Mar 31, 2011
More states growing their own wine grapes

While California remains the leader in grape and wine production in the United States, other regions of the country are quickly catching on. Both new and old growers are getting into the grape and wine business. A look at growth in the state of Michigan alone shows a dramatic increase in wineries in the past few years.

“What we’ve seen a lot of is people wanting to open a vineyard, perhaps as part of retirement,” said Andy Norman, coordinator of the Northern Michigan Applied Plant Science Program for Michigan State University (MSU). “There has been a lot of interest from people who want to get into the business but don’t have the background.”

It isn’t just Michigan that has seen growth, said James Wolpert, a viticulture Extension specialist with the University of California, Davis.

“In 1962, California was growing about 150 acres of Chardonnay,” Wolpert said. “Now, there is well over 95,000 acres in production.”

Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Wine and Grape Council (MWGC), said one of the biggest changes over the last 50 years has been the explosion of wineries in Michigan. In 1961, only two wineries existed in the state. Now, there are more than 80. The MWGC was established in 1985.

Grape varieties also have changed, according to Jones. In the 1960s, growers had mostly native varieties and a few hybrids. According to Stan Howell, who came to Michigan in 1969, growers were only working with Concord and Niagara grapes, with a lesser percentage growing Delaware. In the 1970s, American growers began expanding with European varieties. By 2000, acreage of viniferous varieties had completely overtaken all native varieties.

In California, 80 percent of the acreage is in production with classic varieties, Wolpert said. But growers are still producing a dramatic variety of lesser-known grapes, and Wolpert said there is room for more.

“Michigan does very well with cool-hardy grapes,” Jones said. “Minnesota’s breeding program created some new varieties of cold-hardy grapes. These grapes have seen a rise in popularity in the newer regions of Michigan for grape growing. We’re seeing new growers in the northern parts of the state. For instance, there are 14 new growers in the Petoskey area in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. They have been doing well with Riesling.”

Michigan is not all about wine, however, Howell said. More than 14,000 acres in the state are dedicated to juice grapes. It took a change of culture for Michigan grape growers to succeed, Howell said.

“We had good growers and OK growers,” he said. “As we went on, the good growers got more of the land. We also learned and adapted new training systems and learned more about the nutritional needs of the vines with our soils. It helped to double our tonnages we were seeing in less than a decade.”

Howell pointed to the importance of variety trials. As of 1990, only 5 percent of wines made in Michigan were made from the same varieties he came to know when he first came to the state in 1969, he said.

“The challenge with new varieties comes from the names not being well known to the consumer,” Jones said. “Some of the newest varieties that have been doing well are Marquette, Frontenac, La Crescent and Petite Pearl; but how do you market them to consumers?”

The future of wine in Michigan looks promising, she said.
“I think we will continue to see the industry continue to mature and take advantage of new trends.”

Jones has been a member of MWGC for 13 years. In that time, she has seen attitudes about Michigan wine change from “I didn’t know they made wine in Michigan” to the state being considered a well-known wine region.

“Michigan wineries are learning to give people a range of experiences that encourages them to buy Michigan wine more frequently,” she said.

Rich Heritage of Heritage Vineyards, Mullica Hills, N.J., has seen a lot of changes in the few years he and his family have been in the winery business. His parents, Bill and Penni, represent the fifth generation of farmers on their land. Traditionally, they grew apples and peaches, but as that market declined for them a new window was opened with a call to Rutgers University.

“Our land is located on what is known as the outer coastal plains,” Heritage said. “It is made up of sandy, rocky, well-drained soils that (Rutgers Extension) said we should try growing grapes on. The climate here is very similar to Bordeaux, France, and we can grow many French varieties.”

The Heritage family started small and continues to be cautious.

“We test a 100-yard row of a variety and see how well it does for a while,” Heritage said. “If it does well, we’ll expand to an acre. We started an acre of Merlot and an acre of Chardonnay, and they did well. We have 10 to 15 varieties that have succeeded in our soil.”

Some grapes have failed, such as Pinot Noir. New Jersey is young in terms of what the growers there know they can grow in their soil and climate, Heritage said.

He said the usage of improved grape rootstocks has greatly advanced the winery’s ability to overcome disease issues.

“It has been the key to our success,” he said. “You can’t make great wine without great fruit.”

Heritage also pointed to a loosening of restrictions in New Jersey that limited the number of wineries based on an area’s population.

Wine and grape production is the future of New Jersey fruit production, he said.

“The area just seems to show great potential and profitability.”

Most California grape growers have switched to drip irrigation, Wolpert said. Irrigation has allowed for more land to come into production than was possible before. But technological advancements don’t stop with irrigation.

“We look at how they do things in Australia and wonder how come we’re not mechanized like they are,” he said. “The answer lies to our southern border and Mexico. If the current state of immigration changes and we see a clamping down of the border and our immigrant labor force, we’ll see mechanization flourish in the grape business. We just won’t be able to compete for the labor force that will be available.”

By Derrek Sigler

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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