Turtle Creek Winery Bucks the Vineyard Norm
by Kip Kumler

Last year I attended a dinner with Clive Coates, the well-known English wine critic and writer. During the discussion, when he heard that I had planted a vineyard in Lincoln, he said: “Well, I guess that you can probably grow grapes at the North Pole.” I should also point out that Clive does not look fondly upon the phenomenon of Garagistes or those relatively new small wineries which have established themselves based on the quality of their wines rather than their pedigrees.

It is an interesting challenge. The conventional wisdom is that Lincoln is an inhospitable location for growing fine wine grapes, such as Vitus Vinifera. The latitude is too high (42°N), the season too short, the winters too cold, and the disease pressure too great.

But consider the following. Lincoln is at about the same latitude as Rome (although most of Italy and France have maritime as opposed to continental climates), with the best wines coming from northern regions. Lincoln has more degree days (heat summation) than Burgundy. The shorter growing season can be mitigated by using rootstocks such as Riparia Gloire which are of lower vigor, produce lower yields, higher quality fruit, and ripen fruit earlier. Vitis vinifera, provided they enter the winter healthy and have adequate time to establish dormancy, can survive –14°F. Vine diseases are better addressed today than they have ever been through a combination of clonal selection, much healthier nursery stock, and new classes of fungicides which are targeted to individual fungi, have short persistence, and are environmentally benign.

It is axiomatic that the best wines come from cool climates; the paradox is that choosing such a location may not be the most brilliant economic choice because the probability of not getting fruit ripe or suffering bad weather can take a greater toll. There is no question that there are easier places to grow wine grapes and that it takes a long time to understand the relationship of the soil to the particular wine but I do not plan to move and “I am not yet measuring the number of my days.”

Historically, agriculture has been organized around getting higher yields for the same input. Prices are those of commodities. Fine wine grapes are different. Grapes-made-into-wine is one of the highest value-added agricultural products. Higher prices are paid for higher quality. Conversely, if you can sell your product for more, you can afford to spend more effort to improve the quality. For example, I expect to get a yield per vine which is about one-third that of a large commercial vineyard. If this translates into higher quality such that I can charge three dollars more per bottle, it is a wash for the bottom line (although we don’t talk much about the bottom line around here; our accounting rules would make Enron look good).

The present planting of 500 vines includes Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. These vines are now in their fourth and fifth years. Next year, in the newly cleared portion of Flint’s Field, we will plant 4000 vines divided equally among Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc.

It takes about three to four years to get a commercial crop. In the meantime, we buy grapes from Long Island, the Finger Lakes, and California. We are just finishing an underground barrel room which will hold fifty barrels and I have learned to drive a tractor and a forklift. We produced about 150 cases last year and this year will produce about 450 cases.

The winery is not open to the public and there are no retail sales on the premises. Our wines are available at the Concord Cheese Shop and soon other locations.

We recently sampled bottles of our, very small quantity, 2000 Lincoln-grown Chardonnay to several knowledgeable tasters. This wine saw no oak, was unfined and unfiltered and therefore you could taste the Lincoln vineyard. The results were wonderfully positive.

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