a few counties in Central Virginia, Wolf said, and was developed by John Boyer, a geography professor at Tech known for his alternate persona, the “Plaid Avenger.”
Sforza and the center he directs have taken the tool to the next level, improving it over time, Wolf said.
It’s just one of many mapping tools the center maintains. The group maintains databases for foragers and vehicle crash geolocations and compiles 911 calls for Montgomery County. Sforza said his group also is working on a similar site assessment tool for growing hops in Virginia.
The GeoVine tool, fully funded by grants from the Virginia Wine Board, requires a user to create a profile. The user can then map out a particular area to get a site score and PDF report. If an existing vineyard already uses the tool, a site report featuring climate data is also available.
“We’re boiling things down to give you exactly what you need to know,” Sforza said.
For example, based on climate data, Sforza said, a period where vines are particularly vulnerable to fungal infections is coming soon.
That’s true, said Derek Gassler, vineyard manager and winemaker at Beliveau Estate Winery.
Gassler praised the tool. Without it, winemakers and grape growers can still operate, but the tool streamlines what goes into the process, especially when opening a winery.
“This work would take thousands of hours,” Gassler said. “You can instead do a really in-depth report instantly.”
“This has the potential to save you a ton of money.”
Beliveau Estate Winery, which opened in 2012 after the first vines had been planted three years earlier, didn’t use the tool. Owner Yvan Beliveau said he spent countless hours researching various properties and where to plant grapes.
The tool can’t be the only resource used, though.
“GIS gives you a pretty good idea,” Beliveau said. “But you’ve got to go dig some holes.”
Sforza will take that review.
“With GIS, you always have to validate, verify and confirm,” he said.
One thing Beliveau hopes the tool will be used for is developing more vineyards in his area.
The ridges in eastern Montgomery County have a few spots that would be good for growing grapes, just like his site a little more than 10 miles east of Blacksburg.
He invites people to check the region out. But take caution. A first step can be using GeoVine.
“Choose your site carefully,” Beliveau said.