That’s a Fine
A local family discovers the work and
satisfaction their home vineyard brings.
By Christa Gala
The first year Tam Cloer experimented with
planting grapevines on his 18-acre property in Apex, a late spring
frost killed every single vine. But Tam, short for Thomas, doesn’t
“I waited and learned a lesson
about it and came back and planted again the next year,” he says
easily. Eleven years have passed since that first planting, and
today he and wife Pam have nearly 3,000 healthy vines growing in
their home vineyard.
Learning the land
The family vineyard isn’t the family business,
however. Pam, 36, is a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s two
daughters. Tam, 37, works at Cloer Nursery in Apex, started by his
parents in 1979. The vineyard, says Tam, is a hobby that simply grew
in huge proportions—perhaps even a little crazily.
Primarily, the Cloers
grow three types of grapes: a French hybrid called Chambourcin, a
Cabernet Franc (similar to a Cabernet Sauvignon) and a Seyval Blanc.
In addition to the thousands of vines growing
in the vineyard, the Cloers have two 256-gallon stainless steel
fermenting tanks in a small barn-like shed behind their house.
Recently, family and friends gathered at the remodeled farmhouse,
built in 1914, to bottle the wine that had been fermenting in a
wooden barrel for 14 months. The Cloers usually give away many, if
not most, of the 360 bottles as holiday gifts or for other
occasions. As it turns out, they’re not huge wine drinkers.
“We like wine and
drink wine, but I’m not a connoisseur,” Tam says. “I couldn’t sit
down and do blind tastings, but I can tell you about the anatomy of
the grapes. We like this more for the agricultural aspect, more from
the farming standpoint.”
Tam, a graduate of
North Carolina State University with a BS in horticulture, is
especially intrigued by figuring out what will grow well in the
local climate and soil. “An ideal growing environment
for a grape is a very hot day followed by a very cool night,” says
Tam. “And here we don’t have cool nights. So the complexity and
structure of the grape can come apart a little bit. However, the way
science has evolved the last 15 or 20 years, just in agricultural
research, you’ve got chemicals and you’ve also got clones—varieties
of plants that actually thrive under certain conditions.”
The varieties Tam plants tolerate
the heat and mildews of North Carolina. While the quality of the
California climate is hard to match, North Carolina is quite kind to
certain types of grapes.
“I would bet that in
the next 10 to 20 years, North Carolina will be one of the top five
wine producing states in the country. I absolutely have no doubt
about it,” Tam says. He could be right. As it stands now, according
to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services,
the state ranked 12th for wine production in 2002,
producing wine with an estimated value of $30 million. Currently,
North Carolina is home to 250 vineyards and 25 award-winning
Growing grapes is not a weekend pastime or a
lazy man’s hobby. When asked how much work it requires, Tam says:
“Let me put it this way. Your wine is made in your vineyards. There
are not shortcuts.”
Tam and a Cloer
Nursery employee named Sabino Soliz (known as ‘Newly’ to his
buddies), start tending the vineyards in March, pruning for about
two weeks, cleaning up and then setting trellis wires. Newly, like
Tam, is very experienced and helped Tam plant his very first vines.
The summer months are especially busy, and the two men often work
the vineyards three days a week, pruning, spraying, and thinning the
vegetation, which is necessary if heavy rains cause an overgrowth
and prevent the fruit from getting adequate sun. Harvesting
generally takes place in September or October. Then the process
“As far as equipping
the winery, a lot of this is experimental,” Tam says. “But the
equipment that we have bought to experience with has been good
equipment.” The jacketed fermenting tanks he installed two years ago
contain the grapes and also have refrigeration capability. The cost
of such tanks varies widely, ranging in price from $4 to $12 per
gallon, depending on the size of the tank purchased.
Tam’s 256-gallon tanks
would be considered rather large for homeowner use, but adequate for
a small commercial winery. “But if you were a larger winery, they
would be like a soft drink-sized can,” he says.
A few years ago, Tam
tried to figure out how much his hobby cost him.
He fiddled with numbers per acre and per vine,
but he still hasn’t come up with a reliable figure. It doesn’t
matter to him though. What’s important is that he and Pam enjoy it.
The grapes bring family and friends together—whether in planting,
harvesting, bottling or canning.
When the Cloers bought their property in Apex,
the farmhouse was hard to find, with a winding dirt road providing
the only access. Subdivisions were scarce, and the only grocery
store was several miles away on Highway 64. A lot has changed.
“We couldn’t afford to
buy this out here now, believe it or not,” Tam says. “It’s gotten a
lot more expensive over the last five or six years. When they paved
this road about six years ago, that actually increased the values of
the properties out here.”
But the Cloers have no plans of
moving. They’re doing just what they’ve always wanted.
“There’s no big
business plan. Pam and I have always just wanted to enjoy it,” Tam
says. “It’s just a hobby. We had the land, and I wanted to plant
Tam admits he’s
probably through planting new vines for a while, but suggests to
anyone who’s interested to call the N.C. Department of Agriculture &
Consumer Services (see related sidebar). Planting a vineyard doesn’t
have to break the bank.
“You could plant a
really nice vineyard for less than $500 or you could plant an
extravagant vineyard for $50,000,” Tam says. “In fact, a lot of good
wines are simply made.”
Christa Gala is a
freelance writer living in Apex.
dark-berried French hybrid that is sometimes referred to as
“Pennsylvania Zinfandel.” Grapes produce a deep colored wine and
full flavor (from www.paradocx.com).
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, but lighter, softer and fruitier (from
Seyval Blanc: A
French-American hybrid with large green clusters. Seyval Blanc makes
a good all-purpose neutral crisp white wine that is light to medium
in body (from http://mtngrv.smsu.edu).
To learn more about
industry resources, legal issues and winemaking in general, contact
the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services by
www.ncwine.org or by calling 919-733-7136 ext. 233.