Wyoming Wine? Why Not?

Plenty of room to grow in vast frontier

by Jane Firstenfeld
table mountain vineyards
Table Mountain Vineyards grows Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marechal Foch and Valiant. Owner Patrick Zimmerer says that yields are down this year due to extreme drought, but quality is good.
Cody, Wyo.—Most people assume that Alaska has the fewest wineries in the United States (seven); others might guess Utah (six.) In fact, the dubious honor goes to Wyoming. According to WinesVinesDATA, the state has four bonded wineries, only one of which produces significant amounts of wine from Wyoming-grown grapes.

A recent program at the Park County Courthouse drew attention to the state’s nascent grape and wine industry and its potential. Ten people attended the session presented by Sadanand Dhekney, assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Wyoming’s (UW) Sheridan Research and Extension Center.

Dhekney is relatively new to “The Cowboy State” after spending some seven years researching grape breeding and biotechnology with Dennis Gray at the University of Florida. In Wyoming, he’s concentrating on screening grape germplasm for yield, quality and cold-hardiness, and incorporating recent advances in grapevine genomics and biotechnology to improve stress tolerance of elite cultivars and rootstocks.

“There are table and winegrape varieties that grow well in the Powell/Cody area,” said UW extension educator Sandra Frost. Beef cattle are the state’s biggest agriculture earners, and hay is Wyoming’s top crop followed by sugar beets, barley, dry beans and wheat.

“Gas, oil and coal keep our state in the black…pun intended,” said Scott Wagner, who owns Buffalo Jump Wines in Cody. Wagner was the only professional winemaker at the Oct. 9 session; the others in attendance were potential grapegrowers.

“We’d like to work with the growers and help with a local product,” said Wagner, who this year harvested 2 tons of apples for a dry apple wine but sources most of his winegrapes from California growers, notably in Suisun Valley and Paso Robles.

Buffalo Jump, which opened in December 2011, is expected to produce some 3,000 cases this year. It has no vineyards of its own, but through tireless hand-selling it’s on the shelves of about 125 retail outlets throughout the state.

“It’s a lot of work,” Wagner acknowledged “I drive about 1,500 to 2,000 miles per week and see almost every seller every two weeks.”

Cody, the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, is in the mountainous, northwest of the state, and soils are generally heavy clays. Low precipitation lends the whole state a “desert” designation, but clay soils mean poor drainage. “When it does rain, it accumulates,” Dhekney pointed out; grapevines don’t like “wet feet.”

In search of rootstock
With the help of specialty crop block grants, Dhekney is planning a 1-acre test vineyard in Sheridan. When planting time finally comes around next spring—frost danger persists until the end of May—he’ll plant 49 varieties to trial varieties and rootstocks. “Nobody’s done that in heavy clay soils,” he said.

To the would-be grapegrowers at his workshop, he recommended planting only self-rooted vines. “The scion might be good and cold-hardy” he said, “the rootstock might not. It’s a big challenge, but whatever we do, we’ll be the first.”

Dhekney said there is a genuine interest in grapegrowing in Wyoming, and about 45 tons per year are now being produced from some 25-30 vineyard acres. The arid climate means virtually no mildew or pest problems, and he sees potential for organic viticulture. “The problem is, no research has been done,” he said.

Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and La Crescent are among the recommended winegrapes there, and Dhekney would like to try ice wine making, most likely from Vidal grapes, he told Wines & Vines.

Wyoming has yet to pioneer a wine trail, but the Wyoming Grape and Wine Association currently has some 50-75 members, according to Dhekney. The association is led by Patrick Zimmerer, who with his family owns Table Mountain Vineyards LLC in Huntley, Wyo.

Looking for partners on the prairie
A fifth-generation Wyoming farmer, Zimmerer was inspired to expand into grapegrowing by a senior thesis about value-added agriculture. “We’re the crazy ones,” he said. “We raise cattle, corn, alfalfa and put our vineyards in spots that weren’t being used. We never thought we’d actually make wine.”

But in 2004, the Zimmerers established Table Mountain, and now they are the largest producers of Wyoming grape wines, varying from 2,000-5,000 cases annually from their 11 acres of vineyards including Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marechal Foch and Valiant.

“There’s always new hybrids and varieties we need to try,” Zimmerer said. “Some varieties won’t make it.” In contrast to the Cody region, “Our sandy soils have high pH: first-generation Labrusca hybrids don’t like that. We have 14 varieties in the ground.”

Caddy-corner from Cody in the extreme southeast of the state near Cheyenne, Table Mountain’s location is considered Wyoming’s Banana Belt. This year’s extreme drought brought an extended, hot growing season that never cooled down. “We never had to worry about freezes in the spring.” Some homegrown grapes in the vicinity registered Brix of 26°-28° this year during the late August-early September harvest, Dhekney reported.

Despite great quality, this year’s harvest was way down. “Grapes shriveled, and we became a nature preserve for birds and every other kind of critter. The birds were tenacious. We did use some netting, but should have used a lot more,” Zimmerer said.

With no neighboring wineries to team up with, Table Mountain has partnered with the Western Nebraska wine trail. But unlike most wine trails, it’s a one- or two-hour drive between destinations, so Zimmerer tries to emphasize his farm-to-table product to fill the tasting room; Table Mountain wines are now in about 75 liquor stores in Wyoming.

Like much of North America’s grape and wine industry, labor has become an issue: “We have about a 20-person picking crew,” Zimmerer said, “but the rest of the time, it’s difficult. We get high school kids looking for summer jobs, but after a couple weeks of canopy management and training,” they drop out. This year, he had the high school girls’ basketball team come out to thin and prune.

“The biggest thing we work on is emphasizing that we can grow the grapes and the fruit,” he said. “We’re excited by (Dhekney’s) research. It validates what we’ve been doing. I’ve had people ask me why the Merlot vine they bought from Home Depot didn’t come back the next year. Anything that ferments, we grow and try to make wine.”

“Wyoming is considered a desert,” Scott Wagner emphasized. “Since we are farming under irrigation, we can control the water and have no mildew. If someone can figure out what grows here, (our industry) is in its absolute infancy.”

Wyoming’s other two wineries include 700-case Irvine Cellar of Riverton, with 1 acre of vineyard; and 450-case Jackson Hole Winery, located in Jackson, with no acreage, according to WinesVinesDATA.

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