Central Oregon has only been in the business of growing grapes for wine since 2006, and Crook County has begun to join in the process of making wine from the fruit of the vine.
>Growing wine grapes in Central Oregon is possible, but the secret is knowing what varietals thrive in the high desert climate
It hasn’t been that long ago that residents interested in growing grapes in Central Oregon questioned whether the climate in the high desert would support a vineyard. The early and late frosts pose a challenge to even the hardiest of plants in the region. Secondly, birds can decimate a vineyard in short order, even after the tender vines have survived the frost.
In Crook County, there is one vineyard where the owners grow their own grapes, as well as crush and press them into wine. Robert Sowers has been refining his vineyard for the past three years. This summer, his primary buds frosted when the temperature got down to 20 degrees on May 20. Later in the season, his red grapes were not quite ripe, but still gained the attention of the local bird population. He managed to get approximately 70 pounds of fruit from his vines, or three gallons of wine.
Strangely enough, Sowers said that he hasn’t done that much to his soil, except adding humus and breaking up the hard pan.
“I believe that a better soil profile makes better grapes,” explained Sowers.
The oldest vineyard in Central Oregon is Monkey Face Vineyard, which is located at The Canyons in Terrebonne. Although only 3 ½ acres in size, the hybrid cold, hardy grapes planted in 2006 have been contracted for several other wineries, including Volcano Wineries in Bend and wineries in Southern Oregon and in Washington state.
The first wine made from Central Oregon grapes was Beat Red in 2009, a dessert wine from Maragas Wineries. This business was established in 1999, and is the founding winery in Central Oregon. They are located north of Terrebonne on Highway 97. Maragas began to plant their own vines in 2006, and over the past six years, they have continued to experiment with wine grape varietals to learn which varietals grow best in Central Oregon.
Laura Craska Cooper has been growing her own grapes in Crook County for more than 12 years, but she did not begin to make her own wine until this past year. Cooper, who also writes a wine appreciation column for the Central Oregonian, has a certification in wine appreciation. She also teaches wine appreciation classes for Central Oregon Community College.
She emphasized that making wine is a process, and she only netted about 10 bottles from her first batch of wine. As with Sowers, she said that the birds also ate the grapes before they have reached their ripeness.
“They say you have to make wine several times before you learn what you are doing,” she commented.
Cooper also noted that there are a large number of people who grow their own grapes in Prineville, but they don’t make wine from them.
Mylen Bohle, Area Agronomist Extension Agent for the Crook County Extension Service, also grows his own grapes. Cooper said she actually made her first wine from grapes grown by Bohle, because the birds ate most of her grapes.
“Mylen and other folks have brought me their grapes in the fall, because they know that I make jelly,” said Cooper. “In fact once or twice I have had grapes left on my doorstep without even a note, and I don’t know who left them.”
Cooper had some sage advice for Crook County residents who are thinking about growing grapes for making wine. She said that varietals that are native to Europe don’t do well in the Central Oregon, due to the climate.
“You can make some very nice wine out of grapes that grow here.”
She added that Central Oregonians shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with wine other than our standard regular still wine. Cooper said that when the grapes are not quite ripe, they have a very high acidity, which makes a really good sparkling wine.
“You’ve got to find the grapes that are going to grow in your climate, and then you can experiment with making wine out of them.”