Rude Awakening: Area wineries wait to learn what the spring cold snap will mean for their grapes

Every year at Owl Creek Vineyard in Cobden, Ill., proprietor Brad Genung looks forward to budbreak. But the early awakening of spring this year transformed his excitement into tense anticipation. Untimely warm temperatures left Genung’s Missouri neighbors concerned, too.

“What we saw in February and March was making me anxious,” said Tim Puchta, who runs the Adam Puchta Winery outside of Hermann. “It was way too warm during those months. All of us who’ve been in this industry for a while realized this could happen, and we were all sitting here waiting, hoping …”

The event Puchta feared was a temperature drop. And it happened. After a cold snap in the first week of April, yawning buds throughout the region changed from thriving green to lifeless brown.

“They’re dead, they’re dying, they’re burnt. Whatever you want to call it – they got knocked back,” said Bryan Siddle just a few days after the weather started to warm up again at Crown Valley Winery, the Ste. Genevieve winery where he is operations manager. “I mean, every single one of them.” Later in April, he said the winery will probably suffer a 95 percent crop loss on all primaries, 75 percent on secondaries. “I’ll be lucky to get around 15 percent of the crop,” he said.

Causing approximate losses between 70 and 100 percent, last month’s freeze was a true agricultural leveler. Grapevines were affected regardless of their variety or the extent of budding. A vineyard’s location did not play a role in the end either. The temperatures were simply too low for too long throughout the region.

Although local grape-growers only cultivate varieties that can withstand a Midwestern winter, a vine becomes irreversibly vulnerable once its sap ascends from the root system up into the plant proper. Sap flow, in turn, prompts encapsulated buds to exit dormancy, and once this happens, there’s no way to protect them, especially when high winds contribute to the below-freezing temperatures for several nights in a row.

The first postfreeze milestone will be the bursting of secondary buds in early May. “The proof in the pudding is whether or not the secondary buds pop out behind those primaries,” said Genung. Early indications are that the secondary buds for some varieties were also completely destroyed; the Missouri Wine and Grape Board predicted in late April that the Catawba, Concord, Cayuga White and Vivant crops were lost completely. For others, like Chambourcin, Seyval, St. Vincent and Vidal, more than 90 percent of first buds were lost, and estimates ranged up to a 50 percent loss on secondaries as well. Norton, a native grape, probably fared the best, with potentially 30 percent of first buds surviving.

“Norton looks like it’s going to be the most promising on Crown Valley grounds,” Siddle said. On the other hand, he added, “Vignoles and Chardonel are completely wiped out.” The fate of Traminette, a new variety, is unclear because no one knows how winter-hardy its secondary buds are.

Secondaries bear less fruit than the first buds that appear – still, winemakers are eager to harvest whatever fruit they can … up to a point. If the survival rate is as low as 5 or 10 percent, harvesting may not be worth it. This explains why vintners favor a wait-and-see approach to planning for recovery. “We’ll know more once we get berry-set [in early summer],” Genung said.

In the meantime, they will monitor the health of the vines. “Younger vines are going to go through a little bit more shock,” said Siddle. “The older vines [will] still go through some shock. You’ll still have maybe some tissue damage and so forth because it was coming out of dormancy. So you might see some tissue damage in the vine itself. You are going to see some aftereffect because of this over the whole plant.”

Between June and the fall harvest, vineyards will have to contend with all sorts of “wonderful plagues,” as Genung jestingly called them. “That’s the hardest part,” said Siddle. “We [already] go through this cycle where we have to make this great-quality grape at the end of the year and we have to fight all these different things. Now, at the beginning of the year, it starts out that we’re automatically starting out in the negative, as they say.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had not made a disaster declaration as of press time. But a low-interest loan – the only form of federal assistance available – is a problematic solution. Vineyards would have to pay it off at some point, and with what surplus income? Insurance is likewise a dead end. In most cases, a vineyard’s premium costs would exceed the value of lost crops. And in Genung’s area of Illinois, actuaries currently lack the data even to draft policies. “Pretty much as a producer, you’re out there on your own financially,” said Genung.

All in all, the full economic impact of the recent freeze won’t be apparent for a few years. But agriculturists tend to think in half-decades rather than half-quarters anyway. “There’s no way of telling what’s going to happen exactly. So you just kind of take it as it comes,” said Puchta. This unsentimental acceptance – something shared by winemakers throughout the region – is complemented by pragmatism.

Puchta will reevaluate his business plans for custom bottling, wholesale, retail – whatever it takes to navigate through the aftermath of the freeze. Depending on what his secondary buds yield come harvest, he may also buy grapes from other states. He would prefer to use varieties that have the flavor and aroma profiles he usually works with. But the availability of any grapes is uncertain.

The northernmost wine-producing states – New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan – were not heavily affected by the cold snap, but in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, the losses are severe. Virginia and Georgia also felt the cold’s bite. Vintners in all these states will be vying for the same grapes, most likely from California, according to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

Siddle, who has longstanding relationships with brokers around the country, said it’s important to promote education among growers who usually don’t purchase out-of-state grapes so they are careful to deal with reputable agents and pay fair market prices.

But some wineries may not be able to afford to bring them in. For example, with gas so high, “transportation costs are now going to be through the roof,” Siddle said. “You’re talking $300 a ton. It’s just an extra cost we don’t need.” Also, he said, some growers sell part of their grape harvest in order to buy bottles, corks and other supplies. This year, they won’t have that cash flow to work with.

Owl Creek Vineyard discards, or “holds,” a large portion of its fruit clusters in a typical year. This makes Genung optimistic that he’ll be able to make some of wines with the yield of secondary buds.

Mount Pleasant Winery owner and president Chuck Dressel’s contingency plan involves premium wines – another name for wines which are less in quantity but higher in quality, which is what the secondary buds will yield. “Nature this year cluster-thinned for us,” he joked. “We’ve been left with ultra-premium wine, but it’s far less than what we normally get for a crop overall.” His winery has the “fortunate problem” of producing popular products. As a result, the winery does not have much reserve wine that’s ready to sell, which means it’s under pressure to produce some kind – any kind – of wine with this year’s harvest.

Of course, price hikes are possible across the industry. Another issue on the postharvest horizon is whether the classification “Missouri wine” or “American wine” will be used for 2007 vintages that use grapes or juice from other states. (To Genung’s knowledge, this question has not been raised in Illinois.) The Missouri Wine and Grape Board and the state’s agriculture director recently moved to take advantage of a provision in Missouri liquor laws giving wineries a “95 percent allocation to purchase grapes and juice from outside the state to be used to make wine.” This may affect the “Missouri wine” labels, but the wines labeled with proprietary blend names rather than varietals or location designations would probably not have to change, Siddle said.

Such things don’t much matter to Terry and Betty Brazier, however. A week after the lowest temperatures hit, the couple sidled up to Mount Pleasant’s wine-tasting counter. The Braziers stop into the Augusta winery three to four times a year – and they said they would continue to do so, regardless of wine classifications or the origin of grapes. “We like the ambiance and the hillside location. And the drive here from Innsbrook is real pleasant,” said Terry Brazier. “As long as [the wines from this year] are semisweet, it wouldn’t matter. That’s our favorite.”

With loyal customers like these in mind,
Phyllis Meagher at Meramec Vineyards in St. James has already posted advice online about which 2007 wines probably will be in short supply. Among her “Buy now!” picks are Catawba and Vignoles.