Making wine in Monroe County

Vineyard, wine lab at MCCC are culinary learning tools

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    Monroe Community College Culinary Arts students John Feaganes, Monroe, and Kim Cousino, Erie, have a laugh as they weed around grape vines.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • Monroe Community College Culinary Arts students John Feaganes, Monroe, and Kim Cousino, Erie, have a laugh as they weed around grape vines.
    Monroe Community College Culinary Arts students John Feaganes, Monroe, and Kim Cousino, Erie, have a laugh as they weed around grape vines.

    The first white settlers to our region were thrilled to discover native grapes (concord, Niagara, and catawba varieties) growing along the Great Lakes and its tributaries, such as the River Raisin in Monroe. They quickly set about making wine.

    In 1863, Michigan’s first commercial vineyard was planted in Monroe County by New Yorker Joseph M. Sterling, and within five years he was selling wine. It was beverage whose time had come, and just 16 years later, the county had nearly two dozen vineyards on 200 acres producing 600,000 pounds of grapes that became 12,000 gallons of wine.

    Today, the county has just one commercial vineyard.

    PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view slideshow.

    Oddly, it was the 2009 construction of 21st-century technology -- an array of solar panels by DTE Energy on the campus of Monroe County Community College -- that would inspire another vineyard. Construction was occurring at the same time that eight college employees were kicking around the idea of a Bacchus Society chapter that would create a viticulture (wine growing) and enology (wine making) certificate program for culinary arts students.

    As row after row of stanchions to which solar panels would be affixed sprang up, one of the eight coworkers was struck by how much they looked like vineyard posts. He shared that thought with Mark Spenoso, college photographer and director of the copy center, and they had a simultaneous Aha! moment.

    “We literally ran down the hall and got Chef [Kevin Thomas] and said, ‘What do you think of a vineyard?’” said Mr. Spenoso, president of the Bacchus Society at MCCC.

    They received a grant and the college approved use of a 100-by-200-foot plot of overgrown land flanked by a ditch that drains into the River Raisin.

    The following spring, a farmer was hired to clear brush from a 100-by-50-feet area for the first garden, and the physical labor began: cleaning, tilling, installing posts, and planting the first 20 vines, all done by the eight determined Bacchus Society members.

    Wild grapes grow near Monroe Community College's V1300 vineyard.
    Wild grapes grow near Monroe Community College's V1300 vineyard.

    The college’s former automotive lab is now the wine lab, and they’re writing a curriculum that will include both grape growing and wine making.

    All along, Jon Treloar, owner of J. Trees Cellars (vineyard in Petersburg, Mich., tasting room in the historic cider mill in Tecumseh, Mich.) has served as mentor. Last fall, Mr. Treloar invited Mr. Thomas and his students to his vineyard where they picked about 300 pounds of white grapes, adding to them the first 15 pounds harvested from V1300.

    They crushed, pressed, and fermented the fruit, producing 36 bottles of pretty respectable wine, according to Bacchus Society samplers.

    In October, Mr. Thomas will teach life-long learning classes in Wines of the World and Food and Wine Pairings.

    In addition, the college and Bacchus (it has grown by word of mouth to 125 members) have pledged to help develop a heritage vineyard at the nearby River Raisin National Battlefield Park. Research is being done, primarily at the National Archives, to determine precisely where on the battlefield a vineyard and orchard were located in 1812, and perhaps even the variety of grape that was grown.

    Scott Bentley, park superintendent, said following the Monroe County battles of the War of 1812, settlers in Frenchtown filed claims with the federal government for property damage, including farms and crops. Some claims included maps and detailed descriptions, which are stored at the National Archives.

    NOTE: If you grow wine grapes and need them crushed/destemmed and pressed, the Bacchus Society at MCCC may be able to help. It plans to invite small growers to a Community Crush in its wine lab, probably on a weekend in September that does not conflict with important football games. For information, call 1-734-384-4150.

    Name: Kevin Thomas, culinary arts instructor at Monroe County Community College, with students and members of the Bacchus Society at MCCC, raising grapes at the edge of campus.

    A petite pearl grape vine is planted.
    A petite pearl grape vine is planted.

    Garden dimensions: This pilot vineyard is 100-by-50-feet, with plans to double. We named it V1300 Vineyard because MCCC, in Roman numerals, is 1300, and the restaurant attached to our culinary arts program is named Cuisine 1300. The plot nestles up against the college, a golf course, and a small horse farm. We didn’t know about the soil or drainage when we began, but it’s loamy soil, excellent for what we’re doing. It is fenced with deer netting attached to eight-foot T-posts.

    When and how did you start gardening? The idea hatched among college staff In 2009 and we broke ground in spring, 2010. When I realized how much work it is to tend to a vineyard I couldn’t get my students involved fast enough. We’re trying to build a certificate program that would include viticulture and enology. The former auto lab is being renovated into a wine lab, and we’ll be writing a curriculum.

    What do you grow? Five varieties totalling about 120 vines: Vignole and Aromella (white grapes) and Marechal Foch and Cabernet Franc (red grapes). This year we added a new red grape, Petite Pearl, developed at the University of Minnesota.

    As the vines grow they’ll be tied at three- and six-foot intervals to 12-gauge galvanized wire that’s attached to posts. Ideally, vines will reach the three-foot level the first year, the six-foot level the second year, and be ready for picking in the third or fourth year. Until then, we prune grapes off so the plant’s energy will go to the roots.

    Favorite plant? The Vignoles, because we’ve been able to harvest the grapes for wine production already. And the Petite Pearl.

    Give us a tip: Don’t overwater. Make the vines’ roots travel deep into the ground to find water. It will help the fruit develop its characteristics.

    Hours spent gardening per week? Six to 10.

    Annual expense: About $600. Start-up is capital intensive. We’ve receive about $8,000 in grants from the college so far. We’ve purchased a crusher/destemmer, and a press, carboys, bottles, garden equipment, tools.

    Challenges: Weeds, rabbits, deer (they eat the leaves). Birds can wipe out a vineyard, so in early August just before the grapes ripen, we affix a light mesh fabric over the vines.

    Another challenge was last winter. We lost about 20 Vignole vines. They’d produced in 2013 but are just woody stumps. It’s heartbreaking; we won’t be able to harvest this year.

    Added Mark Spenoso, Bacchus Society president: “When you strip it away, we’re farmers, we’re at the mercy of the weather.”

    I’m proud of: The grapes that we’ve been able to process into wine at our lab. This is the college’s 50th anniversary and we wanted to produce a wine that would be used at celebrations. We made 36 bottles of wine from our 2013 harvest, called it V1300 Vignole and it will be served at the college’s 50th anniversary dinner hosted by MCCC President Kojo Quartey.

    Contact Tahree Lane at tlane@theblade.com and 419-724-6075.