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Central U.S. Wineries Get Organized

Growers unite in Oklahoma, island winery planned in Michigan, and Wisconsin forms wine trail

by Jane Firstenfeld
Canadian River Vineyards Winery Oklahoma
Canadian River Vineyards and Winery is one of the oldest in Oklahoma; owner Gene Clifton is heading a new statewide organization, the Oklahoma Grape Industry Council.
San Rafael, Calif.—Despite an unusually challenging winter, the wine industry in the Central United States has been anything but dormant. Winemakers and grapegrowers have been joining forces and resources in support of their local industries in anticipation of the season—and years—to come. Wines & Vines brings the latest from the Central segment.

Statewide council for Oklahoma

A half-dozen grapegrowing groups previously focused on viticultural issues have banded together to form the Oklahoma Grape Industry Council (OGIC). The new nonprofit plans to concentrate on marketing and wine quality improvement through education, research and communication. WinesVinesDATA currently lists 58 licensed wineries in the Sooner State.

Members of the Lincoln County Grape Growers Association, Frontier Country Wine Growers Association, Grand Wine Country Association, Great Plains Wine Growers Association, Gloss Mountains Wine Growers Association and Kiamichi Wine Growers Association formed the OGIC.

Gene Clifton, owner of 4,000-case Canadian River Vineyards and Winery in Lexington, is heading the council during the formation process: To date, about 15 wineries and 40 vineyard owners have signed on, Clifton told Wines & Vines. The council will be funded by memberships and hopes to plan fundraising activities in the future. Clifton, who farms seven acres of vineyard on-site and eight at other locations, estimated that Oklahoma has about 1,000 total acres of vineyards, most of them just 3 to 4 years old.

Many new vineyard owners experience growing pains, he said. “They need to know what to grow and how to grow it.” Oklahoma’s climate is, he acknowledged, extreme. In late February, he said, “It was minus-4°F last week. We’re expecting 80°F” within a few days.

The growing season is short and hot, with bud break in April, and harvest for some hybrid winegrapes in late July. Clifton said he recently pulled an acre of Zinfandel vines and replaced them with Riesling. “That’s going to be a good grape for Oklahoma,” he predicted. Clifton also thinks Muscat, currently enjoying something of a renaissance as a varietal wine, will do well there.

Membership in OGIC is currently $100; the existing organizations already have trail maps. Oklahoma is still relatively new to the wine business. “When I came here in 1977, there were no wineries,” Clifton recalled. “We’re as much as you can be in the Bible Belt,” and, he acknowledged, the industry still faces opposition from alcohol opponents.

“We’ve been growing in the past 10 years, and are still growing,” Clifton said. “I used to know everyone in the business.” He planned to meet with officials at Oklahoma State University, which already offers viticulture courses, to help them obtain a winery license and prepare for enology classes. OGIC has yet to establish a website; for membership and other information, e-mail

Detroit Michigan Belle Isle Vineyard and Winery
If plans are approved, Belle Isle Vineyard and Winery would take root in the Detroit River, with 10 acres of organic vineyards and an operating winery.
A beautiful dream in Detroit
With 119 operating wineries, according to WinesVinesDATA, and a well-established reputation, Michigan is “a sleeping giant,” said Blake Kownacki, winemaker and vineyard manager at 1,000-case Cherry Creek Cellars in Albion, Mich. Kownacki and Cherry Creek proprietor John Burtka, who also owns 500-case Sleeping Bear Winery in Albion, hope to wake the giant. They have ambitious plan to plant vineyards and build a winery on Detroit’s Belle Isle.

A short bridge-hop from downtown Detroit, 900-acre Belle Isle was designed by 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for designing New York’s Central Park. Currently used primarily for recreation, much of the island has fallen into disrepair, including a turn-of-the-century casino that Burtka and Kownacki would like to convert into an operating winery to provide production for a proposed 10-acres of organic winegrape vineyards.

The winemakers, both originally from Detroit, envision Belle Isle Winery & Vineyard as a public/private partnership that would draw tourism and create jobs in the struggling metropolis. Predictably, they’ve run into opposition, although there are no residents on Belle Isle. “We understand that groups will object. We’re trying to run the gauntlet” of city government and watchdog groups, Kownacki told Wines & Vines.

He emphasized that they would consider the potential vineyard and winery as an extension of the existing botanical garden, where visitors could engage actively or passively with the vineyard without jeopardizing the island’s historic nature. “We believe we can do it,” Kownacki said, “with handcrafted, artisanal wines, a tasting room and museum; producing maybe 2,500 cases of wine.”

Already involved in Detroit’s emerging urban agriculture scene, Burtka and Kownacki have lined up some 100 would-be grapegrowers to work with the Greening of Detroit within the city. “We’d provide training and material for grapegrowing, to see if it takes hold and if there is potential.”

They’ll meet later this week with city officials to address concerns expressed by Mayor Dave Bing about the Belle Isle proposal. “Our business model has to shift, based on responding to the city,” Kownacki said.

Wisconsin wine trail

Five wineries in Northeastern Wisconsin seek to establish their identity along with the Fox River Valley Wine Trail. Located in Brown, Kewaunee and Outagamie counties near Green Bay, members include urban Captain’s Walk (2,500 cases), downtown Green Bay; 2,500-case Trout Springs Winery and 500-case LedgeStone Vineyards, Greenleaf; 5,000-case Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery, Kewaunee; and 40,000-case Kerrigan Brothers, Freedom.

Kerrigan Brothers’ Tim Landwehr has produced a trail map to be distributed at all the member wineries. WinesVinesDATA now identifies 59 operating wineries in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Grape Growers Association recently appointed Becky Rochester as grape marketing coordinator, a position funded by a Specialty Crops Grant. Learn more at

Posted on 03.15.2011 - 14:49:53 PST
Great news all around. I hope WineAmerica can help each of these ventures succeed.
Cary Greene, WineAmerica
Washington, DC USA

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