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Magazine | Okiecentric

The Grapes of Wrath: A Red Dirt Reprise

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Posted 11.10.10

In 1962, as John Steinbeck accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in Sweden, George Girouard scoured Oklahoma creek beds in search of the ultimate variety of red dirt wine grape.

The trek of the fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath was as arduous as the odyssey that Girouard had undertaken. Yet, unlike the Okies of the 1930s, Girouard, a retired petroleum engineer, would spend 50 years before he finally achieved his goal. His investment of time was worth it. However, the process of establishing a new Oklahoma variety is far from complete. Red dirt farmers who switched many years ago from grapes grown only for jelly production to wine grapes find encouragement from the prospect of a new vine identity. The hundreds of dedicated folks who lead a flourishing Oklahoma wine industry may have an expanded arsenal.

There are challenges—scorching midsummer sun ripens Sooner wine grapes at a blazing rate, yielding fruit rich in high octane sugars but poor in the refreshing acidity needed to turn out pleasurable and balanced wines. Understanding these requirements, Girouard began working on the problem. The solution began with a life experience.

His interest in wine grapes began during his World War II tour of duty.  While helping displaced Austrians return to their country, Girouard observed that wine was an important part of daily life. He became enamored with all things wine. Not a beer or spirits drinker, the GI’s curiosity was piqued, and he wondered if grapes could be grown in Oklahoma to produce good wine. After the war, he became obsessed with the notion of breeding an Oklahoma grape variety that could adapt to the rigors of the region’s weather, soil conditions, insects and diseases.

Once a grape vine bud opens, the bright new green growth curls skyward at a rate nearly visible to the naked eye. These vigorous young shoots are the sole promise of the year’s crop of grapes. Success may seem assured but obstacles remain. Case in point: the Easter freeze of 2007 when temperatures held in the mid-20s for three consecutive nights. Grape crops were devastated in vineyards across the Southern Plains.

Girouard’s main mission in Oklahoma was to fool Mother Nature through hybridization. He decided to avoid the killing frosts by breeding grape vines that begin growing later in the spring and by growing open clusters to reduce fungus, while at the same time allowing the grapes to mature more slowly. He knew that prolonged maturation permits the pulp juice to acquire astringent tannins and complex flavors residing in the skin while preserving higher acid levels. These ingredients are vital in the production of fine wine.

Work on the hybrid officially began in 1975. After 15 years of sweat and tears, Girouard realized his breeding program had made little or no progress. In 1990 he teamed up with grape vine botanist John Grinstead from Rolla, Missouri. Vine wood from the Show-Me-State was grafted to Oklahoma wild vines. Cross-pollinating the resulting blossoms with premium Vitis Vinifera varietals like Ruby Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc proved successful.

Today, after generating tens of thousands of seedlings, George has developed four crosses that are farmed commercially. Progress in hybridization being made in other areas of the country sustained them through decades of trial and error.

“Dad knew it would be random chance to get the genetics right,” Chris Girouard explains, “but he just had to keep trying.”

The grand experiment continues. Several of the Girouard varieties are grown at the Oklahoma State University experiment station in Perkins, as well as in a small vineyard in south Tulsa and in the California wine country south of Sacramento. George points out that the early hybrids produced wines that had a strong berry flavor and were somewhat low in acid. Grapes from the block of vines growing at Heringer Estates outside of Clarksburg, California, may find their way into hundreds of cases as primo wine, but Girouard considers that another step along a well-charted path to the ultimate goal—production of a medium to full-bodied red wine blended in a fruit-forward, high acid profile in the style of the vaunted French Rhone Valley. Developing a variety adaptable to the Oklahoma climate and capable of resulting in a good wine is his definition of success.

Girouard Vines, an urban winery located on Third Street just east of downtown Tulsa, features a boutique vineyard in which George’s vibrant black grapes thrive. Under the guidance of Chris Girouard, wine is currently produced from premium California grapes resulting in Tulsa Deco wines worthy of being offered in the city’s finest wine shops and restaurants.

But this is a story without end. The ongoing effort of the Girouards to contribute to an Oklahoma wine industry is not unlike the resolve of Steinbeck’s beleaguered Joad family to retain self-sufficiency. California’s land of milk and honey, a fertile stepping-stone, may fuel the dream, but Okie determination will make the dream come true.

Steve Gerkin DDS, CSW is a wine educator, co-owner and winemaker for Twin Feathers Winery and adjunct professor for the Hotel and Restaurant Administration department of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.