Cropping Up

  • 7 min to read

The quality of Missouri wine is a testament to the ingenuity of local viticulturists who grow grapes using an ecological approach. Despite the odds stacked against them – temperature, weather, soil, fungi and the assorted bugs and wildlife that love to eat our local grapes – Missouri grape growers have been conquering challenges and producing award-winning wine for more than 160 years.

Many are now employing sustainable farming practices in their vineyards to reduce the need for chemicals and human intervention. One of those growers and winemakers, Tony Kooyumjian of Augusta and Montelle wineries located in Augusta, Mo., has been growing grapes in Missouri for 33 years. “Missouri is certainly a challenging place to grow grapes because of the humidity and the summer rains, but we’ve overcome this by selecting grape varieties that thrive in these conditions,” says Kooyumjian. “The grapes we’ve selected are naturally resistant to vineyard pests, and that’s an achievement for the Missouri wine industry.”

Like countless produce farmers, many grape farmers across the country use herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to protect their vineyards. But more and more, Midwest wineries are introducing sustainable planting and growing practices, using chemicals only when critical. These growers conduct rigorous vineyard site selection, set up weather stations and explore natural alternatives to using chemicals in their fields.

“Because we have grapes that have proven successful in our climate, we’re able to eliminate intervention in the vineyard, which makes the operation more sustainable,” says Kooyumjian. “We use organic fertilizer in our vineyards and integrated pest management – we manipulate the canopy and the way we position our vineyards – so that air moves through the vineyard and dries leaves. If it does rain, it will dry the leaves out and they won’t stay wet for a long period of time.”

The real challenge to sustainable grape growing is a ubiquitous organism that is often too small to see. “Organic grape growing is almost impossible in Missouri because of summer rain and high humidity,” says Hank Johnson of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery near Ste. Genevieve, Mo. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere for mold.”

Battling the Elements

According to the top Missouri vintners, the key to defeating mold and bugs without chemicals starts with careful vineyard site selection. Windy hilltops are always favored over humid, stagnant valleys. Working in a vineyard in gale-force winds is not pleasant, but bugs and mold prefer calm, wet locations over blustery ones (also, something to think about before you plan your next camping trip).

In the windy northwest corner of Missouri, David Naatz of Riverwood Winery in Weston, Mo., grows wine grapes on a bluff 12 miles northwest of Kansas City International Airport. Naatz’s seven-acre vineyard is planted on a north/south orientation that’s swept regularly by strong crosswinds. Mainly because of natural airflow, Naatz uses no pesticides or fungicides at his vineyard. “We do have a reduced crop as a result of not spraying,” Naatz says. “But huge production is not important to us. Plants are like children, if they’re protected too much, they don’t grow up strong.”

Another Missouri vineyard rooted on a naturally windy spot is Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, Mo. Les Bourgeois sits on a bluff top near where Interstate 70 crosses the Missouri River. If you’ve ever been blown sideways on I-70 crossing the bridge, you know it’s a wind tunnel. “We get a lot of air movement up on our high ridge,” says Cory Bomgaars, vice president of winery operations at Les Bourgeois.

Wind helps reduce vineyard pests, but it’s not a cure-all. Insects like the grape berry moth and the iridescent Japanese beetle have developed a taste for Missouri’s best wine grapes. Bomgaars says the key to stopping the grape berry moth is to stalk them in the woods and then hit the tiny insects with insecticide when they make a run for the vineyard.

A swarm of Japanese beetles can defoliate a vineyard in short order, however according to Bomgaars, a manageable number of the copper-colored insects may help to remove grape leaves, which allows more sunlight to reach the ripening clusters. “If we could train the Japanese beetles to do leaf thinning for us, that would be great,” Bomgaars jokes. This past winter was exceptionally cold and harsh, but one benefit for grape growers is that many Japanese beetles likely froze to death in their shallow burrows.

Sometimes nature culls pests naturally, but local grape growers have been able to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals by understanding the life cycles of many mildews and insects. Using multiple weather stations, wineries monitor the soil and air temperatures that trigger molds and insects to hatch. Spraying when pests are dormant is a waste of money for the farmer and bad for the environment, but knowing when a vineyard adversary is going to strike can lead to wiping it out with just a few micro droplets of spray.

At Augusta, Kooyumjian says that by monitoring weather conditions in the vineyard he can time when insects like the grape berry moth and the Japanese beetle are going to hatch, reducing the need for chemicals.

“Having weather monitors in the vineyard tells us what the temperature, humidity and moisture are; that way, we can tell if we need to intervene to prevent problems,” says Kooyumjian. “We know exactly when these pests are going to hatch, and we can apply one application of chemicals and eradicate the problem rather than [applying chemicals] several times. Things [like that] take a little more thought and a lot more management to do correctly, but in the long run, it saves the tractor from going back and forth in the vineyard and it saves the cost of pesticide applications.”

At Mount Pleasant Estates in Augusta, Mo., the vineyard staff opts to use minimal herbicides and fungicides to protect and maintain the health of its plants – and therefore, the quality of its grapes. When soil loses its vitality, soil-born pests can become a major problem. Instead of using harsh chemicals in its vineyards, Mount Pleasant treats its soil with a mixture of calcium, carbon and compost amendments to control damage from extended farming practices that strip soil of its vitality.

Growing Native Grapes

Growing wine grapes in a sustainable manner also depends on the type of grapes being grown. Native wine grapes and hybrid grapes that have some native parentage are easier to grow sustainably than finicky European grapes, especially in Missouri’s temperamental climate.

