Wyoming Wine – Table Mountain Winery

By Brian Lemay 2 comments

– [Announcer] Your
support helps us bring you programs you love. Go to wyomingpbs.org,
click on Support, and become a sustaining
member or an annual member. It’s easy and secure, thank you. (cheerful music) – When you think about
wines, vineyards, and the process of making wines you think maybe about Europe
or Napa Valley in California, but maybe you also should–
– Think about Wyoming. – We’re here in Huntley, Wyoming at Table Mountain Vineyards. We’ll learn about the process
from vineyard to wine. That’s next on
Wyoming Chronicle. (intense music) – [Announcer] Funding for
this program was provided by the members of the
Wyoming PBS Foundation. Thank you for your support. – It’s our pleasure to be
at Table Mountain Vineyards here in eastern Wyoming
with Patrick Zimmerer. Patrick, welcome to
Wyoming Chronicle. – Thank you. – The first question on my
mind is why a vineyard here? – Well, it’s kind of a
story rooted in agriculture and then followed with
the little education
aspects of that, but I’m fourth
generation on the farm. Our farm was
established in 1926. My great-grandfather
was a World War I vet and came to the
Goshen County area, the southeast Wyoming area, looking for land to
homestead and ended up here, so our farm has seen
sheep, cattle, corn, beets, and anything that
you can pretty much productively grow
in southeast Wyoming is how our farm has
evolved over the years. I was majoring
in, I was a senior at the University of
Wyoming in agribusiness, ag economics, and
we had to finish a senior thesis to graduate, kind of our big writing program. – So you were working
to continue your
work in agriculture. – Yes, yeah, since
I was an ag major, like many ag majors
trying to find a way to get back to the farm or consider even going
back to the farm is hard because more people on
the same amount of land isn’t always ideal
or profit out, so just looking for ways
to diversify the farm, having that kind of
open mind, you know, alternative
agriculture is kind of how we randomly
ended up with grapes. We were here, over the winter
I was here on winter break and they kept announcing a
meeting about growing grapes, and we’re right
next to Nebraska, so the University of Nebraska
had an informational meeting about growing grapes and it
was January, it was 30 below. We were feeding cattle on the
feed truck, it kept going. It sounded like a great idea just to get out
of the feed truck and go to town where
there was some heat, (chuckles)
so my dad and I went to that and they basically explained how these new varieties were around and it perked my
interest enough for me to kick out my
senior thesis paper, which was due in
about two months, and basically just
start from scratch and write a whole new
one about growing grapes. – So how did the family
react when you said, “You know what, we
ought to do that here.” Well, my dad’s always
been kind of a wild spirit and he’s always
liked growing things. He’s really the green
thumb in our family, so it didn’t take much
to give him a poke and let him do that. After the paper was
done we had toured a few just wineries in the
region, believe it or not. Nebraska, Colorado had
some going at the time with some of these grapes
that we’re growing, and after the senior
thesis was done we said we have all these
little spots of land that we can’t
irrigate productively. Let’s pop in a few vines. We did all the research,
so let’s do it. My mom was a little
more hesitant on that, some of the rest of the family, because on a farm you
have lots of jobs. We had a lot of cattle and
a lot of other ventures, so adding one more
thing to the to-do list sometimes was a little not
as fun as we saw it to be. – We were talking off-camera. The University of
Minnesota’s research really is what has
allowed growers in this climate to do well. – It has, in the early
’80s, or you know, late ’70s they decided to
start a grape breeding program built upon kind
of some hobbyists and some guys in the Midwest
who are already doing it and they took it up
a whole nother level, so most of the
grapes that we’ve had probably the greatest
success commercially with are anything that have
come through that program. There’s about six different
grapes that they have created and hybridized over the years
that really work for us. – So for those of us who
aren’t great wine connoisseurs, you know, we understand
basically that, you know, some great European wines
from France and from Italy, and then there’s the
great American wines maybe from the Napa Valley. What’s the difference
in the grapes that are grown here
versus in those areas? – Well you know, appears
also with wine making regions all over the world it’s
really about the place that they’re grown
in, not just the type. If you really get
specific to cabernet tastes different in California
versus here and there, and so I don’t know if
we have a taste of place, if you will, in Wyoming. We’ve always just been glad
we can get grapes to grow, so that’s kind of our first
checklist off the bucket, can they grow here, and
then we’ll worry about what they can do in the wine, but most of the grapes
that can survive colder climates in Wyoming,
Montana, North Dakota, they’re really based on
a cold hardy program. So they’re American grapes
crossbred with wine grapes, and what we get is
smaller clusters, a very short growing season,
