A trying time for wine

Vineyards battle back from excessive rain, reduced yields

The sun has come, but farmers continue to battle the fallout of an extremely wet start to the season. Heavy rain and cloud cover have posed a particular challenge to the region’s vineyards, with yields on some varieties expected to be halved in some places.

“We’re just about the only crop that doesn’t want any rain at all,” said Scott Elliff, owner and founder of DuCard Vineyards in Etlan. “Grape vines get all the moisture they need from deep roots and the dew in the morning, so all this rain is really a challenge for us.”

Vineyards across the region are feeling the overload this year.

The rain encourages the vines to grow, throwing them out of balance and driving the need for more maintenance. But it can be difficult to cut back vines, a necessary step to keep them light and dry, if it’s constantly raining.

It also makes regular upkeep, such as spraying against insects and disease and trimming back weeds, a constant chore.

The bigger problem, many growers say, is that the rain came right when some varieties were starting to flower.

Grapes self-pollinate, Elliff explained, and rain turns flowers soggy or knocks pollen to the ground, preventing them from pollinating. The result is less fruit, which reduces the amount of wine vineyards can produce.

“The first 30 days of the season are very important in terms of the quantity of grapes produced and wine produced,” said Tony Wolf, a viticulture extension specialist at Virginia Tech. The last 30 days matter more in terms of quality.

How the quality turns out remains to be seen. But yields have certainly taken a hit.

“We just got the rain at the wrong time,” said Wayne Mills, the vineyard operations manager for the Winery at Bull Run, which grows 35 acres of grapes at Rock Mills vineyard in Rappahannock.

Last year wild turkeys got into the vineyard and ate a chunk of Chardonnay grapes, Mills said. In previous years they’ve been hit by unseasonable frost or disease. The challenge with the rain he said is “you just don’t know what to expect from it, and you’ve got no control.”

A lot of the impact depends on the site, the soil and how the vines are managed. And not all varieties will be equally affected.

Mills projected yields on some of the earlier flowering varieties, such as Chardonnay, have been cut in half because the fruit never developed. Elliff said yields on his Viognier and Merlot are down by half, but the other varieties are growing well.

At Rock Mills, the Cabernet Sauvignon, which typically blooms more than a week after some of the whites, looks “excellent,” Mills said.

Steep learning curve

For Jeff Seese, who took over Chester Gap Cellars this year and is new to the industry, it’s a tough time to be learning to grow grapes.

“You can be book smart about certain things,” said Seese, who took courses that taught him how to prepare for a rain event, but not one as severe and torrential as growers have seen this year. “There is no book smart that you could have for this,” he added.

Virginia has seen an excess of rainfall over the past two months.

“We usually get 40 inches of rain over the year, and we’ve gotten 20 inches of rain in the past two months,” said Tremain Hatch, a viticulture extension research associate at Virginia Tech.

Wolf said he has seen yellow foliage on a lot of early varieties, such as Chardonnay, Viognier and Norton, that likely stems from the cloudy, wet weather. The damp also increases the chances of fungus and the rain can act as a carrier that spreads infections between plants, Mills said.

Some farms that are planted at lower elevations are seeing standing water around their plants. Some are also seeing erosion. But typically vineyards are located at higher elevations, which reduces problems with flooding.

“I don’t think we’re quite as bad off as some of the agronomic growers that have just struggled to get beans and corn in the ground,” Wolf noted.

A sunny outlook

Virginia’s wine industry has seen huge growth over the past decade. There are currently around 3,600 acres of vineyards across the state, and the wine industry contributed more than a billion dollars to Virginia’s economy in 2015, according to an economic impact study that showed the number of wineries grew 35 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Many vineyards add value to their grape crop by putting in a winery to produce wine in house and sell it on site through tasting rooms. But the rains have hurt some wineries that sell most of their bottles on site by keeping customers away.

While growers are seeing the immediate impact, consumers won’t see it until next year when the wines start coming out. For reds it could be even longer.

Wolf estimates that the rains could depress yields, and thus vineyard revenue, by 10-15 percent based on historic, weather-related adversities.

Some vineyards have looked elsewhere to counter the shortage. Rappahannock Cellars is supplementing its Merlot, which was in bloom when the rains came, with grapes from a vineyard in neighboring Linden, said Theo Smith, the winemaker and vineyard manager. Doing so will raise the vineyard’s costs but ensure they’ll be able to meet demand. Not all producers will be so fortunate.

“In a year like this where everybody’s yields are going to be down, it’s really tough to get Virginia fruit,” said Mills.

Under Virginia’s farm wineries rules, which pertain to licensed wineries, wineries have to own or control at least 51 percent of the grapes and no more than 25 percent of the fruit can come from outside the state.

The challenges vineyards are facing are part of the gamble with wine, Wolf said.

“There’s no place in the world that you have a great vintage every year, that’s agriculture and that’s wine making in particular.”

He’s optimistic that if it dries out and temperatures and precipitation return to seasonal averages, “it could be a really good year.”

Other vintners are trying to keep a positive outlook too.

“We can still have an incredible vintage, albeit down somewhat in yield in some varietals,” said Smith.

He’s worked in vineyards and Ontario, Ohio and recently returned from Napa, where grapes grow well but are increasingly threatened by excessive heat. Despite the challenges, he believes Virginia holds a lot of potential for winemakers and will only gain cachet at growers learn more about what they can do.

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.