Farm Horizons, November 2009

Fruitful vineyard a ‘grape’ success

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

Bursting with flavor, the grapes at Wind Dance Vineyard in rural Delano take a lot of work to produce, but the fruits are well worth the labor.

Bob and Peg Belbeck’s two-acre vineyard has about 800 vines, all of which are used to produce wine-worthy grapes for Woodland Hill Winery, less than two miles away.

Since they started in 2002, growing grapes has been a learning process.

“The birds cleaned us out the first year,” Bob said. Now, they put nets over the vines every year, about the first week in August.

“Right before the grapes start getting color,” Bob explained.

Bob and Peg didn’t want to spend a lot of money on equipment, so they used innovation to create their own.

Bob developed a device for putting posts into the ground that hooks up to an air compressor.

“That worked pretty well,” he said. He also made his own fertilizer sprayer that is pulled behind a Kubota tractor.

The Belbecks don’t use chemicals in their vineyard, and have been following organic practices “without really knowing it,” Peg said.

“Some of the chemicals say they’re carcinogenic,” she said. They didn’t want to take a chance with their own health, or the safety of their animals and the nearby lake.

Instead, they spray a foliar fertilizer on the leaves, which helps the plants absorb nutrients.

“The idea is, if the plant has good nutrients, it will be better able to fend off disease and insects,” Peg said.

For the Belbecks, who also have jobs apart from the vineyard, work on the fruit trees begins in March, with the first major pruning of the year. Each of the 19 rows takes about 45 minutes.

“I try not to count them,” Bob said.

Bob said he used to listen to music on an iPod while pruning, but kept cutting the cord with the clippers.

“That got expensive,” he said. Now, he cranks up music from the barn.

The grapevine trellis system Wind Dance Vineyard uses is a low trellis system, which means that the main branch, or cordon, is near the ground (about 2.5 feet high), with the vines spreading to wires higher up, about 5.5 feet.

“We get a lot of wind,” Bob said, which makes a low trellis a good option.

To keep the trees growing upright, the vines are tied to the wires with green tape.

When Wind Dance Vineyard first started, the grapes were sold to wineries in Stillwater and Rochester. Some of the grapes were also used for eating.

“We actually had people from all over the state come pick,” Bob said.

When Woodland Hills Winery opened, the Belbecks were happy to have a winery so close. They sell all their grapes to the winery for 65 cents per pound.

“We really lucked out,” Peg said.

Woodland Hills Winery tells the Belbecks when to pick their grapes, to ensure that they have the correct sweetness, or brix.

The earlier grapes are picked, the lower the brix and the higher the acidity. Woodland Hills has the grapes picked at 22 brix.

“Different wineries want different things,” Peg said.

Most of the grapes at the Wind Dance Vineyard are the Frontenac variety, which are disease resistant and can be made into many types of wine. They also have a red French grape called the Sabrevois, a white grape called the Prairie Star, and Frontenac gris, which is their favorite.

“Those are the ones we eat while we pick them,” Bob said.

The grapes are all hand-picked the third week of September. In 2008, they got about five pounds per vine. This year looks like it’ll be about 15 to 20 pounds, Bob said.

“That’s the best we’ve ever done,” he said, explaining that they experimented with minimal pruning this year.

“The key thing with grapes is balance,” Peg said. “If they overproduce, it’s going to weaken your vine.”

Each cluster of grapes weighs about six ounces.

“It’s just amazing how many grapes there are,” Bob said.

After the grapes are picked, they are put in five-gallon buckets to soak in water for 10 minutes. This gets rid of bugs, especially Asian beetles.

“We do it a lot longer than most people, because we hate those things,” Peg said.

Before starting the vineyard, the land was used as pasture for the Belbeck’s llamas. The llamas couldn’t eat all the grass, so Bob and Peg decided to do something else with the land.

“Fruit trees sounded good,” Bob said. “There’s a high demand for grapes, especially with all the wineries going up.”

“I always have to be growing something,” added Peg, who is a Wright County master gardener.

The Belbecks also grow Honeycrisp apples and apricots.

“The apricots are great,” Bob said. “We had hundreds last year.” Peg makes apricot liquor using apricots, brandy, and vodka.

“We’re into alternative crops and livestock,” Peg said. “We want to try things that are fun and different.”

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