On October 18th, RINLA members and Apprentices were invited to an exclusive tour of a newly minted vineyard off Tower Hill Road (Route 1) in North Kingstown, RI. Hollow Ridge Vineyards is the brainchild of Elisa Wybraniec, a viticulturist and enologist with an extensive background working with wines, one she wishes to share with the community. Her vision for the vineyard is to not only offer tastings of their own wine, but those from other local vineyards, next to other local farm products that will be for sale. As part of the panoply of offerings, wine classes will also be made available to the public, supporting the ever-increasing enthusiasm and appreciation for wine production. The vision for this exciting endeavor, including a breathtaking schematic for the building, can be found on the website, while their instagram is busy showcasing the latest progress updates in the vineyard’s development.
Lucky for us, not only did those in attendance get to peruse the vineyard at 2845 Tower Hill Road together, but we did so under the guidance and tutelage of Hollow Ridge’s dedicated agronomist, and RINLA’s own Executive Director, W. Michael Sullivan. Hopping off a tractor upon our arrival, Dr. Sullivan was quick to instill anticipation for the prospects of the fledgling vineyard. Sharing with us his exasperation over calculating perfect geometry for determining the rows of the vines, he alerted us all to the reality that establishing a vineyard was definitely a labor of love, but not an enterprise for the faint-hearted. After a year of soil and site remediation, including 8,000 feet of tile drainage installation, Hollow Ridge started planting in 2022. This is the second year plants have gone into the ground. While the first year delivered a record drought and the second record rainfall, Mike is hopeful that 2024 will split the difference. Next year will likely be the first year to harvest, the 2022 planting having matured enough from their infancy to bear fruit. Wines might be expected to hit the market late 2024.
The 13-acre vineyard site is contained within a larger 133-acre parcel with a significant and complex wetlands system. One non-vineyard activity in the last 24 months was the restoration of six different Department of Environmental Management wetland violations carried over from the previous property owner. We also viewed the drainage pond that serves as a catchment for all drainage tile, a sediment filter, a potential irrigation source and a future hydrant site for fire protection. It holds approximately 125,000 gallons of water on average. We didn’t get to traverse the entire property but have been invited back to do so.
We were able to walk to the vineyard block and better understand the soil stewardship activities. Soil health is a driving factor for pH management, compost applications and tactical use of cover crops. Beyond the normal soil erosion prevention, Elisa and her team are using sorghum crops for suppression of ground dwelling insects and recovery of soil nutrients. Other cover crops provide nectar-rich flora for the bee colonies on property. During the multi-year soil preparation process the vineyard has produced some squash for distribution to the local food bank. A conscious land and soil stewardship value will allow Mike and Elisa the time to study soil ecology and experiment with ways of actualizing sustainability for the vineyard.
Getting a vineyard up and running is not without its share of compelling problems. Since starting in 2022, the team has seen a 13 percent loss in crops, but that is still 5 percent better than the USDA’s reported average loss. The reason for the loss varies, including the hardiness of the plants and their ability, or inability, to contend with the effects of the highly variable weather in the first two years of production. Because of this, 6,500 plants have been assembled with different rootstocks, making them more resilient to conditions we are seeing; for example, excess water.
Another thing to consider is compost. Dr. Sullivan made mention of the 250 tons of compost soil he receives from multiple sources across Rhode Island. He also mentions the puzzle of navigating the 8-foot-wide rows of 4-foot-spaced grape vines with compost, insect, disease and weed control practices. Right now, a John Deere Gator and dedicated workers have been instrumental in early application programs.
Pests are another phenomenon. Deer exclusion fencing provides partial protection, combined with electric fencing in some other areas. Coyotes provide some deer control as well and a resident bald eagle noticed this year seems to keep the rabbits at bay. The team regularly monitors for leafhoppers, chafers and Japanese beetles. Also, working with the University of Rhode Island’s Biocontrol Lab and Dr. Lisa Tewksbury, they are keeping an eye out for the spotted lanternfly, as it’s an emerging pest of severity in the Northeastern US. (You can stay up to speed with the latest findings across the state at the Biocontrol Lab’s instagram!)
All this is to say that the team at Hollow Ridge Vineyards is more than equipped to see their endeavor into the future. If you haven’t seen it on your daily commute down Route 1 in North Kingstown, be sure to keep your eyes peeled and watch for the open house sign! Be sure to ask for a tour and, if in season, some wine!
Written by Mason Billings and W. Michael Sullivan
Featured Image provided by Hollow Ridge Vineyards
Other photographs by Mason Billings