Have you ever wondered what it’s like to plant grapevines? I have, and I’m embarrassed to say that it took me 15 years in the wine industry to find out! Luckily, my friend Jessica Youngblood, with whom I serve on the board of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, has planted a vineyard nearby in Ray Township, Michigan. When she advertised the opportunity for volunteers to assist on one of their planting days, I jumped at the chance. The kids and I hopped in the car to go help dig in the dirt at Youngblood Vineyard.
When I asked how they ended up in the grape biz, Jess gave me some family history: She grew up in Washington state, met her husband Dave while they were in college, and they later moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. There they fell in love with the wine industry after visiting many Northern Virginia wineries. When the opportunity arose to return to Metro Detroit, where they had a family farm, they jumped at the chance to plant wine grapes. In less than two years, they have planted over 20,000 grapevines on nearly 23 acres of the farm, establishing Youngblood Vineyard as the largest vineyard in Eastern Michigan. Jess’ primary job is to take care of the vines full time: tying, pruning, thinning leaves, checking clusters, and maintaining overall vineyard health. Dave primarily does the planning and construction side of things, such as land clearing, vineyard layout, and trellis construction, though they both do some of everything. Their kids get in on the action, too, pruning, planting, mowing, and fighting for their turn to drive the tractor.
The Youngbloods are growing several cold-hardy hybrid grape cultivars that can survive extreme winter weather fluctuations (which metro Detroit certainly had during the 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex seasons), including three reds and three whites: Marquette, Frontenac, Petite Pearl, Frontenac Blanc, Prairie Star, and Traminette. (If these grape names don’t sound familiar, just wait—hybrid grape wines are gaining traction and can rival dry, semi-dry, sweet, or dessert wines made with the Vitis vinifera grapes most people are familiar with.) The Youngbloods may sell some of their grapes, but they strategically planted varieties with complementary flavors and structure for when they decide to produce their own label. In conjunction with Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology, they also host occasional VESTA (Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance) workshops, so students looking to gain valuable hands-on vineyard experience should definitely contact them!
Best of all, in addition to being a founding member of the Great Lakes Sustainable Wine Alliance, the vineyard is verified by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, which “shows peers and neighbors the high level of commitment to agricultural stewardship and protecting the environment.” Find out more about the MAEAP verification program here: http://www.maeap.org/get_verified.
When my kids and I arrived on a chilly May day to help plant, the Youngbloods provided a quick training session for all of the volunteers, teaching us the correct orientation in which to plant the vines, how to wrestle with the long root system (they kept the roots long instead of trimming them since they had augered holes that were a couple feet rather than just a few inches deep–Jess told me that this would shorten the period until the vines will be ready to produce viable fruit for wine), and how to install the grow tubes that would protect the young vines until they can be trellised. We jumped in with gusto and were able to plant a few rows of vines before my crew had to leave for karate and guitar lessons. We all left dirty and happy, wishing that we could have contributed more. I hope the Youngbloods will let us come back when it’s time for harvest so we can check on the vines we planted and help pick the fruit from the vines Jess and Dave planted in 2016. Most of all, I hope I can “help” them when it comes time for taste-testing their first wines!
We can’t wait to see what’s next for Youngblood Vineyard! While Detroit has a rich history as a beer-producing town, the founders of Motown and the Big Three auto makers probably never would’ve fathomed that there would be a working vineyard only about 30 miles from the heart of this gritty manufacturing city. Follow Youngblood Vineyard on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/youngbloodvineyard/.