EL RENO — Be careful as you drive west on Darlington Road north of El Reno as it is possible to fall victim to the charm of a majestic 98-year-old chapel and winery that are playing an integral part in a growing Oklahoma wine culture. Located north of El Reno, the agriculture and research campus of Redlands Community College provides hands-on experience to future Oklahoma grape growers and winemakers.
The chapel with its bucolic setting appears on wine labels folks are beginning to notice. Adult students under the tutelage of Andrew Snyder have made 26 wines at the facility since it opened in 2006. They've learned viticulture from vine to wine along with marketing and earned some impressive awards and medals along the way. Chapel Creek's Norton won gold medals for “Best in Show Red” at the Oklahoma State Fair in 2010 and 2011.
Restoration of the chapel continues as it approaches its centennial. Doors now replace plywood panels that once sealed its entrances. Six panels of stained glass have been saved and await much-needed restoration, but this brick structure easily inspires a vision to save it. Snyder has spent a great deal of time searching out the history of this captivating old chapel and will share some of those fascinating details in upcoming events at the winery.
Currently, the small vineyard between the chapel and the winery and classroom includes 46 grape varieties with an average of five vines of each variety. The vines here are not intended for wine production but as education. Here, students learn to plant, cultivate and care for grapes.
This includes staking and pruning methods and sound harvest practices used for the making of wine. Snyder stressed, “Our goal here is not to compete with other Oklahoma vineyards, but to learn viticulture, so we limit our production.”
The laboratory in the back of the winery is able to test for sulfur content and other levels in juice from the grapes in various stages of fermentation. Red wine takes two years to process, which is the time it takes for students to complete the program in enology and viticulture. Already 125 students have gone through the viticulture and enology program at Redlands, which is the only program of its kind offered in Oklahoma.
The classes are taught on the weekends for eight hours on Saturdays and Sundays to allow working adults to participate.
Snyder, a Calumet native, became interested in wines while serving in the military. He credits his time spent stationed in Germany with giving him a chance to explore what would become a life passion along with the pleasure of teaching. Snyder taught at St. Gregory's University in Shawnee before coming to Redlands Community College. Snyder hold degrees in human relations, communications and adult education. He holds the certification of CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) from the Society of Wine Educators. He has passed the Level I Sommelier Exam with the Master Guild of Sommeliers and is a certified Alcohol Server Trainer with the TIPS program (Training for Intervention Procedures). He recently completed the Wine Executive Program at the University of California at Davis.
Andrew said our Oklahoma terroir took a hit this summer.
“Production has been down about 50 percent, but you have to remember growing grapes is agriculture: A vineyard isn't going to be productive every year. The grapes we do have are more intense in flavor. As our Oklahoma vineyards continue to grow, the vines age and the grapes get better.”
Snyder, who is president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers & Wine Makers Association, says wine production is a growing industry with more than 60 wineries.
“We have had students in our program from all over the state. The wine produced at the Chapel Creek facility only comes from grapes grown in Oklahoma.”
Snyder admits there are plenty of folks who scoff at the idea of wine from Oklahoma, but he offers hope.
“Certainly there are a number of Oklahoma wineries that continue to bring in juice from California and other parts of the country to make wine with Oklahoma labels, but in time, as vineyards mature, our grapes will get better and better. Now the Chapel Creek facility gets grapes from the Guymon area in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Snider in far eastern Oklahoma and even down in the southwestern part of the state near Lone Wolf.”
Snyder pointed out that growing grapes in southeastern Oklahoma is a little more difficult with higher humidity and rainfall, making the vines more susceptible to fungus. Panhandle grape production includes lower nighttime temperatures, ideally suited for grapes.
I have probably been among those skeptics who had doubts about the future of made-in-Oklahoma wine until late spring 2010. I had the privilege of tasting a Chapel Creek Riesling at a Know Your Farmer Know Your Food event at Redlands. I was taken then by its vibrance.
Perhaps it was some sentimental nuance of flavor, but I knew they were on to something here in this historical spot. Maybe it was learning the grapes came from Guymon, where the days of my junior high and high school were full of such happy memories.
I can't imagine ever knowing enough about wine or food to think I am an authority; I just know what I like.
These Chapel Creek folks have some high hopes for growing this facility and the wine industry in Oklahoma. That's good for Oklahoma. So get out there and explore some Oklahoma wine and let us know what you find.
CHAPEL CREEK WINE
If you are an Oklahoma history buff or interested in learning more about the Darlington Agency's role on the old Chisholm Trail, visit the Redlands Darlington campus for one of the upcoming events at the Chapel Creek facility.
• A wine and food pairing workshop is scheduled for Oct 23.
• Chapel Creek Wine will host a Cheese & History Evening on Oct. 16, Nov. 20 and Dec. 4, which includes wine, artisan goat cheese, circa 1880 Dutch oven bread and a two-hour presentation of the history of the Darlington Agency. Sample wine made at Chapel Creek Winery along with boutique Colby goat cheese from the Darlington Campus dairy. Presentation takes place in the chapel. Cost is $21.95, and presentation begins at 5 p.m. Seating is limited and advance registration is required. In accordance with ABLE regulations, ticket price does not include the price for wine samples. Wine samples will be available for a small sampling fee. Call 434-2463 to register.
How to buy Chapel Creek products
• Information: email Andrew Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Other sellers: Country Corner Liquor, El Reno; Jim's Discount Liquor, El Reno; Joe's Place, Norman; Cellar Wine & Spirits, Norman; and Dancer's Liquor, Guymon.