Jeff Chorniak proved how to grow hydroponic grapes –in Toronto of all places.
The information below is from his former website, which is inactive now. The info was found by another grape expert by using an archive site, namely on: http://web.archive.org/web/20050210183130/www.africusrex.com/page4.html
Originally from: http://www.africusrex.com (off-line now)
The word “hydroponics” literally means, “water work”. It is the art of soil-less gardening. Hydroponics is the growing of vegetation in nutrients, and oxygen, without soil, in a controlled fashion that results in high yields. Hydroponic viticulture is the growing of grapes without soil. Grape roots are confined to a reservoir of nutrient solution that feeds the vines exactly what they need when they need it, to produce high yields of quality grapes for wine. Therefore, soil quality is not a factor. Roots are contained in nutrient reservoirs, which allows the grapes to be grown on any surface, including a patio or terrace.
Hydroponics vineyards can exist in several configurations, depending on space, and personal preference.
The ultimate objective is to provide a balance of food and oxygen to the roots. Here, the roots are suspended in 5 gallon pails filled with nutrient rich solution, oxygenated by an air pump.
The pump is sealed in a pail with power supply and an output hose to each vine. All lines and hoses are calked against rain and moisture. The center right-angle elbow and grommet provide air intake for the pump.
The lower trunk of the Cabernet franc vines are fixed in a basket of rocks for stability, while the roots dangle beneath the basket, in the oxygenated nutrient solution. A stopper on each reservoir allows access to check and maintain nutrient pH, water level, and EC (electrical conductivity) of nutrients.
Nutrient solutions are changed every 10 – 14 days. Changing nutrient solution involves simply lifting the vine assembly off the nutrient reservoir, discard the old solution (excellent natural nutrition for yard plants, garden or grass), refill the reservoir with fresh nutrient and replace the vine.
What Is Africus Rex?
Africus Rex is a micro vineyard and winery. The vineyard occupies 7 feet by 11 feet. The varietal is Cabernet franc. For the last seven years, Africus Rex has been experimenting with unconventional viticulture in cool climates, and severely confined spaces (patio’s, back yards or terraces). The ultimate objective is to demonstrate that wine grapes can be successfully cultivated in a very small area, without soil, in cooler climates, and produce quality wine. This web page provides an overview of how that is being achieved.
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Toronto is about the same latitude as the southern half of France (above the 45th parallel), but can experience cold winters and hot, humid summers. Toronto is located next to the Niagara grape growing area, famous for ice wine and innovative techniques in cool climate viticulture.
At seasons end, after harvest, the vines are allowed to go dormant with the cool weather. Before temperatures fall below freezing, the entire vineyard can be dismantled and packed away in two containers, while the vines are wrapped and refrigerated over winter at a temperature between 32–40 F.
Welcome to the Africus Rex micro-winery, and cellar. This page is graphic intensive and may take a moment to load.
The image demonstrates an old world style winery constructed in a small basement corner, from scavenged raw materials, assembled into racks, doors, faux iron gates and faux stone. The entire winery and cellar is 108 square feet.
I don’t think I can summarize wine growing any better than Joy Sterling, in the opening pages of her book–A Cultivated Life:
Wines are a reflection of the people who make them. What makes a wine distinctive is the “gout de terroire,” the taste of the land, a recognizable quality that comes from the grapes, soil, and climate, but I think the taste, personality, and passion of the winemaker also has a lot to do with it. It’s the ingredient X that sets wine apart.”
Jeff wrote elsewhere, at various times, on a forum for grape growers:
… Cost per pound can’t be calculated until I know I’m producing maximum yields. The vines are still young. Each year will produce a greater yield. Eventually the yield will max out proportionately to allowable root size.
Cost per vine to set up depends on which system you want to use. There are several configurations for hydroponics. I am currently working with a static bubble system. That is a system where the roots are suspended in nutrient solution constantly bubbled with oxygen.
12 vines are being bubbled by 6 pumps ($16 each; Wal Mart), plus hoses and reservoirs (minimal costs, $3 for a pail, a buck for hoses, etc). Then there’s auxiliary hardware for electrical wiring, trellising, etc. It’s nickel and dime, but can add up. The greatest cost is the nutrient solution.
