A killing Frost

By Posted on Feb 09 2011 | By

Fabbioli Cellars Survives Ultimate Vineyard Threat

Perhaps a farmer’s greatest fear is frost. In one chilling night an entire harvest can vanish. And the timing of the natural disaster is brutally exquisite.  Just as earth’s solar energy surges with warmth necessary for rebirth, a layer of cold air silently descends killing the emerging life.

Frost possesses an especially powerful hold over a grower of delicate wine grapes.  In Virginia, a thriving wine culture has developed over forty years.  Much of the growth has been driven by the ability to master the art and science of growing Vitis vinifera, the vine species that produces 99 percent of the world’s wines.  For three hundred and fifty years our winemakers could not successfully cultivate the fragile vine.  Farmers no less esteemed than Thomas Jefferson tried and failed.

Then in the late 1970s, tentative steps were taken to acquire the skills to grow the fruit and within twenty-five years the industry was no longer dependent of native and hybrid grapes for survival.  The state’s wine industry exploded.  Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and many more classic wines became readily available in tasting rooms across the Old Dominion.

But each year, success is tempered by the difficulty of bringing harvests safely into the cellar.  Cold winters, humid summers, insects, mildews and assorted fungi are a constant threat to those with the hubris to grow the sensitive Eurasian grape.  And no threat is more swift and mortal than frost.  One cold, clear and quiet spring evening can create killing fields where hours before verdant growth held sway.

Frost has its lethal way at the vine’s most vulnerable period of growth.  As the buds break open in mid-April and the leaves uncurl in the spring sun, tiny knots of BB-like clusters appear, foretelling the juicy grapes they will become.  At this point, the vine has cast its die for fruit production.  It must continue to receive the gift of warmth.  Any temperature drop below 32 degrees and the buds can succumb, as will the hopes of the winemaker in transforming the vine into wine.

Our Story
And it’s here that our story of death and recovery begins.

Doug Fabbioli was destined to be a winery owner.  One of his first jobs was working in a vineyard in upstate New York after graduating from high school.  Upon earning a college degree in business administration, he moved to California with his wife Colleen and spent ten years gaining experience while working at the Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the oldest premium winery in California, founded in 1857.

In 1997, he moved to Virginia, intrigued with what was developing in the state’s wine industry.  There were sixty-five wineries in the Commonwealth at the time. Today, there are almost 200 statewide; twenty-six in Loudoun County alone where Fabbioli Cellars is located.  For three and a half years he was winemaker at Tarara Winery north of Leesburg, followed by a few years of work as a wine consultant.  During this period, he purchased 25 acres of fertile land off Route 15, built his home and planted eight acres of vines.

Fabbioli Vineyard

“When I bought my land, I knew it wasn’t a perfect vineyard site due to the possibility of frost.  But I had a variety of reasons for the purchase, including my desire to stay in the area, a convenient location for Colleen’s commute to work and a commercially viable location for a winery.  It was overall a solid decision,” Fabbioli recalls.

“During this period, my production was less than 400 cases a year.  After I opened the winery in 2004, I continued ramping up production, making 3,500 cases in 2009.  I had some slight frost damage in the past but nothing serious.  On May 10 of last year—Mother’s Day—frost warnings were forecasted. I wasn’t particularly worried based on past experience. And I didn’t take any preventive measures to protect my vines.  I live in an area of estate homes and one of my neighbors raises horses.  I was reluctant to employ measures that would create noise or fumes that might have an adverse effect on his stock. That night a hard frost fell.  By morning I knew I had problems.

“I walked the entire vineyard on Monday and saw the extent of the damage.   I was hopeful the growth might spring back, but it didn’t happen.  In a few days, I knew I had lost ninety percent of my crop; forty tons of fruit valued at $80,000.  The finished wine from the harvest would have produced $500,000 in revenue.  It was the biggest financial hit I had ever taken in the wine business,” he states.

Fabbioli believes he may have inadvertently contributed to the extensive damage.  A month before the frost descended he made a decision to spray the vineyard with powerful nutrients. The idea was to spur growth and boost the protective power of the vines.  Unfortunately, the strategy worked almost too well. The vines had generated luxuriant new foliage but it was primarily soft tissue vegetation especially sensitive to temperature fluctuations.

“I think I set the vines up for trouble.  Our last frost in Virginia is historically in mid-May.  If I’d been able to go one more week those vines would have produced a beautiful crop. But farming is like life.  It’s all about timing. It was the largest single vineyard loss in the state that I am aware of,” he laments.

The Recovery

Doug Fabbioli

To know Fabbioli is to appreciate what happened next. “When word got out of my loss, I began to receive calls from around the state from fellow winemakers expressing concern and offering to sell me some of their fruit.  That may sound like taking advantage of my crop failure, but most winemakers are loathe to sell fruit they can use themselves; especially in a year when frost hit a large number of vineyards to lesser degrees,” he states.

The respect Fabbioli had earned over the years for his honesty and willingness to share his knowledge with other winemakers resulted in the calls of assistance.  The character of George Bailey in the 1947 classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, comes to mind.

“It was an emotionally difficult time for me.  But I was able to relieve some of the stress because I was beginning blending trials of my 2009 Tre Sorelle, our signature red wine.  It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Petit Verdot and Merlot and the individual wines were exceptional.  It was gratifying to create a superior blend while experiencing such a devastating loss.  During the blending process, I became convinced I would overcome the frost problems and continue to make quality wines in the years ahead,” he says.

The Future
So were lessons learned from the unfortunate experience and are plans in place to prevent a reoccurrence?  Yes and yes.

“I was planning to take some incremental actions to prevent such a failure in the future but Colleen pushed me to fix the problem permanently.  I began to research a variety of ways a vineyard can be protected but many of them are prohibitively expensive for a small operator.

“One example is wind machines—equipment similar to windmills that are installed in vineyards to force warmer upper air down on the vines on cold nights.  They cost about $25,000 each and I would have needed at least two.  I began to explore my options and learned of a relatively new solution called a cold air drain.  The technology is out of Brazil but the equipment is manufactured in California.  Prior to signing a contract, I visited a vineyard in Maryland to evaluate the equipment and was impressed,” Fabbioli explains.

To understand how the system works, picture his vineyard sloping gently down toward the western part of his property.  On freezing spring nights, cold air runs down the slope like water and pools at the base of his vineyard, slowly backing up and smothering a large percentage of his vines in frigid air.  When employing a cold air drain system, a curtain of thick plastic sheeting is hung from his deer fence at the bottom of the slope trapping the air.  Then a machine—similar to a large commercial fan on steroids and located in the center of the pool—draws in the blocked air at ground level and forces it skyward with a powerful blast.  It’s similar to the action of a snow blower,drawing snow at its base and casting it up and over a driveway.

Eventually the fan mechanism in the unit will be equipped with its own motor but for the first few years Fabbioli’s farm tractor will power the unit, reducing his investment costs to around $12,000.  Not a small sum but within his budget.

To recover from the loss of his crop, he purchased twenty tons of fruit last fall and cut back on his marketing efforts to temporarily reduce demand for his wine.  Fortunately, his bountiful 2009 vintage created a supply of wine that he is drawing upon during the current year. If all goes well, next year will see a full recovery from his unfortunate Mother’s Day memory.

Occasionally, when guests are sipping wines in a tasting room, you might overhear them musing on the romance of owning a winery.  But when the dream bumps up against reality it can be a painful experience.

Just ask Doug Fabbioli.

Published in the February 9, 2011 edition of the Loundon Times Mirror.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES