Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Trillium Patch: wine, local food, and local resilience, part 3

Gene Logsdon writes that his inspiration for home wine making is not the large industrial-scale wineries of California or the commercial cellars of Europe, both of which produce high-quality wines, but the back yards of German and Italian immigrants in American cities from the late 1800s through much of the 20th century. They would make wine out of “everything from rhubarb to dandelions, but especially Concord and Delaware grapes” (Logsdon 78). I believe Logsdon has observed something valuable and useful that will allow the production of quality wines to continue in eastern North America after cheap energy is no longer available. I want to explore this idea here in Part 3.

First, it will be helpful to discuss the current state of the commercial wine industry in the eastern states. Since I’m in Ohio and am most familiar with Ohio, I’ll concentrate on Ohio; what applies to Ohio is probably largely true in other eastern and Midwestern states.

Commercial Wineries in the East and Midwest

Ohio has well over 100 operating commercial wineries. I have seen numbers from 125 to 145, and two or three new ones seem to open every year. Wineries can be found in all parts of the state, which means that no Ohio resident is very far from an operating winery. Wine operations are concentrated, however, in the north, along the shore of Lake Erie, and in the southwestern Ohio River Valley region.

Not all of these wineries are doing what I’m talking about here: making wine primarily from grapes they grow themselves. Some make wine from fruits other than grapes (one in the Columbus area specializes in different kinds of mead). Some make wine from California grapes. While these wines are often very good, they are, like fruit wines, outside the scope of this discussion (and probably not long-term sustainable once energy costs get too high). And many of them, whether they grow their own grapes or not, seem to be more in the entertainment or tourism business than the wine business. (To be fair, some, though not all, who operate restaurants and wineries manage to deliver both good food and excellent wine.) The commercial operations I think have the best chance for surviving the end of cheap energy are mixed farming operations that make wine from grapes they grow themselves as an “added value” commodity, but sell other farm products as well. (A good example is the Smith-Berry Winery in New Castle, Kentucky. Mary Berry-Smith, who founded the winery along with her husband Chuck, is the daughter of noted agriculturist Wendell Berry.) Purchasing wine from such mixed farm operations reminds us that good table wine is essentially a farm product, produced by farmers and consumed with food.

Small-scale Advantages

The eastern and Midwestern wine business today has several advantages, going into energy decline, over the huge industrial operations of the west coast. Most operations here are small, family-run farms. Although they can’t compete with California’s economies of scale, they’re far less dependent on industrial-scale machinery and equipment. Yes, most use tractors, of course, but one won’t, for example, find very many mechanical grape pickers in Ohio; in most of Ohio’s small vineyards, that work is done by hand. And some use temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, but one can make good wine without them—it will just have a different character. Our vineyard and wine operations operate on a more human scale here.

Another advantage, I believe, is rooted in the unique history of grape growing in our region. We grow and produce wine from a very wide range of grape varieties originating in different grape species. The old V. labrusca varieties are still popular and still grown. Great strides have been made in growing V. vinifera, and wines from these “noble” grapes are more widely available. The French hybrids have expanded the variety of wine flavors and characteristics. New crosses from the breeding operations I mentioned in the last post not only have extended the flavor characteristics of regional wines but also have expanded the geographical range in which it is possible to grow wine grapes successfully. Winegrowing is now taking place in such unlikely-seeming places as Minnesota, Vermont, Nova Scotia, Nebraska, and Quebec. The wide variety of grapes of so many different types increases the chances for would-be organic and small growers to discover a variety or two particularly well suited to their local conditions.


These advantages are partly offset by some disadvantages, going into the future.

One of the biggest concerns going into an age of energy decline is distribution. Wines from small, family farm wineries simply aren’t picked up by the normal distribution methods that larger operations enjoy. That means that in many cases, small producers must be their own distributors. I know one premium operation in Ohio that makes the rounds to retail outlets around the state in their own vehicle after every new release. This is costly, not only in dollar terms but also in carbon footprint. In some cases, those who enjoy a particular winery’s products must drive to the winery or have it shipped to their home by UPS or Federal Express. If fuel becomes too expensive for customers’ winery visits and/or local delivery services, some wineries may lose the market for their products.

