Rains pressure county vineyards

By Posted on Jul 04 2018 | By

Most of us are getting a little weary of our monsoon-like spring and early summer. But be thankful you’re not trying to grow grapes. It’s not bronze tans that local and statewide vineyard managers are sporting this season. That’s rust.

May was our sixth wettest and third hottest on record. Dulles International Airport recorded 8.9 inches of rain in May and June is on pace to meet or exceed that number. That’s more than double the normal precipitation.

For homeowners, the struggle is centered on tending lawns and gardens. Waiting for a yard to dry out before cutting is a balance between mowing and haying. And nurturing vegetable gardens is a soggy and muddy endeavor.

But consider managing acres of delicate grape vines. Winery owners are a driven lot with a passion for producing quality wines. But fine wine only comes from fine grapes. With over 26 wineries in Fauquier County, there is a nervous group of local vintners constantly scanning the the skies for dark clouds.

“We’re seeing a lot of disease setting in and it’s taking a significant amount of work to manage the problem,” said Tom Kelly. Kelly is past president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, an independent consultant and director of operations for the Brown Bear Vineyards in Woodstock.

“There were a lot of problems during fruit set,” said Kelly. That’s tech talk for the self-pollinating process that ultimately creates precious clusters of plumb grapes. Normally that’s a good thing because vine pollination is not dependent on bees and other insect life. But heavy rains in the middle of fruit set interfered with the natural process and in some cases stopped it dead in its tracks.

Two of the keys to Virginia’s successful wine ascendency is canopy management and spraying protocols. Rain dictates that costly sprays must be repeatedly applied to the vines when rains wash them away a mere day or two after application.

Moreover, heat and rain produce explosive growth of canopy and keeps vineyard workers pruning without end to let light and air circulate around the fruit for healthy growth. Left untended, a vine will direct much of its energy into leaf production essentially smothering the berries.

If the current weather trend continues, an already existing statewide grape shortage will be exacerbated. Kelly underscores the situation is not dire at the this point but drier weather must prevail to reach a successful harvest.

Fauquier County
Closer to home Brian Roeder, owner of Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, echoes Kelly’s concerns. Roeder tends 30 acres of vines, one of the largest vineyards in the county, said, “It’s not clear what the weather impact will be but there will be some. Due to a fungus this spring that we had never seen before we lost our crop of Norton. We expected to harvest 10 tons of the fruit but will pull less than a ton.

“Over in the Shenandoah Valley at Indian Springs Vineyard they’ve had crop losses of 20 to 40 percent due to problems during bloom. We were lucky that only our Norton was affected.”

The rest of his vineyard is surviving but is demanding almost nonstop canopy management. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as the crew is done they have to start over again. They work very, very hard trying to keep vigor under control and they’re doing a good job.

“But my labor costs are up 20 percent over last year and there is nothing I can do about it. You don’t have a choice to scrimp in the vineyard. If you do, you’ll end up with diminished returns because quality goes down,” said Roeder.

Roeder also highlights another issue affecting the industry; a pending shortage of qualified labor. Tending vines requires experienced workers and he thinks a smaller workforce will accelerate the current problems. He believes the government’s efforts to deter workers can lead to serious shortages for both the state’s wine industry and agriculture in general.

“We have enough help at Barrel Oak but I’m hearing out there that this is an impactful issue for wineries. It’s simply becoming harder and harder to find qualified people to work in the vineyards,” said Roeder.

To further underscore the cost of farming grapes, Roeder recently purchased a new piece of equipment rarely seen on the East Coast. “It’s called an Agrotherm and while it’s not necessarily designed for incessant rain it does help.

“The machine is essentially a giant, super blow dryer. It helps dry the vineyard out and is also useful in a non-wet environment to boost the quality and quantity of the yield,” Roeder said. “It was a big investment for us with a price tag was $52,000.”

If the 2018 vintage were to fail to any large degree, wineries would be forced to purchase out-of-state fruit from California, Washington or Oregon. Winery owners don’t want to go that route but if the viability of their businesses is at stake they’d be compelled to do so.

“If we had to go with that option, it would essentially be a doubling my vineyard costs,” said Roeder.

Central Virginia
Another large grape growing region in the state is the Charlottesville area. Stephen Barnard is vineyard manager and winemaker at Keswick Vineyards located in Keswick.

“It’s been tough here. The rains can have a detrimental effect on pollination and fruit set. We must be particular about getting out in the vineyard and spraying and opening up the canopy with pruning,” Barnard said.

Barnard goes on to opine if it’s going to rain he’d rather have it now than during harvest. A rain-soaked harvest can dramatically reduce fruit quality as the berries become swollen with water. The ensuing loss of flavor and color reduces the ability to produce high quality wine.

“For those who are on top of their game and know how to manage the problems with preventive measures they should be okay,” said Barnard. “I think we can ride this one out. It could be an incredible harvest depending on what happens over the next three months.”

Andy Reagan, winemaker at the 68-acre Horton Vineyards located in Gordonsville reinforces Barnard’s assessment. “Not too many of our varieties have been hit. Our Touriga and Albariino are down. However, Silver Creek Vineyards in Nelson County have been hit hard but overall its not a terrible issue for us at this point.”

He emphasizes one problem is he encountering is the inability to plant new vines because of wet soils. But taking a philosophical view Reagan said, “This is Virginia. You can’t get riled up but must simply adapt to the weather.”

Reagan does agree with Roeder about labor shortages stating, “A growing lack of labor is more of a concern for me than weather.”

As one steps back and views the tribulations of being a wine grower in Virginia the observation of American humorist Will Rogers comes to mind: “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t be a farmer.”



Published in the July 4, 2018 edition of the Fauquier Times.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES