June 23, 2005 | By: Terri McLean
OWENTON, Ky.

Many of the wine grapes growing in a test plot at the University of Kentucky’s Eden Shale Research Farm are not mature enough yet to harvest a crop, but they have the potential to yield something perhaps even more important: information.

“We’re hoping it (the plot) will tell us which varieties of wine grapes perform well up here,” said John Strang, horticulturist with the Cooperative Extension Service. “That’s mainly what we’re after.”

Information has long been the most sought-after “commodity” offered by the 960-acre research farm in Owenton, which celebrated its 50th year of operation with a field day June 16. The grape variety trials are just one in a long line of projects that have helped the agricultural community improve existing operations or establish new enterprises.

“Grapes are a blossoming industry in Kentucky, and we would like to see it as an agricultural industry,” said Kaan Kurtural, Extension’s newly hired viticulturist. He and Strang were on hand during field day to try to satisfy a likewise blossoming curiosity about growing grapes.

“A lot of people that have gotten into grapes have no agriculture background,” Strang said. “Being a perennial crop, if you mismanage it one year it can affect you two years down the line. Where if you’re growing tobacco and you have problems one year, you can start over the next year with a clean slate.”

The Eden Shale vineyard trial fits many of the criteria for growing grapes. The site is high in elevation, with a moderate slope that is facing north. However, the heavy clay soil indicative of the Eden Shale region presents a challenge, Strang said.

“This is a heavy clay, fairly shallow soil that Kaan would say is not something he’d recommend for grapes,” Strang added. “But what the locals are saying is that as soon as they clear the woods off, the first thing that grows is grapes – the wild native grapes. So we put this plot in here to look at some of the varieties, to see how some mostly French-American hybrids and a few American varieties will perform.”

In addition to the variety trials, the Eden Shale plot is also home to a demonstration training trial showing four training systems that have the potential to increase the fruit quality of grapes being tested. Both trials are carefully tended by Christopher Smigell, Extension associate for small fruits and vegetables. 

“The majority of the grapes that are planted here are mostly what you call French-American hybrids,” Kurtural said. “The main reason to try these out here, these are varieties that have good fruit quality, which will make good wine. And the most important thing is they tend to match our sites better. They take the cold really well.”

The Eden Shale grape test plot is in its third year. Information gleaned from the project is designed to provide site specific information to nearby growers, but it will also be helpful to the state’s 92 grape growers and 21 wineries, 10 of which use 100 percent Kentucky-grown grapes, Strang told tour participants. 

“What we’re trying to do is build an industry based on Kentucky production,” he said. “We want people to grow the grapes rather than bring them in from California, New York and Michigan. That doesn’t help our growers to bring grapes in from outside the state.”

Contact: 

Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: John Strang, 859-257-5685,
Kaan Kurtural, 859-257-1332