Lack of distribution leads to the second concern: the wine business in Ohio and other eastern/Midwestern states is largely dependent on tourism, an industry that won’t be sustainable in an era of high fuel prices.

Unfamiliarity is another problem. Many people simply don’t know about local and regional wines and are often afraid to try them. They frequently are pleasantly surprised when they do, but it’s just so much easier to reach for a California, Chilean, or Australian bottling than a local offering. This unfamiliarity is often compounded by retailers who segregate the local wines on a separate shelf (usually reserved also for the sweet wines, fruit wines, ports, and sherries) instead of shelving them with wines from other regions that share similar characteristics, thus treating them as afterthoughts not worthy of serious attention.

A disadvantage everywhere, not just in the east and Midwest, results from the lingering effects of Prohibition, including its attitudes and hypocrisies. Prohibitionism has made it difficult for small producers to sell their wine simply as an agricultural product like, say, eggs or maple syrup. To sell wine legally, one must jump through regulatory hoops that vary in each state. The claim, of course, is that these restrictions are intended to discourage alcohol consumption, but in reality they do nothing whatsoever in that regard; rather, they reward vested interests and reinforce bureaucratic domains. These regulations probably make it prohibitive, for example, for a CSA to include a bottle of farm-made wine in the box along with the week’s produce distribution.

Finally, for the would-be grape grower, the fungus disease pressure simply doesn’t let up around here. Seasonal weather conditions create variations in that pressure from growing season to growing season, and some geographical regions have more pressure than others, but the inoculum is always present, ready and more than willing to grow and spread whenever conditions are right. Neglecting preventive treatment for disease can cause the fungi to build from season to season, making re-infection more likely and more severe the following year; this is one of the factors that led to the demise of the Ohio River vineyards 150 years ago. Although I love the wines from vinifera grapes that are now being made here in Ohio, I have to wonder about the long-term sustainability of cultivating these varieties, which are really not at home here, once chemical fungicides become too expensive or not readily available. Perhaps if local sources for disease-fighting agents can be found and/or cultivated, we can maintain vinifera cultivation, but that’s a big unknown. (Most hybrid varieties also need preventive or curative treatment, even though some varieties are more tolerant of the fungi than others. More about that later.)

A Way Forward

This brings us back to Gene Logsdon’s comment about home wine making operations. Growing grapes and making one’s own wines may be a partial solution to limits on cheap energy. While I encourage everyone to support local and regional wine operations to whatever extent is possible, wine made at home keeps things as local as they can be.

The federal government allows a household consisting of a single adult of legal age to produce up to 100 gallons of wine every year for his/her own use. If two or more legal-age adults share a household, they can make up to 200 gallons per year. (Some states restrict home wine making beyond what the federal laws do; check your state’s regulations before making any wine.) Two hundred gallons is a lot of wine—it amounts to more than 1,000 regular-sized bottles—enough for almost 20 bottles per week. I doubt whether Liz and I go through more than 1/8 that amount in a year. To make that much wine, one would probably need about 250 vines, covering 1/5 of an acre, depending on their productivity. Federal restrictions on home winemakers: homemade wine is strictly for household consumption, although one is allowed to take a bottle to a friend’s house to share with them. Homemade wine cannot be sold; I assume that it also cannot be bartered.

Within these restrictions, though, making wine at home is a great idea. It’s not difficult to learn how to do it; as I said in an earlier post, it isn’t any more complicated than some other food preservation methods. I’m not going to talk about how to make wine here; several excellent books on the topic are available, and local winemakers’ supply shops can give plenty of advice as well. But I do want to talk a bit about cultivating grapes at home and especially about overcoming diseases, since historically disease has been the biggest stumbling block to success here in the eastern third of the continent. We will discuss these topics in my fourth and final posting in this series.

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