Round Lake Vineyards to host state-wide event
ROUND LAKE -- Nearly 200 people are expected to attend the Minnesota Grape Growers Association's annual picnic on Sunday at the Round Lake Vineyards. It is the first time the picnic, typically planned at vineyards surrounding the metro area of the state, will be in southwest Minnesota.
Round Lake Vineyards owners Scott and Jenny Ellenbecker will showcase their established 10-acre vineyard, as well as a four-acre plot just planted this year. They plan to add another four acres to the vineyard in 2013.
It isn't just grapevines, however, that will be showcased on the rural Round Lake property. The Ellenbeckers are busy installing an irrigation system for their vineyard, which will be the first of its kind in the region. The system will draw water from Round Lake -- the lake, not the town -- at critical points in the growing season, such as when a frost or freeze warning is in effect in the early spring or late fall, and on high heat days in the summer.
In each of the past three seasons, the Ellenbeckers have seen their grape crop damaged by the weather.
Three years ago, a killing frost wiped out the entire crop.
Then, last year, the grapes didn't ripen as quickly as expected, making for lesser quality grapes and ultimately a lower value.
This spring, the vineyard was hit with frost damage after 90-degree weather in March brought an early budding season, and an overnight low of 26 degrees in May froze some of the buds.
By installing the irrigation system, Scott said they can spray the buds in the early spring or the grapes in the fall to protect them from frost damage. They will need approximately 160,000 gallons of lake water to cover all of their vines during an eight-hour overnight period. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issues permitting for irrigation of lake water.
"We're doing all this work for a couple times a year," Jenny said.
Grapes do best in drier climates and have "huge root systems," Scott added. They tend to prefer sandy soils -- quite different from the rich, dark soil at Round Lake Vineyards. Still, the Ellenbeckers have found grape growing quite viable in southwest Minnesota.
Initially created in partnership with another couple, the vineyard was established in 2007 on land that produced corn and soybeans for years. Scott discovered the potential for growing grapes while writing a 2006 story about water use in California wine country for his other business, Ellenbecker Communications.
"The quality of grapes has come a long ways," Scott said, adding there is a lot of information available to growers through University of Minnesota research.
"The University of Minnesota has been working for the last 20 years developing cold-hardy grapes," he said. "A lot of the grapes developed in Minnesota aren't just for Minnesota. They're cold-hardy grapes for any environment that gets frost."
Through U of M research, the Ellenbeckers have learned grapes tend not to need much nitrogen, but other elements such as boron, zinc and phosphorus are important. Once the irrigation system is complete, Scott said the fertilizer injection system will be incorporated into it as well.
While the irrigation system will help protect the vines from weather damage, the Ellenbeckers have another major issue -- keeping their grapes away from the wildlife. Deer are plentiful in the neighborhood, as are robins.
To help protect their crop, the Ellenbeckers have installed propane cannons, deer distress calls, fencing and side and canopy netting.
The Ellenbeckers, who have attended some of the MGGA summer picnics in the past, are excited to showcase their vineyard. The membership includes people not just from Minnesota, but Iowa, the Dakotas and Wisconsin as well.
"Summer break for the grape growers is just before the nets go on and the vines are pruned," Scott said. In other words, this is their one week opportunity to take a little break.
Tours of the irrigation system will begin on the lake shore with a look at the pump station, and follow away from the lake to the vineyards. There, they will find the labor-intensive vines and hear the Ellenbeckers talk about the growth of their vineyard.
The tour and potluck picnic is open to MGGA members and those interested in learning more about growing grapes. It is schedule from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In 2008, the Ellenbeckers planted a 5-acre plot to La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette vines. That was later followed by another 5-acre plot of St. Pepin, Brianna, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Bluebell and Somerset varieties. This year, additional varieties planted included Sabervois, King of the North, Louis Swenson and Petite Amie.
It takes three years for newly planted vines to begin producing grapes, but the Ellenbeckers said it is actually the fourth year before they see a "meaningful crop" of grapes on their vines. Each acre consists of approximately 600 plants.
Their first 10 acres of grapes included grapes that produce a semi-sweet to sweet white wine, with the Marquette grapes processed into a drier red wine.
"We are adding drier whites and sweeter reds," Scott said. "You can't grow a strong, bold red wine here.
"We will have a nice variety," he added. "Our goal is to have our own estate wines here."
For now, the Ellenbeckers market all of their grapes to other wineries, including Swan Lake at Superior, Iowa, and Carlos Creek in Alexandria. They hope to have their own winery established in the next three to four years.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.