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November 28, 2010

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Wines from wild roadside finds

WINE-GRAPE expert Bill Shoemaker has taken to the roadsides of Illinois in search of wild grapes that he hopes can be crossed with their more refined cousins to create a tastier, hardier crop.

The University of Illinois researcher has begun a project that includes plenty of wild grape tasting. Much of it is not pleasant.

"After a while you get a sore tongue because you taste a lot of acidic grapes," Shoemaker said. "You spit out an awful lot of grapes you don't like."

What those wild grapes lack in taste, though, they make up in the ability to thrive in cold Midwestern winters and survive plant diseases that can decimate wine grapes with better pedigrees bred to grow elsewhere.

Shoemaker hopes to breed better grapes someday that will offer more opportunities for the growing Midwestern US wine industry.

Interest in wine making has soared in the Upper Midwest, and last year Minnesota hosted the first International Cold Climate Wine Competition. The number of wineries in Illinois and Michigan has grown from a few dozen in the mid-1990s to more than 150, according to industry groups in both states.

"People throughout the country have been pushing the envelope as to what can be produced in their region," said Linda Jones, executive director of Michigan's Grape and Wine Industry Council.

In Illinois, Shoemaker said, thousands of people drive every day past the grapes he is interested in.

"You can find them easily driving up and down any interstate highway," he said. "You'll see wild grapes all over the state of Illinois. Some of my better specimens have been found along fence rows."

French settlers who moved into what is now Illinois as early as the 1600s ate the grapes and tried to make wine with them, Shoemaker said.

The region's wild grapes, however, never would be confused with cultivated grapes, he said. They rarely taste very good.

Shoemaker said he is focusing on one wild grape in particular, the vitis aestivalis bicolor, that grows wild over a wide range of the American Midwest and even eastward into the Adirondack Mountains region of New York.

The vitis aestivalis has high tannins and relatively low acids, he said, and thrives in the wild.

"The fruit in it is very similar in some respects to the kind of grapes we use in wine making," Shoemaker said.

Crossing grape varieties is relatively easy, Shoemaker said, just a matter of controlling the flow of pollen from one plant to another.

But the results take time, lots of time.

The first grapes show up on the vine in three years, after which it takes another year before the grower has a real crop to work with.

That may well be followed by more years of crossing one of the new hybrids with still more varieties, looking for something that works just right.

"If you have short-term success, you're just lucky," Shoemaker said. "It could be 15, 30 years."


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