and really intense flavors, but a lot of them really take
on a lot more fruitiness. They express a lot more
fruit and berry flavor than a traditional
wine grape would. – We’ll go out in just a
little while into the vineyard and actually test the
sugar content of the wines, but you started with
a few hundred vines and now it’s over 10,000? That’s correct. In 2001, shortly after
writing the thesis, we planted 300 vines. We called the nursery, they have grapevine
nurseries in upstate New York and we said we need some,
we’re gonna plant some grapes, and the guy said, “Where are
you from,” and we said Wyoming, and he kind of chuckled
at us a little bit because you know there’s
Wyoming, Michigan, and some other Wyoming cities, and when he found out we
were from Wyoming the state I guess we’re always proud
to say our state first and our town later I
guess, if you will, but he was really
taken aback by that and he goes, “Well,
all of these grapes “are on a two- to
three-year wait list “because they are hybridized “and we can’t get them out
as quick as the demand is,” and so after chatting
with him a while he said, “I think we do have a few vines. “They’re not what you want,
but we’ll get them to you,” because we as foolish
farmers thought you call the vineyard
supply company and they send them to
you and you plant them. We had no idea there was a
two- to three-year wait list. So that very first year
we got our feet wet. They grew, we weren’t
able to kill them. I guess we looked at is as–
(laughs) if they will grow–
– That’s a positive, right? – Yeah, if you will grow
them they will come, and so we actually did
get on the wait list for some of those varieties
that we couldn’t get, and throughout the
years we’ve planted a few thousand every
year up until about ’08, and then we kind of said
that’s enough for us, and then the new it variety came and we planted a
few more in ’14. – So tell me what the
great challenges are of growing grapes and
having your vineyard here. – Well you know, one
of the craziest things is just to know that
they can grow here. Once you get that kind of
negativity out of your mind our first few years were
“Are they gonna come back? “Are they gonna come
back over the winter? “Are they gonna come
back in the spring?” And once you realize they do, you know, your
biggest challenges are that early fall,
or early spring frost. That is one of our
biggest challenges because we do get
really warm in April, and then we can be 20 degrees
mid-May or even early May. So fighting off or warding off that early frost we
can’t do much about. We have found
varieties that actually take longer to come
out of dormancy, and so that’s something
we look for in the grapes that we plant or when
people plant them we kind of recommend
don’t plant this one, they’re an early bud breaker, and then on the other
side of the coin is the early fall frost. And then in between that
time it’s everything we all face in agriculture
in Wyoming, hail. For the most part we don’t have a lot of diseases on the
vines, but hail, wind, and just really, you know,
bad weather beating up the vines is kind of
our biggest enemy. – I’ve read about the 2006
hailstorm you had to endure. What did that cost you? – Well, it cost a
lot of pride I guess, because that was right
when our vines really were starting to produce
and we were very hopeful. I mean we were
talking tons of grapes and not a few thousand pounds, so it was a really
bad setback for us. We had Wyoming ag
in the classroom out here two days
after the hail. Some people, part
of that group said, “We know you grow alfalfa,
but what is that field?” And I mean we were just
completely decimated. Our farm, our buildings,
everything was decimated. So I guess that was our first
test of how strong grapes are. We work really hard
the first three years of a vine’s life to get that
root system established, and believe it or not,
when something catastrophic like that happens they will
come back from the ground or they will come back on top, and we were actually
able to get a harvest. We had a very late
October they came back with their second bud and we
were able to get a harvest. So that was the
year that we said, “I think these things are
here to stay for a while,” so. – Originally you wanted
to take the grapes that you grow here into
a winery in Cheyenne and have them do the rest
of the process, so to speak. But that didn’t quite
work out that way. – It didn’t quite work out. You know, when you’re
growing all these grapes and you’re out in the
field sweating away it’s like it would be
great to have a winery so we could be in the air
conditioning in the summer, but we had worked with
a winery at the time. There was one in Cheyenne, and
this was in the early 2000s, and they were really
excited about getting a Wyoming grape on top
of what they were doing, and that summer–
(dog barks and growls) when we called the
double check, you know, they were disbanding,
and so that really forced our hand a little bit. I think possibly we
would’ve probably come around to a
winery at some point, but it really forced
our hand in 2004, and it was amazing how
quick we got it done. – Now there aren’t
many, if any other, Wyoming growers who
do the growing part and the winery part all
together in Wyoming, is that correct? – Yeah, and you
know, our big joke was when we planted our
first few hundred vines, well I really think
