Grape harvest expected to be state's largest

Monday, July 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Oklahoma's fledgling wine industry expects the next few weeks to bring the state's largest grape harvest ever _ thanks to voters who helped jump-start the crop.

Grape growers have battled drought, hot nights, even the drift of herbicides from neighboring pastures.

But they expect a record crop because there are more growers than ever with mature vines.

It all goes back to 2000 when voters approved a law allowing wineries to sell directly to liquor stores and restaurants, said Jill Stichler, president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association.

Most of the 16 wineries in operation in Oklahoma opened after that change, she said.

A commercial crop takes about three years to grow, ``so many vines are coming into the third year,'' Stichler said, ``and quite a few more are being planted every year.''

An estimated 250 acres of grapes are growing statewide, she said. The harvest is under way and is expected to last for some vineyards into September.

Canadian River Vineyard and Winery near Slaughterville started picking three days ago, bringing in 2 1/2 tons of Seyval grapes that will make its blush and sweet white wine.

``Harvest is the funnest time of the year,'' said co-owner Gene Clifton on Monday as he prepared to press the grapes.

``You begin to see the transition from the stick you put in the ground to the bottle of wine you have now,'' he said.

The growers deal with summer's swelter every year. It isn't a problem, except when the heat comes at night, Clifton said. Cooler nights allow the grapes to store more sugar.

Natura Vineyards and Winery near Beggs is preparing for its third harvest. Co-owner Robert Hutton expects at least 5 to 7 tons of grapes from maturing vines, nearly double last year's crop.

While yields in Oklahoma are substantially less per acre than the ideal growing conditions found in places like California, he said the winery will still make several thousand cases of wine.

Like other Oklahoma vintners, he and his partners are having to feel their way in a youthful industry. They currently grow 12 varieties of grapes on the cattle ranch that has been in his wife's family for decades.

``We're trying to determine, as are all other grape growers in Oklahoma, what grows best here,'' Hutton said.

Less-than-perfect growing conditions likely will add to the regional flavor of Oklahoma's wines, he said. Exactly what defines a wine from Oklahoma, though, might not be known for several years.

``I have a feeling it's going to get better as the vines mature,'' he said.

Juice from Oklahoma grapes is typically blended with juice bought from outside the state to make wine, he said.

Bob McBratney at Stone Bluff Cellars southwest of Tulsa is trying find which variety of grape grows best in the microclimate there, which he describes as the ``Napa of Oklahoma.''

One that shows promise is Cynthiana, a variety native to the central United States, he said.

Drought isn't a problem here, but the broadleaf herbicide applied by farmers to nearby pasturelands is. McBratney reports damage on at least 30 to 50 percent of his vine leaves.

``It causes the leaves to shrivel and significantly decreases photosynthesis,'' he said.

This is the winery's first year of full production, and McBratney expects a troop of volunteers for its two harvest parties.

Picking starts in the cool of the morning at daybreak and is followed by a grape-stomping contest and barbecue, he said.