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Thirsty Farmer

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Profile
Aug 1st, 2022
0 Comments
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BY NILS BORQUIST
PHOTGRAPHS BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Edward Gibbon wrote that “the winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.” This quote beautifully and aptly illustrates the blend that luck and ability create to produce triumph. Certainly, while good fortune is wished for and hard work is admirable, when combined, they can result in the discoveries of meaningful purpose and joyful satisfaction. However, attaining even one, never mind both, may feel impossible for many. Sometimes you have to scale the highest mountains, scrambling over shifting rocks and placing yourself in danger, simply for a glimpse of the opportunity for success. Sometimes, that opportunity seemingly flits in the wind, spiraling about like a twisting leaf or a spinning wisp of dandelion, passing in front of our faces so obvious yet often unnoticed. Then it is gone, lost to that moment passed. This is the fragility of each; one may work hard yet foolishly, wasting energy and time fruitlessly, and be wholly ignorant of that fact, while another may have incredible and rare chances fall into his lap time and again but obliviously lets them slip through his fingers, lacking the vision to see what could be if only he clutched them tightly.

Opportunity can be a wonderful gift, and if we get it and we take a chance to see it through, we may reap benefits often only dreamed of. That opportunity may be a job offering far from home where you have no friends or family, but is the once in a lifetime opening you’ll never see again. It may be knocking on the door of someone you just can’t get out of your head to ask, “Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?” Or, as in the case of Michael and Savannah Ray, the proprietors behind the Thirsty Farmer winery, it may be taking a work trip to the West Coast in the heart of California wine country when Fortune plants the seeds of inspiration. Fortunately, for the Rays as well as for wine enthusiasts in Northeast Louisiana, and hopefully beyond, those seeds were scooped up and carried home to be sown. Through hard work, trying times, and smiles and tears alike, Thirsty Farmer stands to reap success and fellowship, friendships and laughter, spirits consumed and lifted.

Nearly seven years ago, Savannah Ray, a nurse practitioner who lives in Calhoun with her husband, Michael, and their two children, left for Sonoma, California, partly to attain Continuing Education Units for her work and partly to enjoy a getaway with her husband who agreed to accompany her, even though he initially felt that he may be quite bored during the time there. After having traveled along to similar locations, he stated that he was no stranger to seeing the bleak faces of husbands sitting in tasting room corners, saying nothing and staring blankly into glasses of tepid water. A wine lover himself, though, Michael thought the trip would be fun, and he refused to play the role of despondent spouse being dragged about from winery to winery. Not only was the trip fun for the couple, a number of aspects of the experience made an indelible impression, and before they had even made the return journey home, Savannah expressed a desire to plant grapes in order to start making their own wine. Michael jumped on board with the idea, and though they both bubbled over with excitement, they also knew that a tremendous amount of hard work lay in store. Little did they know at that point how much of a demand those little plants would place on their time, energy, and wallets.

The original idea for the vineyard and winemaking only focused on being able to produce enough wine for themselves, family, and friends. Prior to pursuing this goal, Michael had some experience with crafting spirits, having made beer utilizing a starter kit. The result was christened the “Snow Day IPA,” and it was a hit with those who gave it a trial run. The process of brewing struck a chord with Michael, so the challenge of making wine was met with welcome arms. The California trip piqued his and Savannah’s interest further, especially when he realized that an enormous amount of the task involved farming. Being able to meet Sonoma farmers and view their acres of grapes, the intricacies of row placement and vertical trellis construction, the fragility of the plants, and the constant care required truly drew him in and cemented his aspiration to help make Savannah’s dream a reality. Knowing local farmers, and having undertaken farming work himself, and recognizing that the hard work and attention to detail required to produce quality crops could be highly rewarding made the vision one worth pursuing. The big question was where to start.

s the couple already owned 30 acres in Calhoun, finding the space for the initial planting was not a problem. They first ordered 150 vines of assorted varietals that they and their family members enjoyed, including pinot noir, chardonnay, and Riesling grapes. Although uncertain about the most efficient way to plant the vines, Michael believed the best idea was “to get them in the ground” and pay a great deal of attention to them while also researching grape harvesting, which involves many facets, such as fighting against plant disease and destructive insects as well as irrigation and soil enhancement. Though there were some early growing pains regarding their own crops, they were able to begin dabbling with the actual winemaking process by ordering local fruits and grapes from California. As they learned more about growing grapes in Louisiana, tragedy, unfortunately, occurred, and three years into planting, their crops died. The entirety of their original investment withered away, and the Rays were understandably devastated. Nevertheless, the Rays reflected on the important details of that first crop; they had learned a tremendous amount over the past 1,000 days. Their knowledge about vertical shoot positioning, the life of grapes from seedling to ripe fruit, and the manipulation of soil had multiplied immensely. Leaning on their experience thus far, they decided to push forward and replant. They also thought, “Let’s go bigger.”

Go bigger they did. To further bolster the hands-on education they received over the past three years, the couple chose to enroll in the Enology certification program at Grayson College in Denison, Texas, in 2019. Attaining that certification required trips to Texas over several weekends for many months, taking winemaking classes that focused not only on the actual physical or chemistry process but also the business component of producing and selling wine, should that be something they would pursue later. Just as fortuitous as the California trip had been in sparking the interest of making personal wines, the Grayson experience created a curiosity in the potential for producing wine to sell in a region of Louisiana where only a few wineries exist for a population who love gathering for food, conversation, and drinks. The culture of enjoying family and friends for holidays, celebrations, or for no real reason at all has been and remains an integral part of Louisiana living, and the Rays thought that if they created something special, they may be able to be a part of such get-togethers, helping people assemble and enjoy each other’s company.

