Ill. breeder scours roadsides for Midwest grapes
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Wine-grape expert Bill Shoemaker has taken to the roadsides of Illinois in search of wild grapes that he hopes can be crossed with their more refined cousins to create a tasty and hardy crop.
The University of Illinois researcher has begun a years-long project that includes plenty of wild grape tasting -- much of it not pleasant.
"After a while you get sore tongues because you taste a lot of acidic grapes," Shoemaker said. "You spit out an awful lot of grapes you don't like."
What those wild grapes lack in taste, though, they make up in the ability to thrive in cold Midwestern winters and survive plant diseases that can decimate wine grapes with better pedigrees bred to grow elsewhere.
Shoemaker hopes to someday breed better grapes and offer more opportunities for the growing Midwestern wine industry.
Interest in winemaking has soared in the Upper Midwest, and last year Minnesota hosted the first International Cold Climate Wine Competition. The number of wineries in Illinois and Michigan has grown from a few dozen in the mid-1990s to more than 150, according to industry groups in both states.
"People throughout the country have been pushing the envelope as to what can be produced in their region," said Linda Jones, executive director of Michigan's Grape and Wine Industry Council.
In Illinois, Shoemaker said thousands of people drive past the grapes he's interested in every day.
"You can find them easily driving up and down any interstate highway," he said from the university's St. Charles Horticulture Research Center, about 45 miles west of Chicago. "You'll see wild grapes all over the state of Illinois. Some of my better specimens have been found along fence rows."
French settlers who moved into what's now Illinois as early as the 1600s ate the grapes and tried to make wine with them, Shoemaker said.
But the region's wild grapes, he said, never would be confused with cultivated grapes. They rarely taste very good.
Some question the point of producing wine in the Midwest.
Robert Moody, chairman of the Sommelier Society of America, has nothing against the region, but he wonders why people should work to grow grapes in such an inhospitable climate.
"You can grow much better grapes in other areas," said Moody, whose group is dedicated to the appreciation of wine.
Mossbach Ridge winery owner Peggy Harmston wouldn't argue with that, but she still is dedicated to growing grapes for wine on 18 acres in Elizabeth, in the far northwest corner of Illinois. She said she likes the idea of having a locally produced wine.
Elizabeth sits amid compact hills that roll in from the Mississippi River, just to the west. The area looks like wine country; the winters suggest anything but. Harmston's grapes have to be tough.
"These can take negative 20, negative 30 degrees," she said of the varieties she grows, including the popular St. Pepin, developed in Wisconsin. "We had negative 40 for the past two years."
It's tough in a climate that cold, Harmston said, to grow many grapes with high levels of tannin, a compound found in grape seeds, skin and stems that help give wine some of its flavor and feel.
Shoemaker said he's focusing on one wild grape in particular -- the vitis aestivalis bicolor -- that grows wild over a wide range of the Midwest, and even east into the Adirondacks region of New York.
The vitis aestivalis has high tannins and relatively low acids, he said, and thrives in the wild.
"The fruit in it is very similar in some respects to the kind of grapes we use in wine making," Shoemaker said.
Crossing grape varieties is relatively easy, Shoemaker said, just a matter of controlling the flow of pollen from one plant to another.
But the results take time -- lots of time.
The first grapes show up on the vine in three years, after which it takes another year before the grower has a real crop to work with.
That may well be followed by years more of crossing one of the new hybrids with still more varieties, looking for something that works just right.
"If you have short-term success, you're just lucky," Shoemaker said. "It could be 15, 30 years."
Harmston would love to have another variety that isn't bothered by the diseases found in northwest Illinois that can be so hard on most grape varieties, but she knows Shoemaker and understands his work may take a while.
"I don't know if it'll be my lifetime, necessarily," she said, laughing. "Or at least while I'm managing the winery -- maybe my kids, I guess."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.