Hank Johnson at Chaumette recently hung a chart in his tasting room that depicts the family tree of the Chambourcin grape, a red hybrid wine grape popular in Missouri. “We tell our customers that our Chambourcin contains the genes of wild grapes that have grown here for millennia. Because these grapes have some native parentage, we don’t have to do as much to keep them healthy.”

The only wine made from Certified Organic Grapes in Missouri is a Chambourcin produced by Wenwood Farm Winery in Bland, Mo. The grapes for this red wine come from Gascony Vineyards in Gasconade County and are certified by OneCert, a company in Nebraska that inspects organic farms. Dr. Timothy Ley, an internationally known cancer researcher at Washington University, owns Gascony Vineyards. Tom Kalb, the winemaker at Wenwood Farm, says Dr. Ley researched grape growing methods used by George Hussman, the father of Missouri grape growing who lived in Hermann, Mo., before the Civil War. Hussman believed that the Missouri wine industry should be based on native grapes.

Norton, the state grape of Missouri, is a native red wine grape that grows well without any human intervention. “Norton may be the most disease-resistant grape ever,” Bomgaars said. “We don’t have a spray program for Norton; it does not need [it].”

Efforts are currently underway to develop new wine grapes that combine Norton’s resilience with the flavor profile of European wine grapes. Missouri native Lucian Dressel recently introduced a new grape called Crimson Cabernet, which is a cross between Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon, the later grape being far too sensitive to survive a Missouri winter.

Tom Kalb at Wenwood Farms says he looks forward to having Crimson Cab made from Gascony Vineyards grapes possibly as soon as 2015. “I’m excited about this new disease-resistant grape; it could be perfect for organic grape growing in Missouri,” Kalb says.

In addition to developing new grapes that don’t require many agricultural chemicals, Missouri grape growers are also experimenting with other wine grapes that grew before Prohibition, before chemicals were introduced to vineyards. At Westphalia Vineyards in Westphalia, Mo., Terry Neuner has resurrected Missouri Riesling, a grape that was believed to be long extinct.

“Missouri Riesling is extremely hardy,” Neuner says. “This grape makes excellent wine and it’s obvious that Missouri Riesling was suited to live here. We’ve only had to use pesticides once.”

Back to Basics

Whether growing heirloom grapes or adopting vintage farming practices, sustainable grape growing often means looking to the past for answers about how to become better stewards of the land today. At Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery in Platte City, Mo., just outside of Kansas City, the winery resembles a polyculture farm where various crops and animals live side by side. There, sheep, chickens and bats all help to sustainably manage pests in the vineyard. The chickens take care of crawling pests while the bats are in charge of clearing out flying insects. The farm’s sheep – currently a breed called Dorper – are too short to reach grape clusters on the six-foot tall trellis, but they are relentless when it comes to weed control.

Sustainable Missouri grape growers are not concerned with killing every last weed or unwanted plant, a lesson that home gardeners should take to heart. “We’re not that concerned with winter annual weeds,” Bomgaars says. “In fact, the winter weeds break up the soil and keep it looser and healthier.”

If you’re using herbicides at home, you can help farmers by not using the chemical 2,4-D. This defoliant can travel miles in the air and it takes only a very small amount to kill fruit crops. (Herbicide labels will disclose 2,4-D. Also ask your lawn care company to stop using 2,4-D.) Whenever possible, it’s best to kill weeds without chemicals.

At Sainte Genevieve Winery, recycled wine filters are used to control weeds instead of commercial plastic ground mesh. Winemaker Elaine Hoffmeister and her father Linus are masters at finding new uses for old materials, such as the used wine filters. The trellis posts in their vineyard are made with 30-year-old cedar trees that were cut when the vineyard was cleared. One piece of ultra-vintage equipment that is still used at Sainte Genevieve is a bottle corker made in 1896.

Rather than use commercial fertilizers, every three years Linus lays down a mixture of cattle manure and lime compost in the 18-acre vineyard. The manure comes from a local farmer and the ground-up limestone rock comes from St. Louis-based Mississippi Lime Co., which also has extensive operations in Ste. Genevieve. While this homemade fertilizer is more expensive than store-bought, Linus says it’s worth the cost. “The original farmers knew calcium was an important element for plants, just as important as nitrogen and phosphorous,” he says.

Stewards of the Soil

Feeding the soil is as important as feeding the vines for Missouri’s best grape growers. When soil becomes depleted because of years of continuous farming and chemical fertilizer use, radical steps sometimes must be taken.

In the early 2000s, Mount Pleasant Estates in Augusta ripped out 35 acres of grapevines so the soil could be rebuilt and replenished. “Our soil was just played out by going the chemical route for years, so we decided to try a new strategy,” says winery president Chuck Dressel.

This new strategy entailed calling on the local Amish community for organic fertilizer and a nearby worm farmer for thousands of earthworms that would invisibly populate the vineyard. Fifteen years later, the vines are healthy and producing top-quality fruit. Despite a very cold winter, Dressel says the 2014 vintage should be a good one. “Plants are only as good as what you feed them,” Dressel says.

The benefits of sustainably grown grapes are not just environmental. The best grapes can be made into wines that are an expression of a specific place and growing season. Producing such terroir-style wines supports sustainable winemakers, who intervene with nature as little as possible. As David Naatz says, “The fun thing about Missouri wine is the wines are all different and they all have their own personalities.”

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