By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Homemade wine is all the buzz these days – wine-making kits are available online, and most people know at least one person who’s fermenting grapes in a closet somewhere.
But there’s a big difference between making your own wine and growing your own grapes.
This weekend, the University of Wyoming Extension Office is hosting a grape symposium in Lander. Jeremiah Vardiman, the extension agent in charge of the symposium, said growing grapes in Wyoming is possible.
Vardiman said the University is growing grapes at research centers in Sheridan and Powell, and the symposium on Saturday, Sept. 17 is meant to give basic information to anyone interested in growing their own grapes.
“We have a rough idea of just how to communicate to people how to select, what stock to look at, cultural practices that fit Wyoming, how to think of Wyoming’s conditions to grow grapes in, and to try and be successful with that,” Vardiman told Cowboy State Daily.
He said the symposium will take information that researchers have gathered at the Sheridan and Powell research centers and share that with the rest of the state. But Vardiman said they’ve only been able to do limited research.
“There’s so many grape varieties out on the market, there’s no way we could test them all,” Vardiman said. “We’ve kind of determined a few varieties that have performed well.”
Hurdles to Grape Growing
There are a few barriers to successfully growing grapes here in Wyoming.
“We get very cold, as many people know, in the wintertime,” said Vardiman. “And Wyoming is very well known for having late freezes in the spring and early freezes in the fall. Well, if those grapes start to bud out and break dormancy, they could be severely injured.”
Weather conditions aren’t the only hurdles grape growers have to overcome.
“We don’t have a market for grapes,” Vardiman said, while adding that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the right entrepreneur.
“The benefit of an open market is, if somebody is an entrepreneur and a go-getter, they can open and define their own market,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but they can establish their own market.”
Table Mountain Winery
Someone who has created their own market in Wyoming is Patrick Zimmerer, owner of Table Mountain Winery in Huntley, about 12 miles from Torrington in southeast Wyoming. Zimmerer is the fourth generation of his family to farm on land that was homesteaded back in 1926. But he is the first generation to grow grapes.
“We have about 12 acres dedicated to vineyards, and that’s just around about 10,000 vines,” Zimmerer told Cowboy State Daily. “Which is very small in the world of grape growing, but it’s big enough for us.”
Zimmerer had to learn from the “ground up,” as no one he knew had ever grown grapes. In 2001, the family planted their first vines, but had to wait for nearly three years before enough grapes grew to produce wine.
“When we were first getting going, we had a winery who was going to purchase our grapes,” he said. “And so in 2004, when we were ready to have a small harvest, we contacted them and the winery had disbanded and quit.”
But Zimmerer said they weren’t going to let their labor go to waste. He and his family utilized resources from the University of Nebraska and the University of Minnesota, attended workshops, and bought a small winemaking kit.
“We really just tried to learn the process as we started,” he said, explaining that because the variety of grapes they grew weren’t the industry standard, the product they came up with was not a mainstream wine.
“So we don’t grow cabernet,” Zimmerer said. “We don’t grow noir. Our grapes don’t quite fit that mold – so we really had to learn from the grapes in the first few years, what they offer in terms of flavor, because these grapes are completely different than some of those European varieties.”
He said that for their winery, they let the grapes do most of the work.
“We just try to be good stewards to them,” Zimmerer said, “and hopefully get a product that people enjoy at the end of the day.”
Cold Hardy Grapes
Both Vardiman and Zimmerer explained that the breed of grapes that grows best in Wyoming’s soil and climate are called “cold hardy” grapes.
“They are a new, kind of a next generation of grapes that can survive our very cold winters and our very short growing seasons,” said Zimmerer. “The University of Minnesota took a big part of that in basically breeding wild grapes and their European cousins together to get a grape that can produce wine but also survive our challenging climate.”
Vardiman anticipates that most people interested in growing their own grapes are interested for three reasons – wine, jelly and juice.
“There might be some that grow for table grapes,” he said. “But we are just limited on the varieties of table grapes that grow well here.”
Vardiman explained that the one-day symposium will cover Wyoming soil, climate, grape varieties, how to get grapes established and how to set up a trellis system.
He said most of the attendees at this weekend’s symposium will be hobbyists, who might want a few vines in their backyard.
“We do not anticipate Wyoming being the next California,” he said. “We don’t expect vineyards everywhere.”