SWISHER — Jeff Quint plucked a small, purple grape from his St. Croix vines and popped it into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, waiting for the crunch of the seed.
“That’s when you know it’s ready to go,” explained the founder of Cedar Ridge Vineyards near here.
This year, the Eastern Iowa winery will be harvesting its 10 acres about a month early — finishing up at the end of August instead of September.
Spring frosts, summer heat and drought have stunted grapes in the Midwest, but growers in Iowa and Missouri said the 2012 crop will be packed with flavor because of the hardships.
“Drought cut our crop to about half what it normally is,” said Glenn Warnebold, founder of OakGlenn Vineyards in Hermann, Mo. “But, wineries will survive, and we hope we’ll have a really great vintage of wine. We’re in much better shape than people who do row crops.”
Cedar Ridge is also optimistic.
“We have the sweetest crop we’ve ever harvested,” said Kolin Brighton, production manager at Cedar Ridge.
When the roots aren’t getting water, berries don’t grow as fat, but the juice is concentrated. This year’s crop is heavy with sugar.
Brighton’s team was harvesting the Johnson County vineyard’s first 2 of 10 grape varieties on a mid-August Saturday.
Volunteers helped pick the grapes in the morning, machines squeezed them into juice stored in huge tanks, then Monday or Tuesday, Brighton said they would add yeast to the chilled liquid.
“Then it will be wine seven days from now,” he said.
The process for planting vines isn’t as speedy.
Quint said he and his wife, who both grew up on Eastern Iowa farms, started Cedar Ridge in 2002 when winemaking was just taking off in Iowa.
The plants take three years to produce — one for the bare-rooted vine to grow up, two for the vine to grow across the trellises. In the third year, the vines are mature enough to bear the weight and stresses of fruit.
“Then you just prune the heck out of it every March,” Quint said. “The main challenge is the coldest days of the winter. . . .You need a vine with the winter hardiness that can stand the coldest days of our winter.”
Until about 15 years ago, those hardy grapes didn’t exist. The well-known French varieties or vinifera, such as Merlot or Pinot Noir, die at 5 degrees Fahrenheit, said Mike White, viticulture specialist with Iowa State University.
“In the mid-90s, the University of Minnesota and Cornell University came out with cold-climate hybrids,” White said. “They took American varieties and crossed them with French. The No. 1 reason we have the industry in the Midwest is that work in the last 20 years.”
This research gave Iowa vineyards the La Crescent hybrid, a high-yield white grape that flourishes in this zone of the Midwest. Missouri’s slightly warmer climate nourishes the Norton or Cynthiana red grape.
“It does better here than anywhere in the county,” Warnebold explained. “It just thrives here like it was meant to be here right along this Missouri River valley.”
Winter-hardy hybrids make winemaking in Missouri and Iowa possible, but high humidity here challenges growers. Downy mildew, powdery mildew, black rot and anthracnose all plague vines.
“In a normal season, in the spring, high humidity and cool days harbors a lot of fungus, so you have to spray a lot,” Warnebold said. This year’s dry weather also helped prevent those diseases.
Still, growers worry about animal pests.
Warnebold complained of Missouri’s hungry deer, turkeys and raccoons. Quint covered his ripe vines with nets to ward off birds.
“Soon as they get sweet, you want to get the nets out,” he said. “Birds figure out they’re sweet, and they’ll go to town.”
Grapes are also attractive to state Legislatures, which stand to make millions in taxes on the industry. White called it “milking the purple cow.”
According to the Iowa Wine Growers Association, wineries had an estimated $234 million effect on the state economy in retail and jobs as of 2008.
White said there are about 99 wineries in the state, up from only 13 in 2000. Iowa is 14th in the United States in number of wineries.
Vineyard-friendly legislation helped build the industry in the past decade.
“Some states, if you make the wine, you can’t sell it directly to the consumer. In Iowa, we’re given that opportunity,” Quint said.
State laws allow for organizations to host wine tastings and festivals. There are also laws that allow certain vineyards to establish commercial wineries and remain assessed as ag land, White said.
“It’s value-added ag, like a farmer wanting to start selling sweet corn on his land,” he added.
Quint said Iowa is approaching 10 percent local-wine consumption.
“If 10 percent of the wine consumed here is made here, that’s 10 percent less we’re importing from out of state. It keeps those dollars in circulation in the state,” he said.
The Iowa Quality Wine Program, which ranks state submissions on chemical and sensory analyses, also helps legitimize the young industry along with online tourism promotion (www.iowawineandbeer.com).
“Cold-climate is the new Napa Valley,” White said. “This industry is just booming.”
And, the sweet effects of the drought should only boost the industry.
“Hogs pay for the farm, sugar pays for the winery,” White added.