Episode 44: Mississippi

Hello, and welcome to another splendid episode of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, centered around the Magnolia State: Mississippi. In this episode, we drink the 2018 Delta Dry mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery, located in Tupelo, Mississippi. Now, there’s a fair bit of argument in the drinking community on whether or not mead truly counts as a style of wine, but I’m going to err on the side of the TTB on this one, which defines mead and honey wine as being the same thing. And even if you are a purist, and feel mead should truly be its own entity, the fact of the matter is that the 2018 Delta Dry is technically what is known as a pyment; a mead (or if you want to be super pedantic, a melomel) made from honey and grapes. In this case, the Riesling in the Delta Dry was sourced from Oregon, while the honey was local wildflower honey sourced from just down the road.  The grapes and honey were fermented together to produce this beverage.

So… what do these terms all mean, anyway?  Before we cover the history of the industry in Mississippi, let’s clear some mead terminology up. Mead, which etymologically comes from the Old English meodu, is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, often with the additions of various fruits, spices, grains, or even hops.  The key defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey.  That all being said, there are different styles of mead under that umbrella. Cyser, for example, is a mead made with honey and apples or pears. A mead that uses spices or herbs (or both) is often referred to as a metheglin. As mentioned above, meads made with fruits other than apples and pears can be referred to as a melomel, and a mead specifically made with grapes can often be known as a pyment. As if that wasn’t enough, Wikipedia has an even bigger list… suffice to say, Mead is rather more complicated than it seems at first glance.  Anyway, I digress: onto history.

At one point in time, Mississippi ranked rather high in terms of American viticultural production. Muscadine grapes were grown in many locations throughout the state, but the dramatic loss of life from the Civil War, combined with a statute enacted in 1907 which banned the manufacture and sale of Mississippi Wine, meant that the industry went into a nosedive. Due to the long-lasting effect prohibition created in the deep south, Mississippi was, as it turns out, the last state to repeal the Volstead Act in 1966, and many counties in the state remain dry through present day.

This means the wine industry in Mississippi still has yet to recover. Along with Queen’s Reward Meadery, the state has only three other wineries: Almarla Vineyards, Gulf Coast Winery, and Old South Winery. The State does have one AVA: The Mississippi Delta AVA, formed in 1984, is shared with Mississippi’s border states of Tennessee and Louisiana. However, this AVA has not attracted any large-scale viticultural endeavors as of yet. This is due to an additional factor along with the long history of Prohibition in the region: climate.

Mississippi’s location, between 30 degrees N and 35 degrees N in latitude, produces a sub-tropical climate with long, humid summers and short, mild winters. This means that Fungal diseases like mildew and Pierce disease are often widespread. In addition, unpredictable weather patterns stemming from the proximity of the state to the Gulf of Mexico also present a large risk for growers. The unpredictable Mississippi climate makes it difficult to grow most varieties of grapes, other than those within the Muscadine family–which are often not associated with “fine” wine production. (Though as we’ve discussed before, most of us who are associated with this podcast rather enjoy them anyway.)

I acquired this bottle online through the meadery’s website, specifically for this podcast.  In addition, we were lucky enough to catch Geoff Carter, the mead-maker and co-owner on the phone for this episode, to answer a few of our questions. (We now realize, after seeing just how complex of a topic Mead can be, that we probably should have asked more of them.)

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The Delta Dry Grape Mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery in Tupelo, Mississippi is not only our introduction to the wine industry in Mississippi, but also to mead as a whole.

Episode 43: Oklahoma

Welcome to our 43rd episode of The Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we visit a state we should have visited Sooner: Oklahoma. Our featured wine in this episode is the Glitz, a sparkling Norton and Pinot Gris blend sold by Whirlwind Winery, located in the town of Watonga.  This particular wine was not made by the crew at Whirlwind–coming from a second, now defunct winery, but the owner, Brad Stinson thought this wine was fascinating enough to be worth saving from oblivion and thus acquired all remaining inventory.  We’ve met Norton before in our very first episode of the podcast, so it is fascinating to see this grape in an entirely different mode.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, by the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oklahoma had thousands of acres of domesticated table and wine grapes. The acreage of grapes planted in 1907 and 1908 were estimated to be 3,700 and 5,425, respectively, which happens to be about ten times more than is planted in the state of Oklahoma today. The first report on varieties of grapes that were suitable for the state was released as early as 1894 by what was then known as the Oklahoma A&M College. (A later publication detailed other aspects of a whopping 175 varieties!) The oldest documented winery in what is now Oklahoma was opened in 1898 by Charles Fairchild, though I could not find any information on the name of this winery. In 1926 the USDA and Oklahoma A&M co-published Grapes in Oklahoma. Yet the end was near as both the Dust Bowl and the introduction of Prohibition into the state’s constitution sounded the death knell for the Oklahoma wine industry. The industry slumbered until 1982, when Cimarron Cellars in Caney, Oklahoma opened.

A survey in 2006 showed that growers in the state preferred red grapes, which took up a majority of the acreage. Vitis vinifera-derived varieties, in turn accounted for 80 percent of all plantings. V. vinifera varieties are the most widely grown in Oklahoma because they are generally considered the premium grapes for winemaking; however, observation and research has shown most of these varieties are highly susceptible to cold damage and fungal infection. In the 2006 survey interspecific hybrid grapes made up less than 15 percent of vines, American species grapes approximately 7 percent, and muscadine grapes less than 1 percent of the total. Today, the state of Oklahoma has about 52 different wineries, and ranks thirty-first among the fifty states in terms of wine production.  There is also one AVA which extends into Oklahoma: the Ozark Mountain AVA.  The sixth largest American Viticultural Area in terms of total size, this appellation covers Northwest Arkansas, southern Missouri, and extends into the northeastern part of Oklahoma.

This bottle was graciously donated to the podcast (along with several other vintages) by the winemaker and part owner of Whirlwind Winery, Brad Stinson. Some of these bottles will be covered in later episodes.  Thank you once again!

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The Glitz, a sparkling NV blend of Norton and Pinot Gris sold by Whirlwind Winery, is our introduction to the wine scene of Oklahoma.

Episode 41: Ohio

Welcome to episode 41 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, featuring the Buckeye State, Ohio.  Featuring one of the more unique flags of a US State, Ohio has a long and lauded history with the American Wine industry. It is fitting, therefore, that the bottle we have chosen for our first Ohio episode: the En Plein Aire pét-nat from Vermilion Valley Vineyards, is somewhat of an homage to that storied history.  This sparkling wine, made as a méthode ancestrale, is a field blend of roughly 75% Pinot Noir, and 25% Muscat Ottonel, with minuscule percentages of Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau, sourced from their vineyards in the Lake Erie AVA. For those who are new to the natural wine game, this method, known also as pétillant-naturel, allows the initial fermentation to finish inside the bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide; there is no addition of new yeast for a secondary fermentation, nor disgorgement (unlike with Champagne and other sparkling wines of that ilk).

So, why a Sparkling wine to start Ohio off? To answer this question, we must go to the Ohio River Valley around 1825, and visit one Nicholas Longworth.  He planted, in the end, over 2,000 acres of Catawba grapes, and ended up producing sparkling wine that won not only national acclaim, but actually beat out titans from Champagne in at least one competition in Europe!  The resulting victory lead to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.” (I’m thinking this poem may be the subject of a dramatic reading in Season 2.) However, by the late 1850’s, black rot and powdery mildew had destroyed much of these vineyards, and the viticultural center of Ohio had moved to the region surrounding Lake Erie, where at the time, 33,000 acres of grapes and 161 wineries flourished.  Alas, like in other states, the grim specter of Prohibition ended this idyll, and to survive, most vineyards were converted to the growing of Concord for juice production–some vineyards dating to this period, such as Meier’s Wine Cellars survive today in this mode. By 1963, only 27 wineries survived, with only half making wine from Ohio-grown grapes.  The state was ripe for a renaissance.

Oddly, compared to other states we’ve explored in the course of our podcast, Ohio never needed farm winery legislation to aid that renaissance.  Instead, two major organizations devoted to viticulture jump-started this transition.  The first was the Ohio Wine Producers Organization; the second was the Ohio Grape Industries Program.  Both of these groups have catapulted Ohio wine to the impending super-stardom where the industry lurks at this time. Today, the state of Ohio has over 290 wineries, located within Five distinct American Viticultural Areas: the Lake Erie AVA, the Isle St. George AVA, the Ohio River Valley AVA, the Grand River Valley AVA, and lastly the Loramie Creek AVA.  Producing over 3,582,902 gallons, Ohio is (as of 2016) actually ranked 6th in the US in terms of wine production, and 8th in terms of total acreage under vine. Wine Enthusiast actually recently wrote an article about why Ohio wine is something to look out for, as well, so winemakers in the state are making some noise.

This bottle was kindly provided to the Make America Grape Again Podcast by the winemaker himself, Joe Juniper. I reached out to him after a kind couple in the tasting room I work for in Arizona mentioned that Vermilion Valley Vineyards was their favorite winery in the state. Thank you again, kind sir for your contribution, and for joining in on our podcast!

A sparkling wine in the oldest tradition, the En Plein Air from Vermilion Valley Vineyards starts our journey into Ohio Wine.

Episode 40: Minnesota

Welcome to Episode 40 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we explore the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes: Minnesota. Located at roughly the same parallel as Bordeaux, Minnesota has many challenges due to an often bitterly cold climate. That being said, the 2017 Voyageur from Alexis Bailey Vineyard is a vintage which shows that this state can hold its own against all comers.  The 2017 Voyageur is a blend of Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Leon Millot, sourced from the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. All of these varietals are complex French-American Hybrid varietals, adapted to cold-weather climates; a topic we discussed a bit at length back in episode 34. It should be noted here that Alexis Bailey Vineyard is home to the oldest planted vineyard in the state of Minnesota, dating back to 1977, and is the second oldest winery in the state.

The climate of Minnesota is harsh, making viticulture difficult. Prior to prohibition, most winemaking in the state seems to have been focused around fruit wines. It can be honestly said that the history of Minnesota wine truly only begins with the work of Elmer Swenson. Indeed, it might be said that without this man, cold-weather viticulture would not exist. Elmer Swenson started to breed grapes in Wisconsin, thanks to an interest in grapes brought on by his grandfather, along with a reading of T.V. Munson’s Foundations of American Grape Culture. On a whim, Swenson brought some of his early hybrids to a field day at the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center. This led to him being hired by the department. The first varietals released from this program were in 1977: Edelweiss and Swenson Red. Many more varietals bred and adapted for cold climates have been released since then, including the Frontenac in this blend.

As mentioned above, Alexis Bailey was the first planted vineyard in the state, and also the first to produce a vintage made entirely of 100% Minnesota-grown grapes. Of note also, The Minnesota Grape Growers Association has had a dramatic role in promoting grape growing and winemaking not only in the state but also in other cold-hardy climates. Hosted annually with the support of both the MCGA and the University of Minnesota, the International Cold Climate Wine Competition is the only wine competition solely dedicated to the promotion of quality wines made mainly from cold-hardy grape varieties.

Today, the state of Minnesota has 70 wineries, and two American Viticultural Areas, including the largest in the United States; the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. This AVA covers an area almost 50 times larger than Bordeaux in France; a total of 29,914 square miles (77,477 square kilometers) located along the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries in northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. Minnesota’s second AVA is the far more modest Alexandria Lakes AVA, which is also Minnesota’s oldest AVA.

This bottle was purchased online from the winery website, by yours truly. If you like this podcast and want to throw a few dollars into the bottle fund, you can find us on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast, and there are various rewards available for supporters.

2017 Voyageur
The 2017 Voyageur is a stunning exploration of Minnesota terroir, from Alexis Bailey Vineyard in the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA

Episode 39: South Dakota

Welcome to episode 39 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we focus on the Mount Rushmore State: South Dakota.  Our wine of the podcast today is the Red-Ass Rhubarb from Prairie Berry Winery, which is acclaimed by many as the best wine South Dakota has to offer. This blend of Rhubarb and Raspberry wine has won a slew of awards in multiple competitions across the US. The fact that this is a “wine” made mostly of a vegetable lead us in a long rambling philosophical discussion in this episode of “what is wine, exactly, and if this is not a wine, what do we call this?” (I personally like the UK categorization of vintages like this as “Country Wines,” but I talked about that before way back in episode 17.)

While the family heritage of fermentation at Prairie Berry Winery goes back to settlers from Moravia in the late 1800’s, the commercial industry as a whole in South Dakota is far more recent, dating back to 1996, when the Nygaard family established Valiant Vineyards. The cold climate and harsh conditions of South Dakota favor wines made from fruits, as well as those made from French-American hybrid varietals such as Seyval Blanc, Frontenac, and their ilk.  Currently, South Dakota has 20 wineries, but as of yet, there are no American Viticultural Areas in the state.  Many of these wineries are clustered around the Black Hills region, which actually has a thriving wine trail.

