The East Coast has the Atlantic, three states share the Pacific, and even Texas has the Gulf of Mexico. Here in Indiana we have our own low-fat ocean substitute in Lake Michigan. It’s wavy, beachy, surfable, and seems to go on forever.
The great lake also gives us something I never expected before I moved here: good conditions for wine grapes. Poor soil helps, and the earth around here was actually lake bottom thousands of years ago. The sandy hills are now an ideal setup for the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail.
Last fall I was assigned to find out what sustainability moves these vineyards might be making. That’s how I found myself cold-calling the Lake Michigan wineries.
Several said they compost their pomace. Pomace is wine-speak for pulp, skins, stems, and seeds. For every 3 tons of juice produced, 1 ton of pomace is left. So that composting does add up.
When I called Karma Vista Vineyards, owner Joe Herman got my attention by saying something different. He’s a plainspoken Irish-American farmer who reminds me of my Illinois farmer uncles and grandfathers. His big environmental move was mowing.
That didn’t sound revolutionary at first. But in a time and place obsessed with harsh chemicals, it’s actually an unusual, expensive, and time-consuming prospect. Mowing means buying big equipment, breaking out hoes, hiring more employees, tracking growth patterns, and measuring sugar content. Two years in, Karma Vista has already sunk more than $25,000 into its experiment.
There are around 1,500 organic and 450 biodynamic vineyards worldwide that also handle their grass and weeds without chemicals. But Herman isn’t trying to become organic, and he’s still trying to cut down on herbicide use in an area where no one else seems to be yet. His vineyard won’t look as “groomed” as his neighbors’—and he’s okay with that.
“You have to retrain yourself as to how a vineyard or orchard should look,” he said. “You’re used to it looking as bare as the surface of the moon, but there’s nothing natural about that.”
I finally visited Karma Vista last week. Joe Herman and his wife, Susie, have situated their tasting room and cellars on one of the highest hills in their county. Looking out, I swore I could see almost to Lake Michigan.
The grass that will reach toward the grapevines weren’t growing tall yet. But even when the weeds are shaggy, and Karma Vista doesn’t have the perfection of a chem-lawn, I could see how striking the vineyard will be. That beauty works with the natural landscape rather than trying to change it into the bareness it’s not.
Look for more about drinking wine, mowing grass, and the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail in a magazine story this summer.