I was staring down into a metal tub slowly filling with clear red, almost orange wine. After four and a half hours of helping Mike Trower, the proprietor of Gander Way Vineyards and Winery, and his friend Ron put this wine through its paces, I watched as the aromatic liquid was pumped out of its six-foot-tall plastic tank, through a set of filters whose workings I could only guess at, and into the bottom of this stainless steel vessel.
“This was originally made for holding red lobster,” Mike told me, gesturing to the tub. Over the course of the day, we’d disinfected that tub with an iodine solution and then thoroughly rinsed it with a lot of very hot water two or three times. Having helped hoist the thing onto its side for easy rinsing, I could well imagine it filled with claws and spider-like crustacean legs. Now, instead of future $60 dinners, it held something like 200 gallons of Chambourcin.
A French-American hybrid grape variety, Chambourcin is a cross between a strain of vitis vinifera—the classic European wine grape—and a species native to North America. It makes for an excellent physical representation of what I’ll call the “Northeast Oklahoma Wine Scene.” Here, I thought, through a flurry of New World frontier grit, the prairie is transforming an Old World staple. The steel lobster tub put a fine edge on that point.
That isn’t to say that all, or even most, of the wines produced in and around Oklahoma’s Green Country come from hybrid varieties. Far from it. Indeed, at almost all of the Oklahoma wineries I looked at, European varieties outnumbered hybrid or American ones. If the thought of classic, Rhone valley wine grapes growing in Oklahoma doesn’t strike you as odd, consider the following.
Here are the environmental conditions that Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia lists as “favourable” to producing wine-quality grapes: “A fine, long summer with warm, rather than hot, sunshine”; “a dry, sunny autumn” that isn’t “too hot” (noticing a trend?); and “climatically flexible” winter months that don’t drop below -4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Or we can turn to Dr. Eric Stafne, now a professor at Mississippi State University, who spent six years at Oklahoma State University as a fruit specialist. When I asked him about the difficulty of growing grapes in Oklahoma, he told me that “it boils down to the environment. Oklahoma has a continental climate, meaning there are large fluctuations in temperature and great extremes. Grapevines prefer hot summer day temperatures, cool summer night temperatures, mild winter temperatures, and low humidity.”
Though we spoke by email, I imagine that he wrote the next sentence with something approaching an ironic grin on his face: “Since Oklahoma does not have all of these conditions, some grapevines struggle and fruit quality and quantity can suffer.”
But as will surprise no one familiar with Oklahoma weather, the challenges to making wine here are … varied.
My Oklahoma wine journey began at Tres Sueños (“Three Dreams”), the vineyard and winery of Richard Kennedy. Located just outside Luther, Oklahoma, Tres Sueños is situated on 5 acres and is protected on all sides by thin woodland.
I visited with my friend Leigh Taylor, my favorite wine enthusiast. On the way, the road changed abruptly from a two-lane country road to an unpaved, pockmark-riddled clay path. Lucky us: We’d taken Leigh’s Mini Cooper, and by the time we’d pulled up to the Tres Sueños tasting room, I could feel every divot and pothole in my spine and backside.
So I was pleased when, on our way in, we were greeted by a cheerful signboard which dutifully proclaimed: “If you need a sign to drink wine, this is it!”
After a few minutes conversation with Dawn Shelton, who was manning the bar, I ran into a viticultural challenge that I’m sure is unique to Oklahoma: tornadoes.
Tres Sueños produces wine made from grapes that are grown both on and off its property, though they all come from Oklahoma. In May of 2013, one of Tres Sueños’ partners had an unfortunate run-in with Oklahoma’s most characteristic natural disaster.
“Our Shiraz grower lost his vineyard in a tornado,” Dawn told me, and since it can take three years to get a vineyard back into shape, that Shiraz is in short supply.
As we were about to leave, Mr. Kennedy himself walked in. In his early 70s, Richard is a tall man positively overflowing with facts about grapes. This means he’s clearly overcome the first challenge he faced starting a vineyard and winery in Oklahoma: information.
“We were the third winery” to open in Oklahoma, he said. Third, that is, since Prohibition. “It had been 10 years since the last winery had opened.” As can happen when you’re a pioneer, getting the know-how was both critical and difficult. “When we started there wasn’t any information,” he said. This was in 1997.
