Wine Industry Challenged

Out-of-state wine connoisseurs wanting to sample Oklahoma wines won’t find the product on sale in their markets.
Not only is there a limited amount produced, but state law prohibits Oklahoma wines from being commercially shipped across borders even though such shipments are allowed under federal law.
It is a problem that a state winery must deal with, according to Paul Smith, general manager of Natural Vineyards & Winery in Beggs.
Getting the law changed is a matter that Oklahoma’s fledgling wine industry must deal with as they move into the 21st Century global market.
Getting production raised so customer demands can be met is still another challenge. The biggest obstacle is staying economically viable during the growing years as Vineyards mature.
One vineyard and winery is producing concerts and other activities to ensure a continuous revenue stream. It is a complicated and tedious effort.
Natura Vineyards and Winery, owned by Robert and Dana Dillingham Hutton, opened in November, 2002. That was four years after the vines were planted — in 1998.
Natura has a variety of vines producing different grapes, Robert Hutton said. Part of this is a process to determine which will grow best in the Oklahoma climate and will produce a quality product.
Currently, about 1,000 cases of wine are produced annually. The goal over the next few years is for annual production to increase to 1,500 cases, then 2,500 cases.
But it is when the winery can produce more than 5,000 cases of wine each year that the ‘‘big boys’’ really will start looking at them as a steady source for wine for distribution.
‘‘Our climate is not geared for the European grape,’’ he said. Even under the most perfect growing conditions, Oklahoma Vineyards can produce only a fraction of their California counterparts.
There is a French-American hybrid that does very well in the state, but no one really knows at this time about the real quality of the wine that ultimately will be produced.
That is the hard part about this industry, Hutton continued. It takes five to seven years to determine what might be the right grape that will make the best product.
Oklahoma State University researchers don’t know which are the best Oklahoma grapes, he said. At this time, the state has not arrived in the industry as have other states including California and New Mexico.
It is imperative that Oklahoma wineries develop a sophisticated product, otherwise the industry always will be limited.
Wine making is not new to the state.
Oklahoma had wineries before prohibition, Smith said. But because of the difficulty of growing grapes, the industry did not survive that era.
Despite their industry youthfulness, winemakers are learning.
Natura imports bulk wine made in Texas and California to mix with local product.
This mixing is done industry-wide, regardless of the state, Hutton said. This technique alone improves the quality of the wine.
There is no way to grow enough grapes to support a local winery, Dana Hutton continued. Blending wines helps smooth the taste and keeps business going year-round.
The Huttons have found that by offering a variety of activities makes Natura a ‘‘destination’’ rather than just another spot on a map.
A recent jazz concert attracted an estimated 1,200 people to the site.
They also are considering sponsoring art competitions focused on wildlife with the winning art featured on their own wine labels. A portion of the sale would go to a wildlife preservation group.
Meanwhile, some Oklahoma wines are finding their way across borders.
Oklahoma wines are gaining recognition, the Huttons said. People traveling through the area will purchase some to take home.
One customer from Alaska was traveling through the area and heard about Natura. They stopped, sampled the product and took some home with them.
Oklahoma wineries are coming of age and are poised to make a difference in the industry and state’s economy, Robert Hutton said. But it is going to be up to the local owners to begin the necessary changes to make it happen.



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