The great vineyard experiment

By Rick Houser – 

One part about farming that I liked was that seldom did things change. I mean we all knew we were going to raise corn, wheat, tobacco, and hay. There would be a garden and the straw fodder would be baled into straw. Just as sure as there would be sunlight and air tomorrow, there would also be the same itinerary to go with it. That is until the summer of 1971. This was a summer that was unlike those that came before and those that have followed.
This is where my Dad, a real estate broker, had listed the Fred Wiles farm about a mile and a half from Moscow. Although his home rested near the state highway, the acreage of the farm rested on the top of steep hills and if you wished to get up there you would have to go up a drive that was on a 2 to 1 incline nearly a mile in length.
At this time my parents had moved over to Bethel and Walt and I had moved into the farm house where we were “bachelors” and having a down right good time. Dad stopped by one evening and told me he had sold Fred’s place to a CPA named Richard Cooper from downtown and he was in the mind to put out a grape vineyard and grow them to make wine, so he was needing some good help.
This news was something I had never heard of in our area. I had seen shows on television about it but those vineyards were being started and cared for with huge equipment and a lot of men working. I told Dad I didn’t know if I could help this man out. Dad said to at least talk to him and see what he was wanting from me. He also said he was paying cash and I wasn’t real busy at this time of the summer anyway. Then he handed me a slip of paper that had the man’s name and a phone number on it. Dad said, “Now when you call him you will have to dial that entire number and put a one in the beginning as this was a ship to shore phone number.” He had a car phone and it had to go ship to shore.
Now whether I was interested or not it was a safe bet I was going to dial that number at least once. I mean I had seen a car phone on “Mission Impossible” and “Burkes Law” but not in my world. This was a big thing. So big that Cousin Walt sat on the end of the couch and listened while I dialed and talked. (Just wait till I get to the pool hall tonight and tell them I was on a car phon.!) Anyway after I introduced myself the man laid on a sales pitch that was awesome. When he was done, Walt and I decided this man just had to have us just so he could survive. (He had us hook, line, and sinker.)
Over the next couple of days we made a list of what we were going to need and we loaded that in the pickup truck and after loading two water barrels that would hold 450 gallons of water, what space was left on the wagon was loaded also with equipment. I put the plows on my biggest tractor which was a Ford 4000 diesel. On a Monday morning, Walt and I began a small caravan down Fruit Ridge Road to a driveway that went straight up the hillside to an area that leveled off and was a very pretty spot. It also was the most isolated spot I think I had ever seen up to that point in my life.
Mr. Cooper met us that morning and walked with us and explained just how he wanted his first vineyard to be planted. What he told us that morning was not too tough for Walt and I to handle. He had about four or five different fertilizers he wanted applied and that was going to take time but hey, he was paying by the hour. Plowing and working the ground wasn’t a hard chore either as the areas he wanted plowed had been tobacco patches so the soil was worked over well.
Then he moved to part two. That was setting the plants. He didn’t want us to be the ones setting them and that sure didn’t break our hearts but he wanted the rows covered in agricultural black plastic to stop weeds from growing. Now since I didn’t own one piece of equipment for handling plastic we had to do it all by hand, so it is safe to say that right here we weren’t real thrilled. But again we reminded ourselves that we were working by the hour.
We were eventually informed that all the vineyards needed posts for grape arbors. That meant we needed to drill and set over 1,000 posts! After which we had to stretch three lines of heavy duty wire and stretch it tight and staple it but leave enough space so the wire would be able to move. There seemed to be a whole lot of detail in this part of the task.
We wasted no time getting over to Gilbert Sipples in Pt. Isabel and renting his post hole digger. He charged a nickel a hole. Walt and I felt this was money well spent. Even by machine, this was still a lot of holes. Looking over your shoulder while digging the holes made for very sore necks. Even though Walt and I took turns, our necks still hurt. As we were nearing the end of this grueling task, the digger caught on a tree root and put the hydraulic in a severe bind. It was bad enough that it bent a rod in the tractor. We did get the posts completed and the tractor sent to Harlow’s where it stayed a couple of weeks.
The damage was over 400 dollars and when I ask Mr. Cooper for some of what I had earned, he began to explain to me the overhead costs of establishing a vineyard. At this point I more than understood the term “operation costs” so I guess my pity was very little. I explained to him that he was in luck as the tractor was not operable for a couple weeks or so and that Walt and I would just spend our time hanging wire for the grapes to grow on. I explained we would just put more tractor work on hold as it was tobacco-cutting season anyway. He didn’t much like the sound of this and one evening he stopped out at the house and paid Walt and I in full. We were of course thrilled and surprised, but I thought he looked rather pained.
I will tell you now that Walt nor I ever worked in growing grapes ever again. I will say that we learned a lot about the grapes and we both learned a lot about who we contract with. A deal can be just like some grapes and that is they both can go sour.