after our first 10 vines, we became Wyoming’s
largest vineyard, and we kind of joke
around with that. We have met a lot of other
growers who dabbled in it or– – Kinda hobbyists.
– Some hobbyists, if you will. And a lot of them would bring
grapes to us over the years, but we are the largest
commercial vineyard as far as I know with
the acreage that we have, and then on the wine side
carrying that forward from what we grow into
the production side. – Best year you’ve
had, when was it? – We were talking
about that earlier, and it’s hard to
believe we’ve had some vintages under our belts. With grapes you really
get one shot a year, so if your fruit
goes, that’s it. ’06-’07 was a bad year, but
’17, the year of the eclipse, and that’s an easy
year to remember, was probably our best year. The grapes, the sugar
levels were off the charts. Our pH was where it should be. Usually in Wyoming
and with every year we’re fighting either the
sugar or the pH or the acid, and in ’17 nature
just did its thing. – You’ve become an entrepreneur. You host gatherings, weddings, other things here on your site. How has that evolved as part of your business
model, so to speak? – Well, I don’t know if
that was ever part of it. The more you diversify
either the more tired you get or the more employees you need. (laughs)
And we are a, we joke and say we are a
mom, pop, and son shop, and we really do work
this part of the business a lot more than our farm
part of the business, and our farm has
evolved and changed a little bit in how we do that, and have worked on a lot of
event hosting here as well, so you know, for the
most part weddings. We do sip-and-paints, just
various type of rentals, Christmas parties,
and so we’ve put a lot of feathers under our hats,
probably sometimes too many, but I guess it’s
just kind of again our agriculture base set. When the job presents itself we take the challenge
and get it done, so. – I want to steer away a
little bit from the vineyard. You wear another hat that is
of great relevance this year. You’re also an attorney, and unfortunately this year
that component of your job has kept you very busy with
the canal collapse here that’s impacted so many farmers here in southeastern Wyoming. – Yeah, I do work the
Goshen Irrigation District. They were one of my, I’m
not a full-time attorney, so I don’t like to be
judged for my attorney hat. I like to show up
in my attorney hat just for a little bit
of mystery, if you will, but I do work for the
Goshen Irrigation District. Water law is something I’m very interested and passionate about, and it was a tough year for
Goshen County economically, and then we had
the canal collapse for Goshen Irrigation District, which affected about 50% of
our irrigated acres here. The grapes are not part
of that water system, so the grapes kind of
were autopilot this year. I did a lot more meetings and paperwork than
I usually do, but– – It’s been, suffice
to say it’s been a tough year for
Goshen County farmers. – It has been a tough year. We’ve seen, like you said, we’ve seen some economic
challenges in Goshen County, the canal collapse, and then
just most recently a tornado, so the fact that we’re even
gonna have a harvest this year, I don’t know how the vines
skipped all of the crisis that we’ve had here
in Goshen County, but we’ve missed the weather
and the storms and all of that. – Can anybody just
start growing grapes and then turn them into wine, or is there a permitting process that you have to go
through, is it significant? – From the growing
standpoint, no. All of the vines
that we’re growing are available commercially. I mean I definitely recommend getting them from
approved sources, kind of an upstate
New York or Minnesota. That’s where the
breeding base is and you get the best
quality of root stock, so I’d recommend that. The winery process is a
federal and a state process, and sometimes a local process. So you know, if you’re doing
some homemade wine making you can make up to
200 gallons, I think, each year without a permit
or anything like that. – But people will find Table
Mountain Vineyard wines in different stores in Wyoming. – We also retail
across the state. We’re in about 50 to 60
different liquor stores. Our wholesale game has
slowed down a little bit because we’re doing a lot
more stuff here on-site, and so we don’t quite
have the employee base to expand like we want to, but at the same point we try
and just keep it very small and organic as we go into
some of these stores, so you’ll be able
to find our wines at one or two select
retailers usually in a city, or we can ship direct
from the winery as well. – So give us the vision
now for the vineyard. Continue as-is, expand even
more, what’s your hope? – Well, you know
we’re coming upon 20 years for some of the vines. When we started
this 20 to 30 years seemed like a very long time. They think that’s kind of the
productive cycle of a vine. We don’t know how long the
vines will live after that, so there’s gotta be
a little longterm looking at which varieties,
if we are gonna replace them. We’ll probably go
to new varieties that we haven’t even tested yet because every year there’s
some new it varieties that through the research
programs they’re even better. The University of
Wyoming’s even dabbled in grape research a little bit, trying to build the new, better, winter hardy, cold hardy grape. So I guess just looking
