Discover Vineyard Layout | Fitting The Site Properly

Napa Valley is exactly what you expect when you think of Wine Country: hillside wineries, bold cabernets, and vast expanses of neatly ordered grape vines. But while the image of perfectly parallel vineyard rows rising and dipping over rolling fields is certainly a sight to behold, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Enter Vineyard Layout: the fourth secret to Seven Apart’s success. While the concept is not as lauded as soil or even climate, the positioning and arrangement of vines on a site has just as much of an impact on the quality of the final product. After all, as many would argue, great wine starts in the vineyard. So how exactly do the particulars of vineyard design impact the flavors and aromas that find their way into the bottle? We delve into the ins and outs of the topic with the help of our esteemed Vineyard Manager, Mike Wolf.

Pulling Apart The Pieces 

While it may sound simple, the concept of vineyard layout covers many different elements. As Mike explains, “It encompasses so many things, all the way from row direction to how you prepare the soil.” Other key aspects include the distance between rows and between vines within a row, the types of trellis and training systems to be used, the position of access aisles, and the partitioning of the site into blocks. 

The optimal layout for a particular vineyard depends in part on the grape variety to be grown there, but it’s much more complex than that. It’s critical to think about factors like climate, location, plot dimensions, and soil characteristics. Then you also have to make physical judgments about slope, aspect, elevation, and the risk of erosion, all while taking into account your winemaking goals, management practices, and economic considerations. “There are all these other things that come into play when you’re laying out a vineyard,” shares Mike. “It’s all connected. It’s really hard to pull apart all the little pieces, but they have to come together in the end.”

Figuring out how all these moving parts fall together to determine the ‘perfect’ design for a vineyard requires a mix of mathematical acumen and geological good fortune. And yet it’s critical to make sound layout decisions right at the start. As Mike points out, “You only get to plant the vineyard once, so you have to make it count.”

Configuring The Right Conditions 

Traditionally, vineyard layout was based on road and property lines. While these sorts of practical considerations still bear weight, nowadays, the layout is designed with yield and fruit quality in mind. Today’s viticulturists understand that vineyard configuration influences the vines’ interaction with soil, sunlight, and airflow. In other words, it determines how successful a vineyard is at harnessing Mother Nature’s gifts. This, in turn, impacts vine health, fruit ripening, and, ultimately, wine quality.

Row orientation, for instance, is one of the biggest factors influencing sun exposure. Get it wrong, and you risk sunscald on one side of the vine. Get it right, and you can optimize sunlight interception to promote even ripening of the grape clusters and enhance flavor development, resulting in wines with greater complexity, structure, balance, and aging potential. 

Similarly, row and vine spacing, which is closely related to planting density, plays a central role in achieving vine balance. Vine balance refers to a state of harmony between vegetative growth (the growth of leaves, stems, roots, and shoots) and fruit production. The right spacing can introduce a healthy amount of competition between plants to ensure that vigorous vines don’t jungle outwards at the expense of grape development. This helps to ensure that enough energy and resources are allocated toward sugar and tannin accumulation. Naturally, spacing also impacts sunlight exposure and airflow – the latter of which is essential for disease control as it helps to keep grape clusters dry and stave off the growth of mildew.

Trellis and training systems work together with row spacing and orientation to determine how much light, shade, and air a vine receives, and to facilitate vineyard operations. The layout choices made here – whether you train shoots upward in a vertical curtain or divide your canopy and train shoots downwards, for example – help to create the right conditions for a particular cultivar to thrive. And this shows in the wine.

In addition, vineyard layout can affect wine quality by directly impacting a team’s ability to manage the vine canopy – to prune, remove leaves, thin and position shoots. A poorly designed vineyard with spacing issues makes it difficult for staff and machinery to access vines for intervention. It’s also an obstacle to timely and efficient harvesting, and the consequences can be dire.

That said, as Mike explains, a good layout should minimize the need for extensive canopy management and manipulation. “If you get it right from the beginning, you wind up with a vineyard that you don’t have to be out there messing with all summer long. In my experience, some of the very best fruit comes from some of the lowest maintenance vineyards – ones that just fit the site properly.”

Stags Ridge and Base Camp: The Details That Make The Difference

Getting it right has long been a focus in Seven Apart’s Stags Ridge and Base Camp vineyards. Resting at the apex of Atlas Peak, on the back of a towering volcanic mountain, Stags Ridge is an unusual piece of land. When it was first planted in 1999, layout options were limited by the practical constraints of the plot – giant rocks and cobblestones scattered everywhere. But the configuration of elements has combined to produce some extremely resilient vines. The result is grapes that are truly expressive of the site, giving rise to world-class Cabernet Sauvignons with big, round tannins, velvety texture, and nuanced flavors.

The perfect positioning of vineyard rows plays a part in shaping the character of our wines, too. Stags Ridge rows run from East to West – an orientation that helps to capture and channel the cool afternoon breeze that drifts in from San Francisco Bay. This maritime draft helps to lower sugar and acidity levels in the fruit to ultimately yield wines that are both balanced and elegant.

Down below on the valley floor, Base Camp is an entirely different story. The 8-acre vineyard was recently replanted, giving Mike and the team a new opportunity to make layout decisions better suited to the location and the varieties grown here – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc. 

While an East-West orientation works for Stags Ridge, here, the fruit benefits more from rows angled Northeast to Southwest. “This positioning offers fairly uniform sunlight throughout the day,” says Mike. “Ideally, the fruit shouldn’t know the difference between morning and afternoon. There should just be this nice, even light all the way through.” Of course, nice, even light means nice, even ripening and flavor development, yielding consistent quality in every bottle. 

The replanting also made space for the installation of a drainage system to prevent waterlogging and an innovative new trellis system. “It’s a modified vertical system. We’ve raised the height of the fruiting wire a bit,” explains Mike. Above that is a series of cross-arms positioned in a narrow V-shape. “And we use movable wires to spread the canopy out. We train the vines a bit differently, and we prune them a bit differently to make them comfortably grow into that canopy. Again, it’s about the notion of providing even sunlight to every berry all day long,” he adds. A major advantage of this system is that it allows small adjustments to be made to mitigate whatever’s set to be the biggest threat that season. The last few years, it’s been the heat. This year, it’s overzealous growth due to heavy rain. In this way, the integrity of the fruit, and the wine, is protected no matter what comes our way.

Truth be told, if you were to wander through either of Seven Apart’s vineyards, the level of thought and planning that goes into these sorts of layout choices might be lost on you. It’s the tiny details – the sort measured in inches and degrees – that make the difference. But trust us, it’s a difference you can taste in the glass.