Photos by David Cobb
Winemaking has put down roots in Oklahoma, but producing it is no easy task – so Andrew Snyder’s labor of love is helping to cultivate the future of the state’s wine industry.
Drive out along U.S. Highway 81 north of El Reno and the landscape flattens gently into farm fields on both sides of the highway. Make a left turn onto Darlington Road and you’ll pass cattle pastures on the right, followed by fields of tall, waving wheat on either side. It is quintessential rural Oklahoma.
Or is it?
Where the pavement ends, a left turn onto a small side road leads to the Darlington campus of Redlands Community College. Follow the signs and another quick left takes you to Chapel Creek Vineyards and Winery. Here amongst the wheat fields are 46 varieties of grapes, and a winery producing 30 different wines, many of which have garnered recognition and awards on regional, national and international levels.
Chapel Creek is the site of RCC’s program in viticulture and oenology – the science of growing grapes and the art of making wine. It is the only degree program of its kind in Oklahoma. Whether through a two-year associate degree or a 15-hour professional certificate, this program shows the next generation of winemakers every aspect of the industry.
“Our two-year program will allow you to know how to commercially set up a vineyard, in mind of the climate challenges we have here in Oklahoma, and set up a 2,000-case winery,” says Andrew Snyder, who directs the program, having created it from scratch in 2007. “A student comes into our program and goes through every step of the process, from planting the grapevine all the way through corking the bottle.”
To say that Snyder is passionate about the wine business is a bit of an understatement. It’s a passion he discovered during three years of active duty military service in Germany, followed by another 11 years there as a civilian contractor.
“In Germany you would have a glass of wine with every meal,” he remembers. “Not to get intoxicated, but just as a beverage to accompany the meal and make the meal more enjoyable.”
On returning to his native Oklahoma, Snyder eventually earned three master’s degrees from OU – none related to wine. But his passion had not abated. He turned a portion of his parents’ land into a vineyard. He went through the renowned wine executive program at the University of California-Davis, and attended classes at Grayson County College in Texas, which had been the closest program to Oklahoma before Redlands. Now, in addition to his duties at Redlands and Chapel Creek, he serves as president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association.
In setting up the Redlands program, the college secured grants and acquired a plot of land rich in history. Originally the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribal agency, the Masons later purchased the property and constructed a three-story Masonic Home that served as an orphanage and home for widows. The Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization affiliated with the Masons, built a chapel on the property in 1913, and that structure has become the symbol of Chapel Creek Vineyards and Winery. Currently under renovation, it will be soon be open as an event center at the winery.
Snyder teaches courses not only in the hands-on aspect of growing the grapes and producing the wine, but in winery marketing and tasting room management. He sees diverse students – an average class size is 12 – and he makes sure they understand that the wine industry, while enormously satisfying, is a lot of work.
“Most of my students are older,” he says. “They are either looking to transition into a different career or supplement their income. I joke with them that it’s my job to beat the ‘romance’ out of this idea. There’s a lot of physical labor involved, there’s a fair amount of risk involved, and we want to give students a realistic preview of what they can expect. It’s an agricultural product, so you are at the mercy of everything.”
In the research vineyard, the students examine growth patterns to determine what works in the unique Oklahoma climate. In the winery, they utilize state-of-the-art technology in producing 30 types of wine, considering the different protocols and winemaking techniques required to make each.
It is a tough business, but Snyder has a philosophical view of where the wine industry is going in Oklahoma. “Like any fledgling industry, there will be growing pains. The people who educate themselves and invest not only in quality education but in good equipment and sanitary processes will be successful. Those who don’t will fall by the wayside. Over the next decade we’ll see continued growth, but we’ll see some attrition as well.”
Andrew Snyder is an educator and a businessman, but above all, he is a wine lover. The satisfaction comes, as he says, “from taking something you are passionate about and seeing a customer truly enjoy that glass or bottle of wine.”
Down at the end of Darlington Road, surrounded by those Oklahoma wheat fields, important work is being done at Chapel Creek. An industry is being nurtured. The ancient art and science of making wine is unfolding in new ways in a state that has only recently begun to embrace the idea. It is fitting in a state that celebrates its pioneer spirit to see new directions, a new industry, a wide-open view of what the phrase “Oklahoma wine” can mean... and the limitless potential of where it can go.
Get Your Boots On
The 3rd annual Grape Stomp and Wine Festival will be held at Chapel Creek on September 8 and 9, 12-6pm daily, featuring live music, food, tours of the vineyard, winery and chapel… and of course, wine tastings. For more information, visit chapelcreek.samsbiz.com or call 343.2463.