at where the breeding is and where the root stock is, and right now production-wise we always have more grapes
than we probably can handle. We do process them all, but just trying to
find that ebb and flow of how much grapes
equals how much wine and how to make
that all work out. – It seems to be
nationally maybe the market for wine
is seeing an uptick. Do you experience that? – Wine kinda is one
of the solid sectors, I guess, of the
alcoholic industry. It’s always been pretty steady. Right now, you know, cider’s making a huge
splash into the scenes. Ironically cider disappeared
because prohibition. No one, everyone
tore up the apples, and so people are
now getting back into commercial apple
growing as well. We even have some apple
trees on our place, but the wine industry’s
been pretty stable. Craft distilleries, microbrews
all take part of that market, but you know, wine is the
original taste of place. I mean if you can find a
winery that grows wine, or makes wine from
what they grow, you really do get to experience agriculture from
start to finish, and again, we’ve looked
at this whole process not as a venture in
the wine industry but more of an expansion
of agriculture, and so you really are
tasting from berry to bottle at our place and
any local winery. – Let’s go take a look and
see what the sugar content is and see if these things
are ready to harvest. – All right, you can
almost smell them, but I think they are, so. – I can’t wait to taste them.
– Okay, let’s do it. – All right.
(chuckles) – Yeah, so this variety
here is our Frontenac gris, and we’ll find a
good cluster to pick. (woman murmuring) Right over here maybe, oh yeah. So we wish they all
kinda look like this, but this is a variety
called a Frontenac gris, and then when we pick we
just pick right to here and pull that whole
cluster out, so. And the Frontenac
varieties are very long. A lot of people think wine
grapes and think they’d be huge, but the grapes that grow
here are pretty small, so. – So we’re filming this just
a little bit before harvest. Are those ready to harvest
and how do you tell? – So the easiest way to tell, and this is a pretty simplified
scientific way to do it. – Let me help you hold that.
– There you go. Oh, there you go.
– Okay. – So this is just
a refractometer, and all’s this does is
measure sugar in grapes, so it measures a
percentage of grapes, and if you did
this scientifically you would go select
just random clusters, mash them all up and
get a uniform sample. We just kinda go by
quick and easy here, so. So you just squeeze the juice
on the refractometer here, get it all nice and filled in. Pop that down and then you
pop it in the sunlight. And that reads just about 23. – [Craig] So what does 23 mean? – So 23 is Brix, B-R-I-X,
not like bricks in a house, but it’s a measurement of sugar. So in the wine world you
measure sugar based on Brix, and once 23 Brix actually
converts to alcohol once we add the yeast to the
juice at about 56% to 60%, so I always just
do a quick 50% cut, so 23 Brix gives you about, it’s just about 12%
alcohol potential if the yeast were
to do its whole job, so we kind of shoot
for anywhere, oh see, and then you had to get
a few more samples here and these guys have
shot up to actually 27. And you can kinda
look in that, too, if you want to look and… There’s a line where
there’s blue and– – Oh sure, it’s
very easy to see. – I was looking low, but the
line’s actually a lot higher, so we tested these last
week and they were at 23. So they’ve bumped up
about four degrees. So 27 gets us just right
about 14% alcohol– – [Craig] So if I were– – If the yeast were
to eat everything, and what we try and do
is balance the sugar. The other test that
we would do is acid, because grapes are basically
sugar, water, and acid. So once all the sugar goes away you’ve got this wonderful
fragrant aroma of wine, but if it’s very
acidic then it will be like eating a lemon,
very tart, very acidic. So we have to counter the sugar with the acid at all times, so. – Relative to sugar,
what are you looking for in order to know that
it’s time to harvest? – You know really one of
our jokes here in Wyoming, although we have been
being, this is our, I guess, twelfth
big harvest I’d say. Since ’07 we started
harvesting tons, not pounds, but you know, a lot of
times our hands get tied with the weather, so
we will pick based on we have to do it or
we won’t get a crop, but for the most part we look
at sugar, we look at ripeness. We have about 14 different
varieties that we grow, and we kinda know the
order that they ripen in, so the green are kind
of in the middle. We have one variety that
we’ll start with first, and then we just go by there
and go on the sugar levels, so. – [Craig] So would
this be almost ready? – This is very high. If the rest of them
are panning out like that we’re
probably good to go, so. – [Craig] So we’re filming
this in mid-September. – [Patrick] Right.
– [Craig] Is this generally the time of year
where harvest begins? – Typically the gris we’ll have either be picking right
now or have picked. We’re about five weeks
behind this year. – [Craig] And the weather–
– Weather-related. – [Craig] Moisture,
rain, et cetera. – Right, we had a lot
of moisture in June, almost, I think
somebody said 70% to 80% of our typical
annual moisture level we got in about two to three
months here in Goshen County, so our moisture levels
