By Jennifer Kotila
DARWIN, MN “It’s a nice part of God’s world,” Tom Carlson said of the vineyard his family planted on the land that was used as a pasture when the family ran a dairy farm.
The vineyard is called Jomas Hill Vineyard, carrying on the name the Carlsons registered Holsteins under while operating the dairy farm.
The Carlsons combined their first names, Joyce and Thomas, to create the name Jomas.
Tom and Joyce had bought the farm when they were expecting their first child in 1977.
Although Tom had received a degree in education, there were few openings for teachers at the time, so the Carlsons decided to buy a farm and start a dairy, Joyce said.
While operating the dairy, Tom and Joyce registered Holsteins as Jomas Holsteins, combining their names Thomas and Joyce.
They operated the dairy farm for 14 years before they decided to pursue different paths in 1992.
Joyce was a nurse at Dassel-Cokato Schools from 1990 to 2000. She began working at Meeker Memorial Hospital in 2002, and went back to school to receive a master of arts degree in nursing.
She is now a certified wound, ostomy, and continence nurse at MMH.
Tom went to work for Gold Country Seeds, south of Dassel on Highway 15, where he still works today, selling corn and soybeans.
Reconnecting to the land
Although the land where they planted the vineyard was still farmed after they closed the dairy, it was not the same, Joyce said.
There is very little connection to the land when planting and harvesting corn or soybeans, all while riding a big piece of farm machinery, Joyce explained.
“This has helped us to be more engaged with our farm getting out there and enjoying it,” Joyce said.
“It’s kind of like milking cows, but you don’t have to be on time,” Tom said.
The vines require constant attention and upkeep, Joyce said.
There is pruning in the winter, trimming the vines in the summer, and training the vines to follow the trellis system.
Then, when the grapes are near harvest, the pH level of the grapes is checked so they can be harvested when they will produce the best tasting wine, Tom said.
In June, Tom estimated he was in the vineyard about four hours each night, and one full day on the weekends. “But, it’s going to get a little easier from now on,” he said
“It’s labor-intensive if you’re going to do it right,” Joyce said.
But the Carlsons acknowledge the beauty of the vineyard, and the value of being close to nature.
“There’s something about coming out here that provides respite after being around people all the time,” Joyce said.
The vineyard is located on a pretty part of the property, especially when the sun is setting, she commented.
“Looking at each vine’s growth pattern and helping it to grow and produce it’s so peaceful and restful,” Joyce said.
Their family has enjoyed helping with the vineyard, as well.
“It was a wonderful weekend when we planted the vineyard with a large gathering of family and friends,” Joyce said.
Their son, Luke, had recently met his now fiancé, Angela, when they helped to plant the vineyard.
They have since decided the vineyard would be a perfect place for a wedding, Joyce said.
The Carlsons’ daughter, Esther, along with her husband and children, have helped with the vineyard, as well.
So much to learn
“We’re learning how to grow grapes,” Tom said. “If we learn how to grow good grapes, then we’ll make good wine.”
In May 2009, the Carlsons planted 1,400 Marquette vines, which are cold hardy hybrid developed by the University of Minnesota whose heritage goes back to the Pinot noir from France.
There is a lot of education available for wine makers and grape growers in Minnesota to enable them to compete on a national scale for the sale of good wine, Tom explained.
The Carlsons have been a part of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association for several years to learn all they can about growing grapes in Minnesota.
They have attended the yearly conferences, splitting up to take classes and workshops, after which they share what they have learned, Joyce said.
Being a part of the association has also assisted them in networking with others in the grape-growing business.
“There is so much to learn about growing grapes,” Tom said. “We are determining if this is a good location to grow grapes.”
“The angle of the sun during growing season is the same as the wine-growing area of France (Bordeaux),” Tom said.
This year will be the first saleable harvest of grapes from those vines, which take about four years to establish full production, Joyce said.
Over the last three summers, the Carlsons have been learning what their vineyard can produce.
For instance, in the geography of Minnesota, and of Jomas Hill Vineyard, there are many different soil types, Tom noted.
Some of the soils produce phenomenal growth, while others don’t allow the vines to take off.
“You can sense the balancing of nutrients, water, and sunlight, and improve it to produce good fruit,” Tom said.
If something is not balanced properly, it will create a fruit that is too acidic or too sugary, meaning it will not produce a good wine, Tom said.
Vines located at the top of a hill at the vineyard are in soil that consists of more clay and gravel, which is more restrictive of the root growth.
“It’s harder for the restricted root to pull in the nutrients that it needs,” Tom explained.
Those vines are stressed and have produced smaller grape clusters, with smaller leaves, and shorter internodes (the space between leaf and grape clusters).
“I’m learning what types of soil are best, and how to amend the soil,” Tom said.
“Sometimes they say fruit from a stressed vine is better, though,” Joyce pointed out.
But, if the current vineyard is expanded, Tom said he will not plant vines at the top of the hills, where the soil is more dense.
Although the vines the Carlsons use in the vineyard are disease-resistant, it can be a challenge to raise fruit without disease, Tom said.
One disease that can really harm a vineyard is the fungi anthracnose, which attacks leaves and fruit, and can overwinter in the stems.
Another problem for grape growers is weather. Just as any other plant, too little or too much rain can affect how well the grapes grow or if the vines survive.
Some of the Carlsons’ vines have been damaged by weather events, such as an unexpected frost or hail.
“If you think about capturing sunlight, anytime the leaf is compromised, it affects photosynthesis, which affects the sugar in the fruit,” Tom noted.
However, the Carlsons have only lost three vines out of the 1,400 planted in 2009.
They are looking forward to retaining some of their harvest this year to try their hand at making red wine.
“We are going to play with it, learn how to make wine,” Joyce said. “What will happen in the years ahead with the full production of wine-making. . .”
“. . .is yet to be determined,” Tom finished.
While the Carlsons are unsure what direction their vineyard will take them, they are enjoying the process and reconnecting with their land.