I spent six hours of my Saturday leading bus tours from the Eagle River Cranberry Fest to Three Lakes to visit a cranberry marsh and the Three Lakes Winery. Considering I haven't actually been on a marsh since a second grade field trip and haven't been on a Winery tour since before I could drink and before they had an automated bottling machine, I had a bit of catch-up to do.
But thanks to an informative guide script and a bit of coaching from the pros (and a bit of Googling on Friday night), I think I did pretty well. And I now know a heck of a lot more about cranberries.
- Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the US. Our state alone produces over half of all cranberries consumed here in the US. Good thing cranberries go well with cheese...and cranberry wine ever better.
- Cranberries don't grow in water (actually, I already knew this, but here are the specifics). As with rice, water is a cultivation tool: after the harvest, the cranberry beds are flooded to cover the evergreen vines in ice. This protects the vines from freezing in our Wisconsin subzero temperatures.
Also, every three to five years, drive trucks out on the ice and dump several inches of sand. As the ice melts in the spring, the sand settles on top of the vines. This keeps an individual vine from growing too long by encouraging the vine to take root and branch into new vines.
The major pest for the cranberry is the Blackheaded Fireworm (mmm, doesn't that sound yummy?). Fortunately for cranberry growers - the Blackheaded Fireworms can't swim, but cranberry vines can. So they flood the bed just as the Fireworm is maturing and drown them out.
Then during the spring and summer the growers spray down the cranberry beds on nights that threaten to freeze. As ice forms, it released a small amount of heat (remember high school physics?), and this heat protects the blossoms from freezing.
Finally, in the fall, the beds are flooded because the ripe cranberries float. They use a machine to "beat" the berries off of the vines, and then all the berries float to one end of the bed where they are collected.
- Cranberries are one of three fruits native to Wisconsin. The other two are blueberries (in the same scientific Order as cranberries) and Concord grapes.
- Cranberries and blueberries are in the same scientific order with a third commonly enjoyed berry, the Lingonberry.
- Cranberry vines take 3-4 years to begin producing berries, but once they produce, a single vine can continue producing for decades. Some have been known to continuously produce berries for 100 years.
- White cranberry juice comes from using cranberries that haven't fully ripened (the color hasn't "snapped," and the seeds inside the berry are still white instead of brown). The commercial variety of cranberries doesn't fully ripen until after a hard freeze. White cranberries are commonly harvested around Labor Day (or the producers selected unripened berries from the regular cranberry harvest). Another species of cranberry does ripen in mid-September, without the aid of a frost.
- Much research continues to be done on the health benefits of the berry, but really, you can't go wrong eating those little things (just watch the sugar).
Wisconsin growers estimate this year's harvest will be about 4 million barrels (in the industry, one barrel = 100 lbs of berries). That's down from 2008's harvest of 4.3 million barrels, but 2008 was a record year, and even with an 11% decrease 2009 will be the second biggest harvest on record. That is, assuming that after this strange summer and early fall, the color finally does "snap" with enough time for growers to get the berries harvested before it begins to snow and the flooded cranberry beds turn into a gigantic cranberry slushy.
I'll confess I was actually a lot more intimidated by the idea of guiding tours at the Winery. Fortunately I didn't wind up with anybody in my tour groups that were actually wine-makers (or, I did so poorly they knew better than to attempt to ask me any questions). I'm impressed with how much the facility has grown since I was last in the back of it. There were boxes of wine in every nook and cranny and stacked high to the ceiling. Seems like they're doing pretty well, and they've added a whole line of new wines (including some new grape varieties). We tried the new pomegranate and a red Zinfandel grape and cranberry wine blend that was very good.
Also new this year are cheese spreads that are blended with the cranberry, blackberry or blueberry wines. I snuck back into the parking lot today to get my fresh cranberries, but now that cranberry fest is over, I'm going to have to go back to the Winery tomorrow to stock up on my own cranberry supplies. I hope there's something left to be bought!!