were very up this year. The grapes actually
expanded a lot of green, a lot of bushiness to them. We weren’t able to go
in and cut them back as much as we usually do, so– – [Craig] So the
great moisture– – So the grapes put
on a lot more growth, but in grapevines you want them to put all their
efforts in the fruit, and this year they
put all their efforts in the greenery, so.
– [Craig] I see. – And then another good
indication is just basic taste. I mean all of these grapes, as small as they are, all
have two seeds in them, and you know the grapes are ripe when the grape starts to
crunch in your mouth, so. – [Craig] Well, I have to test. – You better try it out.
– [Craig] You bet. – And these are a
fairly acidic grape, so you’ll get that sweet but you’ll also get
that tart to them, and you can actually
chew the seeds. – It tastes great,
it really does. – And that’s… (chuckles) That’s kind of, you
know, the beauty of this, and the Frontenac
is one of the grapes that actually we figured out
that grew really well here. We trialed and errored
with about, like I said, we have about 14 different
varieties in the ground. The Frontenac variety
didn’t come along until, I don’t think we got a
plant until about ’05, but it’s got three
gene pools basically, so there’s a Frontenac red, a Frontenac gris,
which is this one, gris, G-R-I-S meaning
gray in French I believe. Look at us being
Frenchies here. (chuckles) But it’s just another
color for amber, and then there’s
actually a third Frontenac called
the Frontenac blanc, and we have all
three of them here that we picked a little earlier, but you can see, I mean, I mean they really
are the same grape. If you did a genetic
test on the vine it would say Frontenac, but these are all just
mutations of the red grape, and so somebody went
and found this mutation and started breeding
this mutation, and within the gris
there’s some white. They started breeding that and selecting these three
very distinct varieties, so even though they’re
the same variety, you can make about six
different types of wines with these three
different grapes, so, and they all have a different
taste and a different flavor. – It does taste a
little bit different. I would say this
was not as sweet as the first grape
that you had me taste. – We will see. – And I would say the
green ones here might be. So it’s all a function
of sugar, right? – It’s all a function of sugar, and typically the
reds will ripen first. Their biggest problem is
their other function is acid, and so the longer the
reds stay on the vine the acid will eventually drop, and so we leave the reds
on as long as possible to try and get the acid down, because in reds you don’t
really want an acidic wine. So the reds are actually
shooting at about 23%, which gives us
about 12% alcohol. So a little less, you
did pick that one out, and if you do this long enough you can kind of go
by taste to know– – I’m sure you can, yeah.
– When the flavors are there, or we have a few varieties
that we actually pick before they get ripe
because they kind of do some weird things
in fermentation, so we actually pick some
ahead of ripening, so. And these are the
Frontenac blancs, and they are at 24% as well, so out of the three
this is our ripest, and then we went to here
and then to there, so, which you can’t really tell
by looking at them, but. And a lot of that again
is just weather-based. As the nights get a little
cooler the sugar will shift, just we’ll have highs and lows. If we get a little rain
the sugar will go away. We get some nice hot days
like they’re predicting they’ll put a little
more sugar back in, so. – So heat’s your
friend at this time? – Heat is our friend right now
and we know we’re pushing it, and I’d like to
say mid-September, but we’re kind of
passed mid, aren’t we? We’re past the 15th,
but– (chuckles) – [Craig] But you’re in the
right part of Wyoming to– – We are, we are
in the lower part, and so we do get blessed
with some longer summers, but anything really
after about 28 degrees will kind of end our
harvest this year. – When you do harvest
how long does it take you and how many people are gonna
be here working the field? – Well, and again that’s
just kind of a function of the yield and how
many grapes we have. We know we’re down this year. It’s always hard
to estimate yield, and I mean we aren’t that
scientific that we go through and calculate how many
pounds are on each vine, but typically we’ll
begin harvest, this year we’re about
five weeks behind, but we will, we usually
start almost on Labor Day and go as long as we can, so usually four to six weeks
is a typical harvest, so. – So it takes a
little bit of time. – Yeah, and then
in terms of labor everything here’s very
manual, very labor-intensive, and so we rely on a
lot of just people looking for work on the
weekends or second jobs, but we’ll have at any
given time 20 to 30 people just helping us pick with
the picking part, so. – It’s been great to see
what you do here, Patrick. We can’t thank you enough
for being our host today, and thank you for joining
us on Wyoming Chronicle. – Thanks for having us.
– Really appreciate it. – Let us tell our story. (smooth music)


Peter R

Nov 11, 2019, 3:41 pm Reply

Still better than HistoryDiscovery Channel

Andy Tuesday

Nov 11, 2019, 8:18 pm Reply

I really enjoyed this thank you ?

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