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A FINE TIME FOR MAKING WINE

Dick Walker, wise, wry, wiry and white-haired at 72, supplies the basic grape juices that enable hundreds of amateur winemakers and numerous commercial wineries in 31 states to exercise their skills.

From Walker's Fruit Basket & Press House on Route 39, outside the Chautauqua County village of Forestville, he expects in the next few months that the family-operated business will dispense 500,000 gallons of juices ready for the perils and pride of winemaking.

Aside from the pressed juices of cherries, peaches or rhubarb, fit for fermenting into wine for the simple joys of fresh fruit flavor, the Walker family will sell the pressed juices of 25 popular wine grapes. Prices will range from $3.65 a gallon for Concords to $11.30 per gallon for Merlot red. The retail selling begins Sept. 25.

Winemakers from places such as Connecticut will drive to Walker's for their wine grape juices. Some juices will be trucked to wineries in 550-gallon tanks anchored aboard three 10-wheelers. Other juices will flow through nozzles and hoses into jugs as small as one gallon or barrels that will hold 60 gallons from a wall of juice-dispensing spigots. Each gallon will have a 21 brix (sugar content) rating.

"Some customers prefer to pick up their juices on weekdays to avoid the long weekend lines," Walker said. A sensible merchant, Walker will sell the carboys and barrels to those who come without juice containers. One more thing: It's cash and carry. "We give no credit," Walker said.

In the early days some 25 years ago, the Walker family raised all the grapes they pressed. No more. Now the business has grown so large that their 38-acre vineyard can supply only a portion of the 2,000 tons of grapes they press. A ton of grapes usually yields 175 gallons of wine. Two other features distinguish Walker's: All red-wine grapes are hot-pressed to enhance the color, and Walker says the family business has no regional competition.

It all began in 1955 when he bought a farm that had 13 cherry trees and seven acres of grapes. Now he finds himself with 30 seasonal employees, pressers, stem removers, filters, conveyors, a liquid sugar silo, a laboratory and a silvery indoor forest of cold storage tanks (some holding 18,000 gallons) and a business that grosses a few million dollars while bringing smiles of satisfaction to thousands.

A much larger and older grape business, Welch Foods, traces its Concord grape origin to 1869. Owned by the nearly 1,500 patrons of the National Grape Cooperative of Westfield, N.Y., and Westfield, Mass., its per-ton payments are based on Welch sales during the prior two years. Welch's 1,250 employees make or sell more than 60 products, mostly based on Concord or Niagara grapes. In fiscal 1998, sales exceeded $599 million and are expected to approach $650 million in 1999.

Joseph C. Falcone of Silver Creek, whose family grows 400 acres of grapes, is Welch-National's secretary-treasurer, and C. Robert Militello of Forestville, who farms 160 acres, is a director.

The harvest of what appears to be a top-quality crop of Niagara and Concord grapes next week is expected to start in Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties and in nearby Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario and distant Washington State.

A recent marketing development attributed to research at Tufts University in Boston is that Concord grape juice is among the top-rated foods with ingredients that slow the aging process.

Every year an area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey becomes an oxygen-deprived "dead zone," according to a study by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Blamed for the "lost" ocean are the oxygen-sucking fertilizer nutrients that wash off Midwestern farms and flow down the Mississippi River into the gulf. A final report will be given next spring to Congress and state governments. Farm groups, already beset by chemical restrictions possible under the Food Quality Protection Act, fear that new curbs on their food production tools may lie ahead.

Barnyard gossip -- Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, despite New York objections to the contrary, believes that Northeast dairy farmers will fare better under the new milk marketing plan than under the one they favored. . . . Recent rains after the July dry spell have increased worries that tomato and potato fields are still subject to outbreaks of destructive blight. . . . Although the New Holland farm machinery maker reported $88 million profits in the second quarter of 1999, poor sales to depressed farmers are blamed for the one-week shutdown last month of the Firestone tire plant in Des Moines, Iowa. . . . As the harvest begins, the state Ag Statistics Service predicts a grape harvest of 186,000 tons, up 45 percent from 1998, but two large Western New York growers say the estimate is too high. The forecasters also predict smaller crops of corn, hay, oats and dry beans. . . . July milk production reached 1.03 billion pounds or 2 percent higher than the July 1998 mark. The 702,000 state milking herd, up 2,000, coupled with greater per-cow production are cited. . . . Cornell Co-op Extension is taking reservations for a Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 Ontario beef producers tour. The $238-per-person cost is due with the reservation. Call (607) 255-5923. . . . U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers say that athletes who avoid beef while loading up on carbohydrates deprive themselves of performance-enhancing zinc. . . . The Niagara Frontier Orchid Society show and sale will be Oct. 16-17 in the Creative Arts Building on the Erie County Fairgrounds, Hamburg. . . . Paul Lehman of the Niagara County Cooperative Extension Service is seeking entries in the county's "2000 Face, Place and Taste" photo contest. Marge Hilger of Lockport was the 1999 winner. . . . The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $889,632 to the National Corn Growers to develop new corn-based, polyols -- subsidy-free, renewable energy sources. . . Like former American animal rights extremists who once invaded labs to free research animals, British opponents of genetically modified foods have ripped through private fields where modified seeds are tested. . . . USDA, in a pilot program, offers a lower premium crop insurance for winter squash and pumpkin growers.

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