The entire process of growing grapes and making wine has proven to be a highly delicate and detailed enterprise, as not only do heat, humidity, rain, and soil conditions need to be considered and countered, but there are also the constant threats of vineyard diseases brought about by various insects. Perhaps none is more detrimental to grapevines than Pierce’s disease, a bacterial sickness introduced by a particular insect, one identified by Michael as the glassy-winged sharpshooter. As those bugs are pervasive all over the country, northern Louisiana farmers must remain vigilant regarding their presence. Aware that Pierce’s disease likely caused their first 150 vines to perish, the Rays set out to defend their new crop from the same fate. Luckily, in 2019, a prestigious professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California-Davis, Dr. Andrew Walker, and a team of researchers and geneticists made public that they had developed five varieties of grapes highly resistant to the threat of the sharpshooter, and in 2020, the strains were released for propagation. Fortunately, over the years the Rays have been growing grapes, they forged friendships with many other driven farmers, many of whom are from California, so they were able to keep up-to-date on such fantastic news. Understanding the value of the improvement of the plants, the Rays immediately ordered the so-called Andy Walker varietals in 2020, and in doing so, they became the first grape-growers in the state to procure and plant the innovative vines. Having such an incredible fruit parentage should increase the future vineyard yields in terms of healthy, vibrant harvests.

After enhancing their overall knowledge of the aspects of winemaking and selling, the second iteration of planting involved 300 vines, and the new crop’s grapes were the breeds more resistant to disease. As the plan included doubling the vines, the Rays recognized that expansion was necessary, so they added 10 acres to their farm property in 2019. In addition, the idea of making wines solely for immediate friends and family began to be overtaken by the idea of making wine for anybody. Certainly, undertaking such an endeavor requires a great deal of planning and anticipation. Fortunately, Savannah possesses such foresight. Beyond spending the past five years collecting machinery and information, the couple learned that they needed to get ahead to stay ahead of potential issues. Also, Michael pointed out that an enormous amount of their success is directly attributable to Savannah’s research into the operations of others. In particular, she presented questions to winemakers they had met over the years. The common answer to one of her questions turned out to reveal a valuable standard to put into practice. When she asked them what they would do differently between the first couple years of production, the advice was to “prepare for what you want it to be like rather than what it is.” Considering a five-year plan rather than only thinking about next week allowed the Rays to enlarge their vision for what Thirsty Farmer could be for them and for the community.

With the scope of what could be widening by the week, the Rays continued to expand their production, which included adding 600 more vines to the property. Utilizing their ripening grapes, they also began truly producing larger and larger quantities of wines, a process requiring more equipment and, perhaps most importantly, more space. With that in mind, and after initially using any available room in and near their home, they knew that considering a larger facility to house the winemaking machinery as well as a true tasting room was likely a necessity. Thus began the process, as the Rays like to say, of “migrating from the laundry room” into a full-scale building, a construction project that began in the Spring of 2020, which involved pouring the slab, and took nearly two years to fully complete, ending in March of 2022. During the process, Good Fortune smiled down again, and a blessing in disguise came to fruition for the Rays. As the original plan for the family was to have the structure completed and opened in late 2020, a number of factors occurred to slow the process, most notably the pandemic. This frustrated the Rays at first, but then COVID hit with its full force, and so many people lost jobs while the economy froze. With friends and family members needing activities to take up some time and stored energy, Michael and Savannah called for help with building and harvesting work, and their calls were answered and then some. People arrived in droves, showing how much they care about the Rays and what they were trying to accomplish. Wanting to be a part of the Thirsty Farmer and displaying their love prompted them to come and get their hands dirty with planting, pulling, and plotting. And the Rays could not be more thankful. 

All of the preparation, dedication, learning, making mistakes, and making alterations has paid off. The business is growing by the day. A website has been built and is being added-to (thirstyfarmerwines.com) and their Facebook page (@ThirstyFarmerWines) is thriving as well. On May 14th, 2022, the “soft opening” of the Thirsty Farmer tasting room occurred. While the thought was the event would be a nice, small gathering of friends and family, over 200 people showed up to hear Danny and Dave from Four on the Floor play, eat from charcuterie trays, and sample the abundant varieties of delectable wine. In addition to the wine, Michael wanted to include something a little different, and while beer was his first choice to brew, the option to create diverse flavors of hard cider proved too inviting to pass up, so the tasting room also includes three types of cider on tap. A few weeks later, on June 4th, the grand opening proved an amazing event as over 1000 people showed up to partake. As of now, so early in its existence, Thirsty Farmer is only open on Saturdays from 12-8, with local bands playing in the middle hours. Soon enough, the hours and days available to partake in the ambience and tastes will expand, but until then, visitors need to make plans to open up their Saturdays and travel over to Calhoun to enjoy a sunny afternoon with the Rays and their family. 

For centuries, wine has proven to be an integral piece of large-scale gatherings and intimate meetings alike, helping to elevate celebrations or even simply adding a soothing flair to an otherwise uneventful Thursday night. People use it to wind down after work, toast a new bride and groom, or just enjoy a leisurely afternoon. Savannah and Michael Ray knew the value of wine even before they thought to try producing it, and their wish to make it, to share it, and bring that joy to other people near and dear to them shows their spirit of loving life and signifies embracing the essence of giving. Writer and thinker Clifton Fadiman stated that “a bottle of wine begs to be shared; I have never met a miserly wine lover.” Wine calls to be opened, to be poured in multiple glasses, and to be relished. The Rays could not agree with Fadiman more, and now, with Thirsty Farmer, they have opened their doors for the shared loves of wine and fellowship.