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Posted on Sun. Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Grape hobbyists climb obstacles

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Grape-growing basics

Selection/hardiness. Match the grapes to your climate by knowing how many frost-free days they’ll need to ripen, said Tom Powers, author of “The Organic Backyard Vineyard” (Timber Press, 2012).

Spacing. Vines planted for training on a trellis normally are spaced 8 feet apart, while those planted for training on an arbor can be placed 4 feet apart, said Gary Gao, a small-fruit specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

Soil. Most any kind will do, but the best are those that combine fertility with good drainage.

Sunlight. Grapes need at least eight hours a day. Photosynthesis uses energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide to sugar. This is important, Powers said, because sugars are the basic building blocks of the components giving wine its flavor.

Pruning. Do it once a year when the vines are dormant. “What you do for accepted growth in summer is pull leaves,” Powers said. Strip any part of the leaf canopy that forms around the fruit.

Pest management. “The first step is to practice prevention,” Powers said. “Choose the right location, prepare the soil and select the right rootstock. Maintain the vines properly with adequate water and nutrition. Always use the least toxic method for control of any problem.”

Interest in growing grapes in northeast Indiana is, well, growing.

So says Shane Christ, winemaker for Satek Winery in Fremont, the region’s oldest, who in the last year set out with a colleague to document the area’s small- to medium-sized grape growers.

“I was blown away by all the small plantings there are in this region,” he says.

Christ says he doesn’t have a definitive number of grape hobbyists. But he knows of growers with anywhere from 200 to more than 2,000 vines in locations ranging from the Columbia City area to LaGrange County.

About a dozen area growers already supply grapes for Satek’s wines, Christ says, and he expects that number to grow to about 20 in the next few years.

Many of the vineyards are newly planted, and it can take four or more years for newly planted vines to mature and produce, he says.

For those interested in growing grapes, whether in a backyard arbor or a small commercial vineyard, the biggest local problem is the weather, according to Christ.

“I would say it’s the extremes,” he says. “Like with this summer, it can be so hot, and it can be so dry, and it can be so wet and so humid – and it can just be strange. It’s an unpredictable climate.”

Another challenge is the soil. A soil test prior to selecting a site is a must.

“You’re looking for well-drained soil – grapevines don’t like to get their feet wet,” Christ says.

As for suitable grape varieties, Christ says Indiana’s “signature grape,” the Traminette white varietal, grows well here. Other “tried and trues” include Golden Muscat, Vidal Blanc, both white grapes, and DeChaunac, a purple grape used in red wines, he says.

Some area growers are also looking to Marquette, another purple-colored, red-wine grape that’s “kind of an up-and-coming varietal,” Christ says.

Wine grapes should be trained to grow on a trellis. That makes them easier to manage and allows the sun to reach the leaves, which produces good fruit.

“Even a few rows of vines can produce enough grapes to make several hundred bottles of wine every year,” said Tom Powers, author of “The Organic Backyard Vineyard” (Timber Press, 2012).

Hoosiers who start growing grapes have their work cut out for them, Christ warns.

“Taking care of grapevines in Indiana is difficult work, and people underestimate the amount of time they have to spend in the vineyard, especially after the first two or three years, when you have to start pruning the vines,” Christ says.

But, he adds, that hasn’t deterred area startup growers, who include a retired stock trader and biochemist.

He says some farmers are converting acreage to grapes because the monetary yield is better, while others see a vineyard as a legacy – “something that people want to pass down to their kids.”

“And there’s something rewarding about it,” he adds of grape growing. “It’s neat to have a glass of wine and say, ‘I grew those grapes.’ ”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


– Associated Press

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