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Wine grapes, row crops present distinct challenges

Chris Torres Robert Butz, who runs Windridge Farm, serves wine to customers
HOPING FOR SUCCESS: Robert Butz, who runs Windridge Farm with his three brothers, hopes local customers start buying his farm’s wine. An outdoor, solar-powered tasting pavilion just opened on a nearby property in Darnestown.
Windridge Farm, Adamstown, Md., includes 1,200 acres of row crops and a 30-acre vineyard.

When people think of wine grapes, most think of California and for good reason: It’s hot and dry.

For Robert Butz, owner of Windridge Farm in Adamstown, Md., wine grapes are a hedge against hot and dry years when his row crops might not do as well. Now, he has to find someone to buy his wine.

Butz’s farm, which he runs with his three brothers — Ted, Tom and Jeremy — is 1,200 acres of mostly corn, soybeans and wheat.

“We try and maintain a reasonably typical corn, soybean and wheat rotation here, but within any cropping year we might modify that," he says. For instance, last year he didn't plant fall wheat as he couldn’t get in his fields due to the wet weather. This year's economics, he says, favor corn, so he planted more corn acreage.

Most of his acreage is no-till. He also plants cereal and rye cover crops, which are flown on, as well as tillage radishes.

Experimenting with grapes

Butz and his wife, Cathy, planted the first grapes on the farm in 2011 and started selling fruit to other farmers in 2014. They started making wine in 2017.

The on-farm winery was completed last year. An unused equipment storage facility was converted into a small winery complete with a grape sorter, press and bottling stations. Before the winery the facility housed an unsuccessful aquaculture project.

Chris TorresRobert Butz shows customers a Pellenc wine grape sorter he purchased from France

MECHANIZED SORTING: Robert Butz (left) bought this $40,000 Pellenc wine grape sorter from France, which he says can sort 5 tons of grapes in an hour.

The grapes are a traditional mix of red and white varieties, including cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and chardonnay. He also grows two hybrids, chambourcin and chardonel, that are easier to manage in the humid Maryland summer.

“They (hybrids) allow us to make wine in a lower-impact way than the French vinifera stuff,” he says.

Same farm, different systems

“It's been funny trying to transition between the two businesses because on the row crop farm, really our bread and butter is efficiency and trying to maintain costs," he says. “That's really difficult to bring to the grape-growing business.”

But some things you just can't get around. With only 30 acres, getting a mechanized grape harvester is out of the question, so all the grapes, 60 tons per acre, are harvested by hand.

“If you want to train the vines and have the fruit set the way you want it, you have to train it by hand,” he says.

That doesn’t mean he won’t embrace technology where he can use it. Many wineries have hand-sorting tables where employees on either side, up to eight in some cases, hand-sort grapes that have come out of the vineyard. Butz invested more than $40,000 in a Pellenc grape sorting machine that shakes the clusters, ejects the stems and separates the grapes in one shot. The machine comes from France.

“This thing will do five tons an hour and take eight men out of the equation,” he says. “It’s not just the expense of it, it’s finding those eight people because I can’t employ those people full time. And it’s not unskilled labor, so you can’t just get anybody to do it.”

The sorted grapes are put inside the mechanized press that has a bladder in the center. As Butz explains it, a drum inside the press spins around and the bladder expands, squeezing the juice out of the grapes. The juice is then pumped into adjoining tanks, and the pulp is composted.

Chris TorresRobert Butz shows customers how the juice from the grape press is then pumped into adjoining tanks

PRESSING GOODNESS: Butz shows off a mechanized wine grape press that squeezes the juice out of the grapes. The juice is then pumped into adjoining tanks.

Most of the time in his row crops, insects are dealt with using sprays. In the vineyard, though, Butz is all about integrated pest management to preserve beneficial insects that attack invasive bugs. Japanese beetles and spotted wing drosophila can be destructive. On the disease side, downy mildew is his biggest concern.

Applying less sprays also helps preserve the quality of his grapes, Butz says, which is important when it comes to making good-quality wine.

Now the question is getting people to buy the wine. A solar-powered open-air tasting pavilion in nearby Darnestown recently opened. Butz says he hopes the tasting pavilion will help drive direct-to-consumer sales of the 2017 and 2018 vintages.

He sees that he’s eager to see a payback on the work he put in to make the wine.

“It takes time to grow the grapes, and then even when you make the wine, it has to sit for a good period of time,” he says.

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