Published Oct. 11, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Introducing the rare but fruitful Wyoming vineyard. Wyoming has what it takes to grow grapes. A Laramie County couple’s vineyard produces a Frontenac variety that was developed for colder climates.”
Photos and text by Barb Gorges
A vineyard is a rare sight in Wyoming.
When the Laramie County Master Gardeners’ advanced class was invited to learn about and practice pruning grapes at a local vineyard, it was hard to believe one existed.
The destination was Pam and Danny Glick’s place outside Cheyenne. You might recognize Danny as our county sheriff.
Good thing Prohibition is long past.
It was late April, a little bleak on the High Plains, and the vineyard was dormant– just gnarly trunks and leafless canes.
While there are several methods of training grape growth, the Glicks are set up for a two-wire system known as the “Four-cane Kniffen.”
Our job was to look at each plant, now several years old, and figure out the best shoots to be the leader, and backup if necessary. The 12 students made significant progress on the 500-plus vines in an afternoon, getting more confident as they went.
The pruning seemed so ruthless. But the instructor, Chris Hilgert, state Master Gardener coordinator for the University of Wyoming Extension, assured everyone this is what is needed to produce grapes.
Even if a shady arbor is the goal, ruthless pruning will benefit it.
Still, grapes are very forgiving of novice pruning attempts.
In mid-August, I met with Pam to see how the grapes were doing and find out more about how she and Danny got into this agricultural niche.
A few years ago, Pam said she and
friends went on a Wyoming wine tour, including Chugwater, LaGrange and Torrington.
That got her excited. So she and Danny thought it might be a good investment for their retirement to get a small vineyard going. They did their research, including consulting Patrick Zimmerer who, with his family, owns the Table Mountain Winery and vineyard by Huntley, just south of Torrington.
As small and new as their operation is compared to Patrick’s 11,000 vines, the Glicks have sold as much as 500 pounds of grapes to the winery one year. Production is dependent on weather more than anything, but vine maturity—and good pruning—can increase the yield.
The Glicks chose to grow Frontenac, a red wine grape introduced in 1996, and Frontenac gris, a white wine grape introduced in 2003.
The varieties, with origins in Rochester, New York, were developed specifically for cold climates and disease resistance by the University of Minnesota, which holds the patents. According to their website, “Frontenac has the potential to produce outstanding dry red, sweet red, rosé, and port wines.”
More recognizable French varieties trace their roots to grapes that are not hardy in our climate. But Frontenac comes from a wild American grape ancestor and does well here. Success is also dependent on lots of sunshine, and sandy soils because “grapes don’t like to have wet feet” – clay soils can hold water a long time.
As for the vines? Despite the severe pruning we had given them in April, they had grown and leafed out.
The Glicks made a bulk order that amounted to about $3 per vine. Each was about 2 years old, 1 foot tall, but with 3 feet of roots. They used an auger to make planting holes.
Blue plastic tubes provided collars to protect the new plants from rabbits. Of the 535 vines friends and family helped plant, only a few were lost, Pam said.
There are several problems to solve in a vineyard: water, weed control and pest control.
The Glicks have drip irrigation set up to water the entire vineyard once a week overnight, 5 gallons per plant, with adjustments for the weather.
Weed control isn’t so simple.
Pam, a recent graduate of the Laramie County Master Gardener program, does not use herbicides. She has been experimenting with different kinds of mulch, grass clippings, straw, discarded feed sacks, and cardboard.
Tilling around the vines would disturb their roots. However, hand weeding has the added benefit of giving the viticulturist a chance to inspect the vines.
Vines need tying up as they grow and suckers need pruning. Every evening, Danny walks the vineyard for an hour, and early on Saturday mornings too, Pam said. It has become his therapy when his job is stressful.
In June, the vines were hit by a hailstorm that totaled the roof of the Glicks’ house, but at the time of my visit nearly two months later, the vines had pretty much recovered.
The other hazard to grapes is birds.
I called Pam on Sept. 14 to schedule another visit to see the ripe grapes. But she had bad news: The grapes were gone.
They had set aside a day in early September to put up netting. This protects the grapes until they are ready for harvest.
Unfortunately, that was the day they needed to respond to a family emergency.
Without the netting, the birds had gotten every last grape while they were away, including the table grapes growing on the arbor by the house.
As with other soft fruit, the birds seem to prefer their grapes tart–less ripe than we like them.
Despite losing their harvest, the Glicks will still have to perform fall chores in preparation for next season.
Table Mountain Winery
On Sept. 20, I stopped by Table Mountain Winery to see what Frontenac grapes look like when nearly ready for harvest.
Patrick grows several other varieties, but said Frontenac seems to be the one favored by birds. He also had hail earlier in the season so there were a few little dried brown grapes in his bunches, but only on the side the storm had come from.
A cold, late spring was responsible for the thick canopy of leaves hiding the grapes. He said each year’s weather affects the taste of the vintage—one year he could taste the excess rain, another year, the effect of drought. The soil adds to the flavor, the “terrior,” as well, and apparently in a good way. Table Mountain wines, which include grapes they grow as well as those from small Wyoming vineyards like the Glicks’, have won prizes at prestigious competitions in well-known wine-growing locations.
Time to tunnel?
Before this year’s raid by the birds, Pam was thinking about enclosing the vineyard in high tunnels, something that is being tried in New York and Canada, adding a layer of protection from wind, hail, early snow and birds.
Then perhaps she and Danny won’t have their utility lines filled with robins making their own harvest plans.
If you want to know more about the Table Mountain Winery, go to www.wyowine.com. Their wines are available at several retail outlets in Cheyenne.