Farm Progress

Could wine grapes be Indiana’s next big specialty crop?

Amazing growth over the past decade points to a bright future for this niche Indiana industry.

December 3, 2018

5 Min Read
FRUIT OF THE VINE: Experts believe grapes growing on vines in cultivated vineyards may be a more common sight in Indiana in the future.

By Kristen Lansing   

Could wine grapes be the latest and greatest specialty crop? The simple answer is “yes” if you look at the economic impact of Indiana wine and wine grapes. However, other challenges add a qualifier to that answer.

Economically, it equates to $604 million, but it’s crucial to look beyond the surface, industry experts say. Wineries have been popping up in Indiana left and right over the past dozen years. Today, there are 116 Indiana wineries and tasting rooms, a 200% increase from 2006. Does this produce an opportunity for Indiana farmers to explore the thriving grape and wine industry?

Things to consider
Grape growing is a long-term time commitment that takes a significant amount of planning, capital, and patience, experts say. It takes three to five years for a vine to produce fruit, and growers don’t see a monetary profit until a viable crop is harvested. While diversification is encouraged, vines would demand a significant amount of a farmer’s time.

“Before planting, growers consider who is operating around them, whether they have a buyer and what the buyer’s needs include,” says Bruce Bordelon, Purdue University professor of viticulture and horticulture. “The kind of wine the buyer wants to produce and his or her tank capacity will determine the grape variety you grow and how much to grow.”

Therefore, wine grape production requires some strategic planning and “forward marketing.”

“Consistent production of high-quality grapes requires properly matching the variety to the climate of the vineyard site,” Bordelon says. This includes recognizing climate factors such as winter cold and spring frost, length of the growing season, heat unit accumulation, and rainfall during the ripening period. Every crop grower knows climate plays a substantial role in producing a yield of quality.

Vines are particularly different from corn and soybeans in that they require trellising, Bordelon notes. Vines live much longer than typical Indiana crops like corn and soybeans. A vine depreciates over the course of 25 years, give or take a few years, depending on weather events and the viability of the vine.

Corn vs. grapes
Many grain farmers choose to store grain to sell later, but grapes must be used almost immediately after harvest. Wine grape harvest typically begins in mid-August and runs through October, depending on the varieties planted, according to those who grow grapes. This would create an even busier harvest season for the typical Indiana farmer.

Large farm equipment used to harvest commodity crops cannot be used for wine grape harvest. Most growers hand-pick fruit for best quality. There are some growers who choose to use mechanical harvesters. Grape harvesting machines straddle a row of vines and shake bunches of grapes off the vine.

Mechanical harvesting may be more efficient, but there are vintners who swear by hand-picked grapes. Not all grape varieties can be mechanically harvested due to soft skins, potential breakage and oxidation before the crushing process, or even the type of wine the vintner is making. Hand-picking increases labor costs, but in many cases adds value to the crop.

There are approximately 40 grape varieties that can be grown in specific Indiana regions, 18 of which can be grown anywhere in the state, Bordelon says. Some varieties are well-suited to the ever-changing Indiana climate, such as the Traminette grape. This variety was chosen as Indiana’s Signature Grape in 2009 due to its cold-hardiness, vigorous growth and adaptiveness to the lively climate, according to Katie Barnett and the Indiana Wine Grape Team.

One vintner’s story
Daniel’s Vineyard in McCordsville grows eight varieties, including traminette, noiret, marquette and catawba. The Cook family established the vineyard in 2010 after falling in love with vineyards abroad. The Cooks originally planned to only grow grapes, but the surrounding community encouraged them to cultivate a winery.

“When we learned that grapes take a few years to mature into plants with quality produce, it gave us time to put together a plan that made more sense than simply growing and selling [grapes],” says winemaker Jenna Cook.

The Cooks’ 14,000 vines are “hand-manicured” several times throughout the year and are spread over 24 acres. There are 600 acres of Indiana soil devoted to grape production, experts report.

Some areas of Indiana are better-suited for grape production than others. For example, southern Indiana possesses a hilly landscape and sandy soils that are less ideal for commodity crops. Because there is less commodity production in southern Indiana as compared to central Indiana, there is a smaller probability of vineyards experiencing herbicide drift issues.

Potential for Indiana farmers?
There are only a few growers who don’t also have a winery and who solely sell grapes to Indiana wineries, Bordelon says. This could be an opportunity for farmers to exploit. However, there are a few key things farmers must be aware of.

Like Daniel’s Vineyard, most Indiana wineries produce their own grapes, but many source grapes from out of state to produce their desired amount of wine. The type and amount of wine the vintner wants to make will determine whether a winery will source grapes.

For example, Daniel’s Vineyard grows eight varieties and sources grapes from California to produce and blend cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc with its own grapes.

Though the demand for grape growers is rather low in Indiana, there is immense opportunity for young hard-working individuals to join the wine industry, experts says. Some winery owners lack a next generation to continue the business.

“Graduates having studied agriculture may be interested to look for vineyard management positions, as most winery owners have a difficult time managing both the tasting room and vine care,” Bordelon says. Like several commodity farms, many vineyards are owned and operated by a mature generation who may not have someone to take over when they retire, which lends to opportunities for young farmers.

While there certainly are career opportunities in the wine industry, currently wine grapes lack the demand to be considered the next best specialty crop by themselves, many believe. Although it may sound like a sweet opportunity at first, the additional work and monetary obligations that would be required for farmers to make wine grapes worthwhile may not be palatable at the current time.

However, as the popularity of vineyards continues to grow in Indiana, that could change in the future, many believe.

Lansing is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University. She writes from West Lafayette, Ind.

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