Oklahoma Wineries Overcome Obstacles, Pour It On

Associate Editor

GRAND WINE DINNER: Many Oklahoma wineries host special events such as excellent dinners. Recently the Cabin Creek Winery near Big Cabin hosted a gourmet dinner featuring their excellent wines. From left, standing, are Pam Harris of the winery; Mark Stennar, moderator for the Tulsa Wine Club; Robin Hernandez, a member of the Tulsa Wine Club; Robert Harris, Cabin Creek’s wine maker; and Dr. Laurie Flynn and her husband, new members of the Tulsa Wine Club. Seated are also members of the TWC, Jan and Sharon Polliard. All of the guests are also students of Randa Warren, master sommelier in Tulsa. Cabin Creek Winery was voted the top winery at the recent University of Tulsa Alumni annual wine event. For more information, call (866) 460-3331, e-mail info@CabinCreekWine.com, or see www.cabincreekwine.com.

GTR Newspapers photo

In the last 20 years, wineries have sprung up like wild flowers across Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest. In 2000 there were four wineries operating in the state. To date there are no less than 50 known wineries in Oklahoma ranging from very small one-person operations to well branded, established bottlers of prairie vino.

But that doesn’t take into account many more small start-up vineyards that haven’t reached the threshold of productivity or market viability. In addition, the number of “growers,” who are tasked with producing the essential grapes for wineries, is somewhere around 200 and increasing according to Gary Butler, president of Oklahoma Grape Growers and Winemakers Association and co-owner of Summerside Vineyards Winery & Inn on historic Route 66 near Vinita. So, what is driving this new emerging industry in the state?

Sandy McBratney who co-owns Stone Bluff Cellars with her husband Bob says, “Oklahoma has a great climate for grape growing, but the erratic weather patterns really make it tough.

“We’ve had a decade of relatively mild weather. I think some of the newcomers are not aware of how hard the Oklahoma weather can be for wine production. We know because we’ve been at it a little longer.”

Stone Bluff Cellars opened its doors in 1999 as the fourth winery to begin operations in Oklahoma. The McBratneys come here from California, known for its world-class wines and picturesque wine country, but they soon learned making wine in Oklahoma was different in many ways.

To begin with, the well known vinifera or European type grapes grown in California wine country with names like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Gamay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc don’t like Oklahoma’s weather extremes. Start up vintners in Oklahoma often make the mistake of choosing these grapes in the belief they afford a more sellable wine product. It takes a minimum of three to four years before a vine becomes viable for wine production. Even relatively mild winters punctuated by short periods of hard freezing cold can undo three years of vine growth and wipe out a vineyard of vinifera plants. A warm, wet spring producing mold and fungus can challenge these European derivative plants before they can get sufficiently established.

To deal with these factors, state wineries are turning to hardy varieties of grapes called hybrids. With over a thousand known varieties of grapes in the world, the potential for creating plants that combine beneficial wine making attributes and survival characteristics is infinite. Viticulturists at universities or in privately run labs work endlessly breeding new hybrid grape varieties through cross-pollination and grafting.

Finding the right hybrid grape to address a winery’s specific wine making aspirations and choosing to grow the right grapevine for the vineyards soil and climate conditions are both a matter best left to scientific analysis. But in the end, creating great wine is pretty much an artistic endeavor.

In addition to the many hybrid grapes suitable for Oklahoma, there are varieties indigenous to the state that can be adapted to wine making. One such variety is the Cynthiana or Norton Grape. Although hearty and disease resistant, it is not by nature a good grape for wine making due to its high acidity and potassium content, traits not conducive to creating premium wine; however, certain growing and harvesting techniques have been developed with the help of viticulturists from Oklahoma State University to enhance the grape’s wine making potential.

Even with so much care taken to counter the negative effects of Oklahoma weather on a grape harvest, many crops fall prey to hail, frost, too much or too little rain. Consequently, state winemakers have become very adaptive to these circumstances and produce varietal wines that often include the many fruit juices abundantly available in the state like strawberry, blackberry and raspberry. These types of wines, and grapes imported from other regions, can help a winery survive until the next successful grape harvest.

Oklahoman’s palettes gravitate to the sweeter wines according to Tim Decker of Oak Hills Winery and Vineyards just outside of Chelsea. The winery’s top sellers are by and large on the sweet to fruity side.

“A lot of customers like to pair their selections with barbeque and Spicy Thai, Cajun and Indian dishes,” says Decker. Other wineries contacted confirm Oklahomans are becoming more interested in wine as a value added amenity to traditional Oklahoma and ethnic cuisine.

“We can create dry wines in Oklahoma, but the market preference now tends to the sweet, so that is what we offer,” says Decker.

Some of Oklahoma’s small farmers are getting in on the action, finding grape growing a high value, supplemental crop. One acre of mature vines can produce four tons of grapes at approximately $1,000 per ton. The downside being the growing of great wine grapes requires the constant vigilance of pruning, spraying and pampering. It also requires knowing the precise requirements of the winemaker and the optimum moment to harvest to meet those requirements.

The older wine regions of the country in California, Oregon, Washington and New York offer tours through their wine regions attracting wine loving tourists from afar to sample their wares. Oklahoma’s wine industry is still too young to provide exactly the same tours; however, there are clusters of wineries forming in the state that can be called “wine trails.” One such trail branded “Grand Wine Country” includes three (soon to be four) wineries of Green Country. Oak Hills Winery and Vineyards outside of Chelsea, Cabin Creek Vineyard around Big Cabin and Summerside Vineyards Winery & Inn on old Route 66 near Vinita are the featured wineries on this tour with Coyote Run Winery in Adair soon to join the group. To facilitate this trend, some wineries provide the stay-over hospitality of an inn or bed and breakfast. There are also other trails in the formative stage in southern Oklahoma. Entering “Oklahoma Wineries” in Google will provide ample links to many options for experiencing the state newest growth industry.

The state’s wine industry is growing and providing new farming opportunities and creating new markets and jobs as more and more Oklahomans learn to buy local wines and enjoy one of mankind’s oldest crafts.

Updated 10-08-2007

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