Growing grapes to produce wine, and even starting a winery, is probably the most romantic of the agricultural pursuits. However, if your farm is located in the northern U.S., you probably never thought it was an option for you. Not only is a vineyard a significant financial investment and long-term commitment, but conventional wisdom says that wine grapes are a Mediterranean crop that simply can't make it in harsh, cold climates.
A new vineyard on Seneca Lake. One of the biggest early challenges in a vineyard is maintaining good weed control.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF HANS WALTER-PETERSON.
However, new extreme cold-hardy grape hybrids are making the Snow Belt the newest grape growing region in the country.
Tim Martinson, senior extension associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., received a two-year, $2.5 million USDA grant to research the viability of new strains of northern-hardy wine grape hybrids in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The Northern Grapes Project brings together a team of researchers to look at how to bring wine made from these cold-hardy grapes to a wider market. The consortium includes researchers from Cornell University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Oklahoma State University, North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the universities of Illinois, Massachusetts (Amherst), Minnesota, Nebraska, Vermont and Wisconsin.
"We just got the funding in October  ... We will be looking at production, processing, winemaking and marketing," says Martinson, project director for The Northern Grapes Project. He adds that those involved in the multistate project range from wine scientists to tourism economists. "We're starting outreach first," he notes, which includes introducing this new grape to growers who may be new to grape growing and winemaking. "There's a real learning curve both in growing the grapes and making the wine."
The goal for the project is to help startup wineries develop into sustainable enterprises that can fuel rural economic development, and it may already be happening.
The dawn of a new northern wine industry?
In the mid-1980s, the University of Minnesota started a breeding program to develop cold-hardy, disease-resistant wine grapes. These grapes crossed French hybrids with American selections of the frost grape (V. riparia).
A new planting of Noiret, a new hybrid grape variety from Cornell, on western Keuka Lake. This grower established a cover crop of annual ryegrass between vine rows, but prevents weeds from establishing near the vines to encourage early root growth.
The result has been four grape varieties: Frontenac (introduced in 1996), La Crescent (2002), Frontenac gris (2003) and Marquette (2006). The newest cold-hardy grape variety, Frontenac blanc, will be introduced this year. These grape plant varieties thrive even in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and below.
These northern grapes create wines that are not merely "acceptable." Several wineries from Wisconsin, Iowa and Vermont have won world-class awards. For example, wine made from a La Crescent grape in a Wisconsin winery and a La Frontenac grape wine made in Vermont both won the 2010 Best of Class in the Indy International Wine Competition (for commercial wines).
These grapes lend themselves to a variety of different types of wines, from dry and sweet red table wines to rose and port, with "unique and pleasing characteristics," notes Martinson.
"These grape varieties have made it possible to grow grapes where grapes have never been grown before," says Martinson. "It is spawning a new industry - the northern, or cold-hardy, grape wineries."
This industry has been quietly gaining momentum: For example, in 2000 Iowa only had 100 acres of cold-hardy grapes. There are now 1,100 acres of these grapes growing in the state, says Martinson. "These trends are being repeated in state after northern state," he says.
Success through retail, buy local, tourism
The recent "buy local" movement can only help fuel the fledgling northern wine industry, but the key to success for these wines is to tap into tourism and retail sales, says Martinson.
"In the Finger Lakes Region of New York, 50 to 70 percent of small wineries' business come s from people visiting the area and coming to tasting rooms," notes Martinson. "These small wineries are developing these rural areas, plus local people can learn to participate [in the winery] and enjoy local wine. That grows the demand for local wine."
The potential for growth is there, but before jumping into the wine grape growing business, Hans Walter-Peterson, extension viticulture specialist for the New York Finger Lakes Grape Program, warns that just because you can now grow a northern grape doesn't mean there is a market in your area for the grapes or the wine - at least not yet.
"You have to know what the market is first, or at least have some sense of it," says Walter-Peterson.
He suggests that before taking the leap into growing cold-hardy grapes, take a hard look at the wine industry in your region first. There may be a demand if wineries already exist and are successful. "Try to learn what varieties these wineries need," he suggests.
Is growing northern grapes profitable?
Walter-Peterson estimates that a grower needs to grow about 10 acres (which will yield approximately 60 to 70 tons of grapes) in order to break even. Take that approximate number and find out if there is a market in your area for that many grapes.
"Is there one winery in your area that can buy those grapes? Are there a few that can buy them? Sometimes the scale of the grower doesn't match the winery. The grower needs to decide from that research if it is worth the trouble at all to grow all those grapes," he says. It is up to grower if he wants to work with one winery or several.
Varieties that are in demand can also fluctuate, Walter-Peterson notes. One northern variety, Marquette, is currently fetching high prices. Rather than putting in 30 acres of Marquette, which could potentially crash the market in a few years, a better strategy is to find shortages of several selections of grape varieties and meet those demands. "The key is finding where the demand is and what you can realistically supply," says Walter-Peterson.
Growing grapes: easy mindset shift for orchardists
Wine grape growing is a bit of a mentality shift, says Walter-Peterson. "It can be profitable, but much like apple orchards, you won't get anything out of it until the crop starts. It is not unusual for a vineyard not to be cash positive for a few years."
Those growers already in the business of perennial crops, such as apple, peach or cherry, are ideal candidates for starting a vineyard. "These farmers know how longer-term trends work, and the basic practices, such as pruning and pest management, are more similar to apple and cherry growers than those growing, say, soybeans," says Walter-Peterson. Plus some of the equipment from a fruit farm can easily be adapted to vineyard use. "Sprayers used in apple farms can be used in vineyards," he says, noting that a lot of the work still must be done by hand.
Good land for grape growing is typically the land that is not good for field crops. "You want land that is not too fertile ... the organic matter in the soil has to be less than 4 percent," Walter-Peterson says. The well-drained ground should be fairly stony or gravelly loam. Another important aspect to a good vineyard site is good cold air drainage. Even varieties bred to withstand harsh winters don't want to be where cold air collects, such as next to a tree line or at the bottom of a hill.
Alan N. Lasko, a professor in the department of horticultural sciences at Cornell University, heads a project to help potential New York growers select the right land for northern grape growing. The project is designed to help new growers coming into the industry find the right land, and grape varieties, to be successful. The project's interactive website (www.nyvineyardsite.org) is paid for by the Wine and Grape Foundation. The site classifies land according to soil depth, pH and drainage, for the best success in growing wine grapes. A larger project, funded by the USDA and led by researchers at Virginia Tech, is currently collecting this same kind of data for the entire eastern U.S.
"People coming into the industry want to produce European classic grapes - cabernet, chardonnay - most sites in the Northeast are too cold and can't support these grapes," says Lasko.
Labor and capital-intensive
Regardless of whether the grape is suitable for a cold or warm climate, vineyards take a lot of work and money to get started. Economists estimate that it takes approximately $25,000 per acre to establish a vineyard, Lasko notes.
Most work, pruning and training for example, must be done by hand, even picking individual leaves that are shading the clusters of grapes. "In the Northeast, in particular, where it is humid, there is a tremendous amount of pest control work," says Lasko. "It is the ultimate in precision agriculture."
While information that's available, such as Lasko's New York vineyard site selection website, is not intended to make the ultimate decision for growers, it can provide information to help avoid costly mistakes. "With such a huge initial investment, grape growers can't afford to make mistakes," says Lasko.
Ultimately, if successful, growing grapes can be satisfying and even profitable. "There's the romance of having a vineyard, and even making your own wine," says Lasko. "A lot of people come into this industry naïve, but some are committed and work extremely hard and make it."
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.