The future of Oklahoma wine can be summed up in one word long associated with virtue: patience.
Grape-growing in Oklahoma isn’t as brand-new as you might expect. Near the end of the 19th Century, Oklahoma was home to vast vineyards of domesticated table and wine grapes but production began a slow decline in 1919. Oklahoma still produced more than 1,800 tons of grapes on average from 1925 and 1928, according to United States Department of Agriculture records, but the decline continued without resurgence until the mid-1990s.
The number of licensed wineries has increased from four in 2001 to more than 60 in 2011. So, while grape-growing isn’t new to Oklahoma, winemaking is.
Oklahoma now has more than 60 wineries and 500 to 600 acres of vineyards, showing exponential industry growth in just the past decade, said Gene Clifton, president of the Oklahoma Grape Industry Council. The trend toward warm, dry summers and mild winters has improved growing conditions, making vineyards more successful.
But it still takes three to four years for newly planted vines to produce a good crop, and many entrepreneurs are seeking a quicker return on investment, said Clifton, who owns Canadian River Vineyards and Winery in Slaughterville.
Part of the challenge is serving an audience that has more passion than people. And while that passion is appreciated and essential, it won’t sustain local wine-growing alone.
But more important than anything is a single issue with Oklahoma wine: quality.
It’s the dirty little secret that practically no restaurateur, wine broker or bar owner will talk about on the record.
The general consensus among those not willing to be critical for the record is Oklahoma wine has improved greatly in the past 10 years but still has a long way to go before it can be worthy of the spotlight in local restaurants and bars.
And there is no better marketing tool for a winemaker than the endorsement of its local dining community.
The good news is, progress is underway. Perfection can’t be expected, but we must demand progress. And the only way to determine that progress is to sample local wines and give honest, constructive feedback. At the same time, grape-growers need financial support. That means, consumers must be willing participants in the evolution of Oklahoma wine.
And if you’re among the majority of Oklahomans who have never been introduced to good wines and see it as an expensive hobby for rich folks, I have good news: That’s simply not true.
Great wines come in bottle priced around 10 bucks as often if not more often than they do those priced $50 or even $100. Better still, wine-tastings are scheduled practically every week of the year at some venue in the metro.
Our local wineries have been embraced by agritourism and vice versa, as the quality of the wine improves interest in spending time in these beautiful settings, sipping the local product will grow exponentially.
Oklahoma has a bright future in wine-production, but it won’t happen overnight. And it won’t happen without local support. So, visit local wineries with open minds and the courage to give feedback our growers need to grow and flourish.