Friday, July 10, 2009

Growing Grapes for Winemaking by Donna Duffy

I’m lucky enough to live next door to a masterful grape grower, John Crawford, who always needs a tester for his wine. My husband and I cheerfully oblige. John’s a fourth generation vintner who has been growing grapes for about six years in Colorado, and making wine since 1979. John was previously co-owner of Colorado’s oldest winery, Colorado Mountain Vineyards – now Colorado Cellars. John’s private label is “Crawford Castle.” I recently interviewed John to see what I could learn and pass along about successful grape growing in Colorado. Here are some of his pearls of wisdom.

It’s often said that you can’t grow varietals (e.g. Cabernet Franc) at this elevation, just hybrids (e.g. Concord grapes). John’s experience somewhat bears this out – from six Cabernet Franc vines, only two are still alive. His most successful vines are White Marquis – a seedless hybrid, and Canadice – a seedless red hybrid. (Seedless grapes are best for making wine…but more about that later). This year John is experimenting with Traminette, which is similar to a Gwerztraminer grape, and Noiret grapes – hybrids zoned for Colorado.

Grape growing has a few hazards, including winter freezing. In mid-summer when the grapes are ripening, the vines must be netted all the way to the ground to keep out the birds. I’ve watched many a frustrated bird sitting on the nets, trying to figure out how to get to those tasty grapes. The squirrels seem equally perplexed.

On to wine-making! As a rule of thumb in Colorado, a healthy, mature grapevine will yield about five gallons of wine. Remember that equation if you decide to plant a bunch of vines: 20 vines could yield 100 gallons of wine. If all those vines were the same variety, they’d need to be harvested, crushed, de-stemed, and prepared all at once. Unless you have a large family or lots of friends willing to pitch in, fewer vines might be the ticket.

As a companion to grapes, John grows peaches, cherries, blackberries and elderberries – expanding the range of Crawford Castle wines for his lucky neighbors to taste-test.

If you are thinking about growing grapes, check out Colorado Grape Growers’ Guide. As John says, “the best way to make friends is to make wine.”