A grape’s winter survival guide

Sampson Valley Vineyard harvests cold climate grapes throughout Wisconsin’s harshest season

By Rachel Sankey

Grapes at Sampson Valley Vineyard endure harsh winters and are made into a varity of wines just outside of Green Bay. Photo courtesy of Jerrold Robaidek

Jerrold Robaidek grew up on a dairy farm in Sampson, Wisconsin. Before becoming the owner of Sampson Valley Vineyard (8351 County Highway D)—less than 30 minutes outside of Green Bay—he spent his time staring into space.

Robaidek earned his master’s degree in meteorology from the University of Maryland. Soon after, he started working for UW-Madison as a satellite meteorology researcher. Still, his connection to the land lingered.

Robaidek said he had talked with his father about having a vineyard on their property sometime during the early 1990s, and his father encouraged it, but the idea had never come to fruition. After his father’s passing, Robaidek said he remembered his father saying to “just go for it,” especially since it was a great plot of land. The family farm used to be a cow pasture, but was also on the edge of a terminal moraine of a glacier during the last ice age, making for great drainage.

In 2003, with the help of Robaidek’s six brothers and sister and his nieces and nephews, the family planted vines that would become Sampson Valley Winery. Robaidek said most of the grapes that were planted in 2003 are still there today. Now, the vineyard is made up of three acres of land. The vineyard leans into Wisconsin’s harsh winters with a practice known as cold climate growing.

“What we mostly grow in these regions are cold hardy grapes, which are usually hybrids, typically between vitis riparia and vitis vinifera, vitis labrusca, or other vitis species,” Robaidek said. “And these hybrid grapes can survive in the winter. You don’t need to bury them. You don’t really do anything special with them. And then during the summertime, again, they grow like a regular grape would for the most part.”

Every breed of grape comes with its pitfalls and wild Wisconsin grapes’ hamartia is their acidity.

“When you try to make wine from a wild grape, in most cases, you need to add a lot of sugar to balance that acidity or it would just be undrinkable,” Robaidek said. “A lot of wild grapes also don’t have the sugar levels some do. So a lot of this breeding is to increase sugar levels, lower acidity and do things like that.”

Despite wild grape’s acidic nature, their hardiness makes them better grapes for disease resistance.

Robaidek said a climate like Wisconsin, where there is a lot of rain and humidity, makes the grapes susceptible to mildew, blackrod and other diseases, it’s better to have grapes that are more resistant to the diseases.

“With grapes in Wisconsin, you want to keep them happy and healthy as much as possible during the summer,” Robaidek said. “You really don’t want your grapes to suffer in cold climates because the winter will cause enough suffering on their own. If it gets cold enough you can even damage these cold, hardy varieties. A lot of them are good to minus 20 Fahrenheit, some even minus 30.”

Robaidek opened Odilon Ford Winery in Madison this past summer. The winery specializes specifically in sparkling wines.

“One of the things I always say is don’t make a wine that the grapes don’t want to be in,” Robaidek said. “I have a long growing season but not a hot growing season. So they get a little bit more acidity, slightly lower sugar and they lend themselves really well to sparkling wines.”

Rachel Sankey is an Arts and Entertainment Reporter for Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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