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An American hopes to make wine in the steppes around Astana

16 february 2012, 13:43
7

Scott Overmyer wants to start a winery operation in the often-frozen steppe around Astana.

Those unfamiliar with growing wine grapes may think that the Nazarbayev University computational-science professor came up with the idea of a northern Kazakhstan winery after downing too much Zinfandel.

But Scott knows what he’s talking about. Five years ago he started a wine operation in South Dakota, an American prairie state that experiences the same bitter-cold winters you see in Kazakhstan.

The South Dakota operation is still going – and Scott and his wife Syl will fly back in coming weeks to tend to it.

In the meantime, Scott is excited about looking in to whether he can grow what are known as “cold, hardy varietals” in the Astana area.

A wine-growing operation in north Kazakhstan would warm the cockles of the Kazakhstan Agricultural Ministry officials tasked with diversifying the country’s farm production.

“Agriculture in Kazakhstan is not very diversified,” Scott said. In fact, he said, “85 percent of arable land is in wheat.”

When an annual wheat harvest takes a hit because of drought, pests or other problems, Kazakhstan’s total agriculture output is hammered that year. So agricultural officials would like to see more crops grown, starting with other grains and vegetables.

The stage was set for an Overmyer wine-growing operation when Scott and Syl returned from a teaching assignment in New Zealand in 2004. The bought a 23-acre farm near Brookings, in eastern South Dakota, then tried to figure out what to produce on it.

“We didn’t really want to run animals” on it, Scott said – “and we both liked wine.”  So it wasn’t a difficult decision.

The fact that South Dakota had only six wine operations at the time, leaving plenty of room for growth, was another plus.

Scott P. Overmyer, Ph.D.Scott was a wine-operation novice, so he decided to take online classes in viticulture and enology from the University of California at Davis in California’s wine country and from the state of Iowa’s Des Moines Area Community College.

“I learned how to make wine” from those courses, Scott said.

He put his education into practice with a test patch of 24 vines in 2005.

“That went well,” he said. So the next year he planted 650 Marquette and 250 Brianna wine shoots on about 3 ½ acres. Marquette is a red wine and Brianna a white.

The Overmyers got a South Dakota winery license in 2006, making everything official.

The keys to a successful wine-grape crop, Scott discovered, were pruning, pest management and training vines to grow in a certain way.

The Overmyers harvested enough grapes to make wine for their own consumption in 2009 and 2010. This year they enjoyed a harvest large enough for commercial production.

But because they were heading for Scott’s job at Nazarbayev University, they decided to sell the grapes rather than make wine for the U.S. market.

Scott said South Dakota’s cold hasn’t been his main wine-grape-growing headache. It’s been deer.

The animals eat grape vines’ leaves, shoots -- everything “down to the nub,” Scott said.

We didn’t need this “assistance in pruning,” he smiled.

“A  50-caliber rifle has helped with that a bit – in (deer-hunting) season, of course,” he grinned.

In fact, he and Syl have ended up with a freezer full of venison – “up to the tag limit, of course,” Scott grinned again. The tag limit is the maximum number of deer that South Dakota says a hunter can shoot in a season.

Cold could be more of a challenge in Kazakhstan than South Dakota, Scott noted. His South Dakota grape vines can withstand temperatures of minus 35 Centigrade before dying, he said.

But Kazakhstan’s lows can plunge to minus 45 or worse.

So Scott said he’d have to come up with a system for protecting his vines during the bitterest Kazakhstan cold.

This year, Syl will be returning to the couple’s South Dakota wine operation in March and Scott after Nazarbayev University’s Spring-Semester classes end in May.

Scott said he’d like to grow about 5 acres of wine grapes in the Astana area.

He recently discussed leasing land from a farmer and his wife with a 5,000-hectare spread.

Before he makes a commitment to leasing land, however, he plans to do an informal feasibility study.

To start with, “I need to see a soil test to see if the soil can grow grapes,” Scott said.

“I also need to know about the availability of agricultural chemicals” and labor, what it takes to become a licensed winery” in Kazakhstan and “what the competitive environment is.”

If he becomes convinced he can make a go of it, he said, the next step would be bringing in vines from the United States.

“With the availability of cold, hardy varietals” and a way to ensure the vines’ survival in the very coldest of winters, “something could be done here,” he concluded.

 

Check out Scott's wine-growing Web site, which includes translations of this blog in Russian and Kazakh.


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