I acquired this bottle directly from the winery website.  Interestingly, this particular bottle came to my attention during the planning stages of this podcast, as multiple people (unaware of each other) all recommended that I review this bottle–this episode is dedicated to those folks: Margaret Ashton and a man whose name I sadly don’t remember, who suggested this vintage in the tasting room where I have my day job.

south dakota
The Red-Ass Rhubarb from Prairie Berry Winery is our introduction to the rugged winescape of South Dakota.

Episode 38: Florida

Welcome to Episode 38 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we explore the wine scene of Florida. While the Sunshine State is known for citrus, beaches, and marshes, it is not widely known for its strong wine culture. Indeed, there is a lot of difficulty growing grapes in this humid, hot climate, meaning that most grapes which are grown in the state are Muscadine varietals. However, this has lead to a lot of winemaking experimentation with other sorts of fruits grown in Florida’s tropical climate; including the fruit used for our wines du jour: avocado. Yes, Avocado. In this episode, Gary returns and hangs out with Megan, James, and myself as we explore both the Sweet Avocado and AvoVino made by Schnebly Redlands Winery, which is located in Homestead, Florida.

The history of winemaking in Florida begins early on with the colonization of Florida by both the Spanish and Huguenot refugees from France in the 16th century, for use as the sacrament in the Catholic Mass. Because of the dank tropical climate and various grapevine diseases and parasites, these plantings did not fare well, and eventually, plantings of Muscadine became more popular… until Prohibition, of course, collapsed the local industry. The commercial wineries of today came about as a result of the Florida Farm Winery Law in 1979, primarily due to efforts from the Florida Grape Grower’s Association.  This law reduced the winery license fee from $1000 to a mere $50.  In addition, researches in Florida began to develop new bunch grape varietals such as Stover, Lake Emerald, and Suwanee which were more resistant to Pierce’s Disease, and there was also intensive development of new muscadine varietals such as Magnolia, Noble, and Welder. Today there are approximately 20 wineries in the state of Florida. Some of these wineries are making wines from local fruits, or grapes imported from California, but others are using locally-grown muscadine varietals. The state of Florida has no American Viticultural Areas at this time.

These two bottles were purchased by Megan and myself directly from the winery website, and shipped directly for me for this podcast.  I’m sad that I didn’t bring up my favorite avocado fact in the podcast; that these trees were originally the food of giant ground sloths and would have gone extinct if it were not for human interaction with this plant.  Womp-womp. Lastly, just a reminder that the podcast has a patreon account, so if you like what we’re doing here, a few bucks extra for wine acquisition goes a long way!

Are millenials ruining the wine industry? The avocado toast we used to pair with these two wines suggests that no, we really aren’t.

Episode 37: Alabama

Welcome to Episode 37 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we focus on the Heart of Dixie: Alabama. Our wine is the 2013 American Oak Cabernet Sauvignon from Maraella Winery, located in in the foothills of the Appalachia Mountains near the town of Hokes Bluff. Maraella Winery is, from what I have been able to discern, home to the only Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the state. Maraella winery is a bit unusual since it is one of only two vineyards I could find which are growing vinifera varietals in Alabama; most others are exclusively growing muscadine varietals, or some French-American hybrids. The reason why Maraella is able to do this is the higher elevation of their vineyard site; located away from the humid lowlands, issues such as Pierce’s Disease are mitigated.  In this episode, new guests Nicole Silvestri and Joey Estrada join me in a discussion about the usage of American vs. French oak, as well as just how fascinating this wine really was: suffice to say, this wine bucked most of the traditional stereotypes we tend to associate with Cabernet Sauvignon.

The history of Alabama wine post-prohibition begins in 1979, with the signing of the Alabama Farm Wineries Act.  This bill, heavily influenced by the owners of what is now Perdido Vineyards, allowed a “native farm winery” to produce up to 100,000 gallons a year, and sell not only to the local ABC board, but to wholesalers, retailers, and consumers for off-premise consumption. The Alabama wine industry received a further boost in 2002 when additional agricultural reforms lifted additional restrictions on wineries; Maraella is one such winery to benefit from these reforms. Today, Alabama has over 15 vineyards and wineries, though no established American Viticultural Areas as of yet.

I acquired this bottle from the winery website specifically for use in this podcast.  I am regretting not acquiring the French Oak version of this wine as well, it would have made this episode even more fascinating to us than it was already!

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The 2013 Maraella Cabernet Sauvignon, aged on American oak, is our introduction to the wine industry of Alabama.