By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Although Chad and Bobbi Zirbes of rural Melrose would not have looked forward to Chad’s layoff in 2009, it turned out to be for the better, as it gave him time to research grape growing methods in Minnesota. That formed the foundation for Moonlight Vineyards.
They had already talked with Chad’s sister about vineyards near her home in Worthington. Then they visited a couple of wineries in the area and tried to buy land unsuitable for crops to use as a vineyard.
When that purchase fell through, followed by Chad’s lay-off, he had time to do more research. His brother referred Chad to John Thull, a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota, who has his own vineyard.
“All these discussions came about to create where we are now,” said Bobbi.
The Zirbes family, which includes sons, Vincent and Jordan, and daughter, Rebecca, live on the farm which belonged to Chad’s grandparents, which is also right next door to the farm where Chad grew up.
They try to keep the homestead atmosphere in their home, and have not changed a lot on the place, but after a severe hailstorm in 2010, when the siding on several buildings needed to be either painted or replaced, they saw their chance to make a change.
“When does anyone get to change every building at once?” asked Bobbi. “So we decided to put red siding on every building.”
“We are already a landmark north of Melrose on County Road 17,” said Chad, “because of the work we did preparing the field, and planting and growing grapevines over the past few years.”
In 2009, the first grapevines were planted with stock the Zirbes’ acquired from Thull. The varieties are Marquette and Frontenac Gris. After two years of plucking off all the baby grape clusters to encourage vine growth, this is the first year the grapes will be harvested.
“You have to enjoy doing this, because the rewards are not immediate,” Chad said. “We have 816 plants, and anticipate harvesting about one pound per plant this first year.”
“For now we are selling the grapes to Chris Ellering, owner of Whispering Oaks Winery near Greenwald,” he said.
“We will also be planting two new varieties this year — Frontenac Blanc and LaCrescent. We’re expanding from one and one-half acres to two acres this year, on our way to our goal of between five or six acres,” said Chad. “That is about what one or two people can manage by themselves.”
“We are striving to form our own business, to support ourselves with the grapes alone,” said Chad, who is now employed full-time at Centerline Tank in Sauk Centre. “Our long-term goal is to open our own winery.”
“We all help out with the vines, but I do most of the pruning,” he said. “That is what sets up plant growth for years to come.”
“Bobbi and the kids tie the vines up, weed, mow and water,” Chad said. “Grapes only need a little water during their first three years. They need to struggle just a bit so they send down a deep taproot.”
They use a low-cordon trellising system. “It takes up less space per acre,” said Bobbi.
Other vintners have been very helpful, with no hint of competition.
“There are winery trail tours which stop at various wineries in a given area, and the more wineries there are, the better,” said Chad.
Each winery produces different-tasting grapes and wine, due to changes in soil type and climate conditions.
“People in the grape industry are so helpful to each other. We are all trying to nurture each other,” said Ellering. “We want to see each other succeed.”
“Chad and Bobbi are very detailed; they do a good job of keeping their vineyard clean,” he said.
“We do take a lot of pride in what we do, but it’s been the camaraderie with other grape growers which has been the most interesting,” Chad said.
“We’ve been surprised at how many people around us have been making their own wine all along, using many different fruits,” said Bobbi.
“We give a lot of credit and many thanks to John and Jenny Thull, Richard and Marian Thull and Chris and Teri Ellering,” the Zirbes said. “They have all taught us a lot.”
“So many people have already volunteered to help with the harvest,” Chad said. “People have never seen a grape harvest before and want to be part of it.”
“Feel free to stop in and ask questions,” he said. “The best way to learn something is to do it.”