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From juice to wine

By Staff | Jul 19, 2013

JIM BONNECROY and his family spend a lot of time pruning the grape vines, making sure the plants put as much of their energy into establishing themselves so they can produce large, flavorful grapes.



ORANGE CITY-Jim and Leanne Bonnecroy have long dreamed of opening a winery. They have nearly two acres of vineyard on the southern edge of Orange City, the knowledge of wine making and the manpower to do it.

Their next step was to procure financial help getting the winery started.

The Bonnecroys applied for and received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Value-Added Producer Grant. They were one of 110 awardees selected from around the nation.

THE BONNECROYS have planted rose bushes at the head of their vineyard rows. They add beauty, but their real job is to detect the drifting of any sprays that might damage the vines. If that happens, the roses will be affected first, alerting them to potential problems early so they can be remedied.

The award is part of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, which coordinates its work to support local and regional food systems.

Their grant was in the amount of $9,000, with the stipulation that the Bonnecroys match that amount.

The grants help ag producers increase their income by expanding marketing opportunities, creating new products or developing new uses for existing products.

The 2008 Farm Bill contained several enhancements to the VAPG program, one of which included an expanded definition of value-added to include locally-produced agricultural food products.

Some of the eligibility criteria include any agricultural commodity or product that has undergone a change in physical state, was produced in a manner that enhances its value, and is physically segregated in a manner that results in enhancement of its value, among others.

Sam (front) and Jack (back) Bonnecroy are right in there pruning grape vines with their parents. They want to come back and take over the proposed winery someday when their parents retire.

“For this planning grant, you have to take a product and add value to it,” said Dr. Bonnie Meier, educational consultant at Sherwood Forest Consulting in Orange City, who wrote the grant. “Turning grapes into wine is a perfect example of that.”

Meier said there are four parts to obtaining this grant, including the carrying out of a feasibility study by a third party, developing a business plan, covering the cost of any legal fees incurred in the study, and the development of a business logo.

Once the application was finished, it was sent to Kimberly Clay of the Sioux County USDA office, who determined the grant’s eligibility and forwarded it to Des Moines, where it would compete nationally.

Now that the Bonnecroys have received this grant, Meier will continue by writing an application for a working capital grant.

“Our goal is to get an operating grant to help set up the winery,” said Jim Bonnecroy. “We have three years to use this planning grant, and we intend to use it up this summer. It will be at least three years before the winery would open.”

Jim and Leanne Bonnecroy talk over their plans to open a winery in their home. Currently they make wine in their basement, and stock it in this bar.

He added that research indicates vineyard owners receive only 25 percent of potential income by selling their fruit to other wineries. They said that since they had the vines and the desire to expand, they jumped in with both feet.

The vineyard

Jim Bonnecroy, an animal health supply and pharmaceutical sales person by trade, grew up around the neighborhood where he now lives, and said he “came back home to roost.”

He has always enjoyed gardening, saying he and his wife had a few grape vines for their own use, were given a few more by friends, and then decided to expand.

Their vineyard, which lines their property on the north and east sides, consists of three varieties – Frontenac, planted in 2006; St. Croix, planted two years later; and Brianna.

They made their back yard smaller to accommodate this last planting.

“This will be the first year we’ll harvest all three varieties,” said Bonnecroy, adding that it takes the first three seasons after planting to harvest a good crop.

Bonnecroy said the work in the vineyard is labor-intensive, between pruning the grape vines regularly so the plant’s energy goes back into making a stronger plant and better grapes.

They have to pick off the buds and make sure the vines have about 15 bud-bearing branches. Plants need to be kept up high to avoid diseases close to the ground.

The Bonnecroys depend on Mother Nature to water their vineyard, saying that mechanical watering just doesn’t cut the mustard.

During the harvest, which comes in September, there may be as many as 30 people gatherng the fruit. The fruit must be handled carefully so as not to lose any. Harvesters need to remove from the bunches the grapes that didn’t mature, as well as the raisins and the stems before they are collected in sanitized containers, placed in a trailer and delivered cold to the winery.

They have 520 vines in production this year. Next year there will be 600 vines.

The juice

“We have plans to increase, but we’re not there yet,” said Jim Bonnecroy. “Right now all of our crop is sold to neighboring wineries. We’re experimenting in making different wines and making them for our own use or to give away.”

Making wine is as much a science as it is an art, he said. It involves yeasts and exact fermentation processes, aging, knowledge of products to help flavor the wines as they age, and state laws regarding the amount of alcohol that can make up table wines.

He attended wine-making school in Kimball, Neb., and read wine magazines to give him his base in the knowledge of wine making.

Jack Bonnecroy, 23, the couple’s oldest son, said that though there are many of the same grapes around, the wines made from them all taste different.

“People make wines in all different ways,” he said. “We’ve gotten wine kits before with enough to make six gallons of wine at a time.

“It makes it a lot easier to control the variables in a batch that size and helps us understand the process better.”

Leanne Bonnecroy said that, with variables in growing season conditions, the fruit from their vines may taste different from year to year. With the variables involved in ingredients used to make and age the wine, it can get complicated in a hurry.

“That’s why wines are often dated,” she said, “because (a certain wine) may have tasted great one year, and might not be as good the next year, just because the fruit may not have been as good.”

The Bonnecroys have developed their own recipes and searched wine recipe books for other ideas.

Jack Bonnecroy works and lives in Orange City, and his brother, Sam Bonnecroy, 21, will see his senior year this fall at the University of Northern Iowa. Both want to return to the newly forming family business some day when their parents need more help keeping it going.

Both are interested in the planting process.

They have also created a website for their business, www.theboncroixvineyard.com.

“I see Jack as more of the wine maker and Sam as the head fruit grower,” said Jim Bonnecroy.

Along with their winery plans, Leanne Bonnecroy’s additional dream is to host wine-tasting and wine-pairing parties at their vineyard home, and give people a place to host small wedding receptions.

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