Bill Bakan, Maize Valley Winery, Hartville

A ‘Maize-Ing’ Wines

As a general rule of thumb, red wines complement hearty beef stews and white wines are good companions to delicate fish dishes. But do you know what doesn’t pair well with any wine? Too much rain in the vineyard.

That doesn’t mean near record rainfall this spring and summer will deny Ohioans their favorite local wines in the future, but it does present farmers, growers and vineyardists with various challenges that begin long before the grapes find their way into the bottle.

Ohio Farm Bureau member Bill Bakan of Maize Valley Winery in Stark County is among those Ohio growers and winemakers who have been tested by Mother Nature this season.

“Grapevines have deep reaching taproot systems so they get their nourishment from the water table,” Bakan said. Heavy and consistent rains leave the vines with “wet feet” and that impacts developing root systems.

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“This season, so much water was an insult to injury,” he said referring to the harsh winter that stressed the vines even before they budded out in the spring. “The rain has made the grape crop this year ripe for all kinds of pest and disease problems,” Bakan said, “and they are having a party out there.”

“Water invites disease and weed pressure,” he said and that calls for extra measures like stepping up spraying and pest management practices. Shower upon shower also doesn’t allow the canopy of the vineyard to dry out, so while the vines may grow and put on fruit, the risk of fungus, bacteria and disease affecting the clusters is constantly present.

While the grapes require extra attention, the peppers (only one of the farm’s 50 different crops) are “rockin’ it.” And that’s all about diversification, the key to establishing a profitable farming operation. “Twenty years ago, we were growing produce, selling it at our on-farm market and making a name for ourselves with roadside sweet corn sales alone,” Bakan said. “There were no farmers markets yet but we were competing with the ‘big box’ stores so we needed to be different.”

At the time, the family was making “hobby” wine and saw potential for a winery. “We needed a different attitude to go pro,” he said. His first “pairings” were matching the vines against the soil and Ohio’s climate, looking for the perfect fit. He began experimenting with cold hardy French American hybrids like Frontenac, a highly acidic, high sugar and mold resistant grape, and La Crescent, a productive vine good for off dry or sweet wine production. “When the weather breaks in March, they get anxious and grow,” describes Bakan. “They are bred for short season climates like Ohio and do well here.”

There are six acres of vines, mostly selected for being able “to deal with our winters.” “Many Ohio winemakers also dabble with Cabernet Francs,” he said, a black grape that thrives in cooler regions. Vignoles, prized for its ability to produce fruity late-harvest style sweet white wines, and Edelweiss, a blending grape, do well at Maize Valley. The winery also purchases juice from California where the climate is ideal for growing grapes for full-bodied reds and crafts them into Ohio-made wines.

It costs about $15,000 to $20,000 to establish an acre of grapes, so Bakan must be particular about what he plants. “There’s a lot you have to pay attention to,” he said.

“Like adjusting the soil around the plants to take up nutrients, the pH (the acidity) of the soil and installing drain tiles.” He knows that this stretch of Stark County doesn’t provide the full benefit of terroir* for growing the full range of varietals, but this first generation wine-making family makes it work and is constantly learning.

Ten years ago the winery was added to the operation, a farm since the 1800s when the family’s ancestors settled in Hartville, and began to build a local reputation with its roadside sweet corn sales. It was another smart move toward diversity (that and to ward off “the fear of starvation,” Bakan jokes) and today includes popular attractions like pig races, a pumpkin cannon, a complex corn maze that draws in about 4,000 agri-tourists daily during the fall (and accounts for about 65 percent of the annual sales) plus a small but growing brewery operation. The farm features an on-site market with a deli counter and beer-tasting bar and produce is still sold off a truck roadside because Bakan notices that “people just like buying off a truck.”

Wet weather has dampened more than the vineyard but Bakan assures himself and his customers that, “We’ll be okay.” While wine and beer sales are strong, there’s frustration from replanting two and three times what the rain had washed away. The corn maze was reseeded and the farm’s pumpkin crop was replanted midsummer, which means a late showing for the hard squash but still in time for Halloween.

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of “Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate” and “The Locavore’s Kitchen.”

A perfect match!
He’s not sure why, but Bill Bakan thinks the best thing to pair with Maize Valley wines is the farm’s attention-getting corn maze. Bakan typically plants the corn in the spring (this year, Bakan replanted in July because of the rain).

Using a tractor and corn planter, multi-directional rows are seeded across eight acres with a standard non-GMO hybrid field corn in tight, thick rows. A graphic artist creates the design, which in the past has included a locomotive, the pony express, Big Foot car and more. The design is loaded into a GPS device and that guides Bakan among the rows to hand-cut the emerging stalks to the ground until the design and maze emerges, a process that can take up to 12 hours. This year, with the support of BKT Tires, the maze replicates the notorious Grave Digger monster truck. Tucked among the warrens are rest stops, trivia games – and plenty of ways out.

Published in the September/October 2015 Our Ohio magazine. Stay connected with and support great food and farm stories like this by becoming an Our Ohio Supporter. For just $25 you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.

 

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermillion, Ohio.