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A grape hobby
Sunday, 03 October 2010 00:00

Grape growing is not for the impatient.

It’s not quick money.

But for some northeastern Indiana property owners it has become a fulfilling past-time.

“It is pretty challenging,” said Shane Christ, who has made wine and tended grapes at Satek Winery near Fremont for nine years. He said growing grapes in Indiana “is tough” but more and more people are giving it a shot.

“Interest is booming,” Christ said. Satek Winery started in 1992 as a vineyard selling grapes to area wineries. Now, the winery, opened in 2001, purchases from seven area growers.

“I really enjoy it,” said Tim Wolfe of rural Hamilton. “There’s ups and downs … You have good years and you have bad years.”

Wolfe started his vines five years ago, and plans to double his operation.

Bruce England of Big Run Vineyard near Butler moved to the area from California wine country in 2005. Before relocating, he talked to Larry Satek about the possibilities in northeastern Indiana. He raises the deep purple Corot Noir grapes used in Larry’s Luscious Dry Red, a vintage that saw its debut in 2009.


Northeastern Indiana grapes growers enjoy home-made vintages, and another Steuben County winery is planned.

Brian Moeller lives and grows grapes in the same vicinity as the Sateks west of Fremont. BriAli Vineyard, which Moeller operates with his wife, Alicia, anticipates opening an organic winery and restaurant in 2012.

Shipshewana family doctors Tony Pechin and Kerry Keaffaber, who term themselves “hobby winemakers,” have considered starting a winery. “But that’s a few years away,” said Pechin.

The doctors, Moeller, DeKalb County Extension Educator Alicia Berry and around 20 others attended a meeting hosted by Satek Sept. 7 to assess the interest in a local grape growers organization. Some were growers aiming to make spare cash by tending grapes and others, like gold medal award winning wine maker Alan Lockhart, focus on the vino.

The meeting was organized by Christ and growers Betty Lee and Donald Hepworth. The idea is to share ideas, materials and support, possibly through a website or regular meetings.

“All the growers really pitch in and help each other out,” said Wolfe.

Some of the equipment costs thousands of dollars, like a post pounder or airblast sprayer.

Since starting 1.7 acres of vines five years ago, England said he’s begun seeing some payback from his investment.

“It’s nothing I would recommend someone trying to make a living at,” said England, who calls grape growing a hobby.

England plans to try Cayuga White next year.


Just planting a variety of grapes is not the start of a fruitful operation, however.

The soil has to be prepared, as Ph is important for proper production, said Larry Satek. The rows need equal sunlight and open air, so the vines cannot be allowed to get overgrown.

Weeds have to be pulled, branches must be trimmed, bugs and other pests need to be deterred.

“It’s all I do, is pull weeds,” said Moeller. BriAli has vines at his family’s golf course off S.R. 120, near the Satek operation, and an organic grape operation at the Moellers’ nearby home.

“There’s more and more people that want their fruit to be clean,” said Moeller. That includes a more environmentally friendly way to get rid of birds.

“I’ll run through. I’ll clap. I’ll have my Aussie with me,” he said. He said there are weeks he spends 60 hours in his vineyards.

Ron and Kay Kummer use large, colorful balloons with bold black markings that deter birds.

“Every kind of critter comes out and eats your grapes that you can think of,” said Peter Keck, a home grower. Then, he added, there are fungal blights like powdery mildew.

Japanese beetles and the grape berry moth can also attack.


Area grape growers can commiserate this year about a May 10 frost as well as celebrate a hot, dry growing season.

The small, golden Traminette grapes at the Kummers “ripened perfectly,” said Satek, surrounded by large green leaves on well tended vines and the acappella harmonies of Amish women hand harvesting the fruit on a recent sunny, September day.

Harvesting begins in mid-September and can run into October.

At Satek Winery, and other sites harvested by the Sateks, pickings occur over the space of a few hours, with the date of the harvest determined through a careful watch of the grape’s progress over the final weeks.

Satek said the optimum ripening conditions presented themselves this year, with some nice cool nights during the final month.

Due to a warm, dry growing season, Satek grapes were in by Sept. 15. Satek’s grapes are crushed and pressed immediately, and the 2010 wines are now aging at the rural Fremont facility. A Traminette is expected to be released in April or May.

“This year should be a really, really good wine,” Satek said.


Though the grapes are gone, the Kummers still enjoy their firepit by the vineyard on a breezy hill across the lane from Clear Lake.

“It’s a nice place to be when it’s cold on the lake,” said Kay.

The Kummers purchased the land after moving to their cottage full time from Fort Wayne. They planted their vines three years ago, a back-breaking process Kay said led them to purchase hole-digging equipment.

The Kummers’ vines are young, and currently producing about half what they will at five years old, when most grape vines go into full production. The vines can live decades, up to 100 years, said Satek.

Many who expressed interest in the northeastern Indiana grape growers group had relatively young vines, and were just starting their journey. With spirit and patience, these new hobbyists may add to the area’s landscape and culture.

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