Developing a small vineyard in Southwest Missouri

  I am a single malt scotch whisky drinker and not a avid wine drinker, but part of the property I have was covered in wild grapes and other vegetation. After hacking back the stuff for several weeks, a bright idea light came on; If wild grapes grow this well in the wild, then cultivated grapes should too. After doing a little research, it turns out that this area of southwest Missouri has a long history of grapes. Hermann Jaeger, who lived about six miles west of this location, was credited with saving the French wine industry back in the 1870's and before Prohibition, Missouri was the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation.

   I had some Missouri wine a several years back that I like to refer to as "nappy valley wine", the stuff was pretty nasty, some sort of grape juice gone bad with a shot of cheap vodka in it for kick. Since then, it appears that wine making in Missouri is now 100+ wineries and some of it is pretty good. 7Cs Winery and Meadery north of Walnut Grove, MO has a Norton wine that tastes similar to the Gnarly Head Ole Vin Zin wine that I like with some extra highlights. As I said before, I'm a scotch drinker, so I won't snob you with some made up tasting notes, I just know what I like. If you're interested, my favorite scotch whiskey is Aberlour, neat with a little ice. If you're thinking of retiring and starting a vineyard, sit back, do a little research, have a glass a wine or two, and think it over. It's alot of work, time, money, and not a whole lot to show for your efforts for several years. Southwest Missouri State University-Mountain Grove has a publication called Growing Grapes in Missouri thats informative if you are comtemplating a vineyard. For information on current Missouri wineries, go to the Missouri Wines website. They also have an app for your smart phone that shows grape varieties, winery locations and tasting notes, which is handy if your all nostalgic and out cruising old Highway 66 and looking for places to visit.

   It became really clear that hacking this stuff out by hand wasn't going to cut it, so I bought a Mahindra 28 hp 4x4 HST tractor and was promptly stopped, spinning the wheels; established wild Missouri vegetation is some tough stuff! A trip to the farm store for a STIHL Farm Boss chain saw and some farm grade glyphosate was in order. Persistence paid off and I cleaned off a spot big enough for 800' of trellis, a 60' x 100' garden, and room for some bee hives.

   I put up my two-wire high cordon trellis and ordered my grapes from a Missouri grower for the following spring and spent the winter reading up on how to grow grapes. I decided on a Norton grape, which is well adapted to this area and is the Missouri State Grape. I followed the grape planting book instructions and waited. Then the drought hit and trimming the roots during planting turned out to be a bad idea. While the intent was to encourge new root growth, I lost nearly a third of the vines and the others were mostly stunted. An irrigation system was clearly needed to get these going. So back to the farm store where I bought enough drip irrigation for the vines and re-ordered the lost Norton vines and some additional Mars vines, an Arkansas developed seedless table grape that grows well here and propagate easily from cuttings.

   The second year turned out better. I didn't lose any new vines and most grew to the top wire with irrigation, fertilizer, and a different planting technique. Instead of trimming the roots, I dug a hole 12" x 18" and placed the root ball loosely in a potting mixture with much better results. They grew well enough that I pruned and trained most of them to the top wire in the fall. The older vines are still struggling with some doing better than others but I have not lost any more of the old vines.

   It takes 3-5 years to develop a vineyard capable of producing a usable crop of grapes, so if your contemplating a vineyard, it takes time and money. My costs have been limited to the cost of vines, hardware, fertilizer, and maintenance as I power the irrigation by solar panels and have no electrical costs. Grapes need about an inch of water a week. If you're paying for water or electric for a well, three years is a lot of water to pay for before actually getting a crop. After three years, I've only had a couple handfuls of really good grapes to snack on! But the prospects are looking up.

   After four years, it looks like I might get a usable crop, barring the Japanese Beetles, who just love grape vines and fungi of various types. It's been wet this year and brown rot has been especially active on some of my fruit trees and grapes. The Norton and Concord grapes look pretty good, but the Mars are some showing some wear with black rot. This wet weather washes off the fungicide making spraying a frequent event. I have a couple bee hives in the vicinity, but fortunately, they don't hang out in the grape vines much.

   Finally got enough Norton grapes to at least to try making some wine. It rained constantly this year is seems, I didn't turn on the irrigation at all. You would think a lot of rain would make your grapes grow to the heavens, but that's apparently not the case for grapes acclimated to this location. About the only thing that did well was bugs, spiders, and fungi. At least I got enough growth out of the vines so that I'm pruning to the top wire now on most plants.

   Finally had a glass of my homemade wine; needs some aging, but I tried it side by side with a Norton from a commercial vineyard and it passes muster.