So where does an Oklahoman go who wants to learn about viticulture? Well, that would be Texas. Specifically, that would be Grayson Community College in Denison, TX. “That’s where most everybody goes to school,” Richard assured me. He himself started taking classes there in 1994.
Grayson Community College is home to the T. V. Munson Viticulture Center and offers a certification program in viticulture and enology (sometimes spelled oenology), the fancy word for “winemaking.” The center is named for Thomas Volney Munson, who, as Richard explains to me, is credited with helping to revive the French wine industry after vineyards throughout the country were wiped out by a devastating outbreak of phylloxera (a small yellow insect related to the aphid).
Munson, a Texas grape breeder, was also an early experimenter with grafting, the growing of the vines and fruit of one grape variety on the roots of another. The phylloxera-resistant rootstock that Munson made available to continental growers let France get back to tending its Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons—this time on the roots of American grapes.
“It was a hay meadow when we moved out here.” Laurance Schulze wore a plaid shirt and baseball hat. He sat in his chair with the relaxed demeanor of a man enjoying the fruits of his labor. In this case, those would be the building we were sitting in: the rustic tasting room of Blue Coyote Winery.
The land now occupied by the Schulzes’ vineyard and winery was originally bought by Laurance’s grandfather, Walter Schulze, in the early 1950s. Seven years ago, after 25 years of experimenting with wine, Laurance and his wife, Jacque, decided to start their own winery on that hay meadow. With the help of a friend, the two of them built the whole thing from scratch, parts of it with local materials.
“That’s solid walnut,” Laurance said, pointing behind me to the mantelpiece. The bar top turns out to be a piece of local maple, and the wine racks are all local oak. Laurance’s uncle, Wayne Schulze, harvested and dried the wood. A second uncle, this one a retired architect, designed and built the bathroom, wine rack and bar. For a final touch, the bar’s foot rail is an old brass drying bar from a defunct laundromat.
Like Richard Kennedy, Laurance uses grapes sourced from other vineyards in addition to those he grows himself. But he also makes wine out of … other things. Like pears, peaches, hot peppers, even garlic.
“My little niche in the wine world is doing something different,” he said by way of explanation. The more unusual wines let him mess around and get creative. “I have to keep doing the oddball ones to keep me engaged.”
For example, besides his usual jalapeño, serrano and habanero hot pepper wines, he recently made a five-gallon batch of ghost pepper wine. Out of caution, he used only five peppers.
Laurance told me that his main challenges are drainage and frost. Outside, ten to fifteen yards from his vines, are pools of standing water, a real problem for a grape grower. Here’s Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia again: “The vine does not like ‘wet feet,’ so drainage is vital.”
Drainage a grower can control by choosing locations on the property where water doesn’t readily collect. But the frost is more dangerous. A spring frost can strike the vines early in their annual life cycle, potentially crippling that year’s harvest or killing the vines outright.
So Laurance, for one, was no fan of this year’s warm March weather. “I can already tell you we’re probably not going to have a good crop this year,” he prophesied, worried that the early warmth augured cold weather still to come …
There was a mild chill in the air the day I drove to Gander Way. All the way out to the vineyard’s location in southwest Skiatook, the roads were wet. A light drizzle fell through most of the day.
The day before, I’d asked Mike if I could come out and visit with him. It turned out that he was bottling wine that week and would be quite busy. But, he said, I could come see how it was done: “You might wear clothes that won’t hurt to get wine on.”
Gander Way got its start in 2006 when Mike ordered three thousand vines, expecting them to arrive in two different shipments at two different times of the month. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, they arrived together, all three thousand of them.
The way he described it, Mike got the whole family planting vines. “Anyone who was big enough to plant” was doing so, he said, and with the family and a few others helping out, they managed to get the job done.
“Planning, planning, planning is the key,” Mike sagely observed once he’d told me this story.
It’s obvious that Mike left the starting gate with a certain zeal. Indeed, he confides to me, in discussions with Dr. Stafne the recommended number of vines had been a hundred. But, having recently undergone quadruple bypass surgery, he had no interest in sitting on his hands. “You have a different view of time when you go through something like that,” he told me.
Mike said that his biggest problem was water—the large pond behind the winery doubles as an irrigation source and scenic complement to Gander Way’s outdoor patio—but that doesn’t stop him from making plenty of wine.
On my second visit I found out that Mike and his wife Janice had since bottled 570 bottles of the Chambourcin I’d helped prepare on my first visit. That’s a whole steel lobster tub of wine.