Mistake Monday – Digging Holes

We were adding new, planted acres to a vineyard in Calistoga. It was one of my favorite vineyards I managed in the Napa Valley. The property had changed hands several times over a decade and finally found owners who were willing to dig deep and find long-term solutions for the band-aid-filled vineyard.

When installing all the new water lines for the new acres, the irrigation engineering firm gave us a very detailed plan. Typically, in existing vineyards it is a easier to start trenching and installing the irrigation lines from the last valve in the field and work back to the centralized hub. This helps because you don’t know exactly where previous lines are located and the routes you may have to take around them. This allows any final adjustments to be made near the hub, and the lines are clean and straight in the field.

Everything was marked with GPS and flagged. We started trenching and laying down pipe. As we worked back towards the irrigation hub, all went smoothly. I mean, we made a few minor adjustments and turns, but no serious issues.

At the irrigation hub, the pipes above the ground looked fairly scattered, but not awful. I told the vineyard owner to make the pipe layout cleaner, we would dig up everything and reroute. He agreed.

Three types of digging… who knew?

Now, there are really three kinds of digging when it comes to vineyard irrigation:

  1. The kind of digging when you’re installing new pipe in fresh ground. Easy Breezy.
  2. The kind of digging because you have a leak and it needs addressing. This is 50-50%. 50% of the time it’s easy, repaired quickly. The other 50% of the time the leak is a symptom of a larger problem requiring you to to fix way more than planned.
  3. The kind of digging where you know there’s an issue and you need to find out how much of the “iceberg” is visible. About 90% of the time, this winds up being a bigger mess than you’d hoped. About 10% of the time, you wish you’d never started digging in the first place and maybe the best approach is to just put the dirt back and pretend it never happened.

This vineyard, was in the 10% bucket. The pipes below the ground were an absolute labyrinth. It technically all functioned, but we just didn’t know what was what. I told the owner it would take us about 2 days to reroute clean it up.

Just Stop Digging

I’m an optimistic problem solver, yet every once in awhile, a problem eats my lunch. And this problem ate my lunch. Remember, when we started, everything technically worked. As we rebuilt, we replaced a single run of pipe and valves at a time. Working with water is great because if there is an issue then water leaks where it shouldn’t. But for some reason, every time we made a change, then turned the system back on, something else wouldn’t work. Sometimes water would come out of some unexpected pipe or sometimes there wouldn’t be any water at all.

2016 Vines

It was a Rube-Goldberg irrigation design from hell. There was absolutely no plan to it. It had just been slapped together and overlapped many times over many years. Meanwhile, we had brand new vines in the ground that needed water regularly, while at the same time shutting down to troubleshoot the plumbing problems at the same time. Irrigate Monday and Tuesday, repair Wednesday, irrigate on Thursday and Friday, repair on Saturday. There were many times where we literally just stood and looked at the pipes, looked at each other, looked back at the pipes and just stared. Dumbfounded. No words.

Previous Irrigation System

We got it all done two weeks later, but I was sweating bullets the entire time AND we spent $4,478 over budget to get it all situated. I’ll admit, this is one that I only partially regret. The final setup was fantastic and worth the effort. I’d be lying to you if I said it was all worth two weeks and an extra $4,478. It all technically worked before we started “fixing” it… I probably should have just shrugged my shoulders in confusion, filled in the hole, and gone about my day.

New Irrigation Install

The silver lining is that the vineyard is performing very well today!

2019 Vines