Nutrient solutions are concentrated and diluted in water to parts per
million. Maintaining pH and solution concentration requires a pH meter which varies according to what kind you buy, and an EC meter, which measure the electrical conductivity of the solution; that is, the concentration of mineral salts in the water.
Some costs are one-time, others, like nutrients, are regular.
It’s the nutrient that requires change every two weeks. Aside from that, there are other more economical systems like flood and drain: Reservoirs fill and drain on a timer. The roots are kept wet, but not submerged.
I could go on, but there are countless variations on the same theme.
Can you grow 200 vines? My vineyard is designed for the small scale home winegrower who can’t or doesn’t want to grow grapes in soil. However, there are two vineyards I’ve hear of doing it large scale. One in Kenya, growing table grapes, and another in Israel.
My vines are 4 years old. This is the first year in hydroponics. For
adaptation purposes I limited the amount of clusters this year. I limited my
yield to mere liters after crush. I’d thought of thinning clusters to
nothing at all, but wanted to harvest some to see what submersion in water
would do to the fruit.
I took a trip to Niagara to compare my clusters with soil grown Cab franc on mature vines and noticed little difference. I took my refractometer with me to compare Brix. Niagara had a high sugar level, but it was expected since my vines took off late this year and we’ve had an eternal spring. Summer was a bummer. No one got good sugar here this year, and therefore I can’t reach a decent conclusion.
As for flavour. The jury is still out until this first batch is ready to
bottle and age.
Regarding simulating flavors…that too is a matter to be determined.
However, I have heard others suggest it can be done. Even so, the proof will be in the bottle. There are ways of customizing the nutrient solution to influence grape flavor.
In the previous post I mentioned the flood and drain system, which keeps the roots wet, and highly oxygenated, rather than constantly submerged. If submersion influences sugar, the flood and drain is the solution. Also, aeroponics is another method which keeps grape roots wet.
Next season I will be employing two methods alternately. Beginning with the static bubble to maintain turgor pressure for evapotranspiration, and then switch over to flood and drain in mid to late summer into October to maintain nutrient levels and cut back on water.
Before his hydroponics experiment, Jeff first tried to grow grapes in large planters with soil and rocks. He wrote a good article with many details:
Anatomy of a Micro Vineyard
Author: Jeff Chorniak
Issue: Spring 2000
Proper Number of Vines
One five-gallon carboy of wine = 64 pounds of grapes.
One vine yields, depending on the variety, between eight and 12 pounds.
Therefore, 8 vines ==> 64 pounds
. . .
I researched soil conditions of Bordeaux and Loire, where Cabernet Franc are grown, and tried to duplicate the soil as closely as possible. Because my soil is contained in pots, I found it easy to design my own soil. The advantage of potted grapes is that you can ignore the poor soil conditions of your land and control the soil in the pot. The potted soil I mixed is 60 percent sandy loam and 40 percent fossilized limestone gravel for drainage, and slightly alkaline. This is good grape soil. It required driving around in my VW Golf looking for deposits of limestone gravel.
I found limestone on the side of the local freeway. They had to blast through a layer of limestone to build the highway, leaving deposits of gravel on the side of the road. Several trips to the highway with a shovel and very large container solved the problem, and also tested the rear shocks on my car (it’s amazing what you find out about your car in situations like this). . . .
[This article has a list of suppliers for grape roots in North America.]
By now, you may ask, why all these details about Canada?
One reason is that this example shows that the hydroponic process can be used to grow grapes almost anywhere, with some adaptations.
But another reason: this page is a Memoriam to one amazing person, an innovator and an entrepreneur, who was very generous of his time, to share his experience with the world:
Jeffrey Chorniak Obituary …published in the Toronto Star on Apr. 29, 2009
Suddenly on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at the age of 48, Jeffrey, beloved husband of Marlene [died] of a massive heart attack. Loving father to Megan and Lauren. Dear son of Edward and Elizabeth. Cherished brother of Cindy and her husband Grant. … A memorial service will be held on Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 at 3 p.m. at The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 846 Progress Avenue, Scarborough.