Grape growers see loss due to Polar Vortex

By Heather Meade hmeade@civitasmedia.com

April 13, 2014

DARKE COUNTY - A recent study by The Ohio State University’s Grape Team found that a large portion of Ohio’s wine grape crop was destroyed by the frigid cold caused by the Polar Vortex this winter.

“Following the extreme minimum low temperatures experienced in January and February across Ohio, many vineyards were affected, and vines sustained extensive bud and likely trunk damage depending on the location and the variety grown,” said Imed Dami, associate professor and state viticulturist with the university’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

There were several factors, according to Dami, that negatively impacted Ohio’s grape crop: The Polar Vortex created the coldest temperatures experienced in the state in years, and the cold temperatures lingered more than their normal matter of minutes, they made themselves at home for hours, he explained. Along with the frigidly cold temperatures, December was mild to start with, “tricking” the vines into thinking spring was on the way, Dami noted, “taking the vines by surprise” with the fluctuation from mild to cold temperatures.

Mike Williams, co-owner of The Winery at Versailles, along with The Winery at Wilcox, Inc. in Wilcox, Pa., agreed largely with the diagnosis that Ohio had lost much of its grape crop due to the Polar Vortex, but it’s not going to be a significant long-term impact for wine makers.

“It’s a little difficult to tell. At first blush, it looks like we may have lost 70-80 percent of our buds,” Williams noted. “That being said, that doesn’t mean we lost the vines…In the long term, it’s not going to mean a lot to us as a winery. To the grape growers, obviously that’s a rebuild, and that’s a long process [if they lost the vines]. Grapes have no set life. Once they’re planted, literally, unless disease or injury takes them, a grapevine can last a hundred years.”

Williams is also a board member for the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, so he must be in tune with the grape climate of Ohio, he said. The Williams’ wineries go through nearly 1,200 tons of grapes per year, Williams noted, producing about 180,000 gallons of wine, he said. At their Versailles location, the Williams host nearly 3 acres of grapes, which would typically yield 12-15 tons per year, but Williams stated that he expects only 5 or 6 tons of grapes this year.

“Because we use such a high volume of grapes, we buy from several states. There aren’t enough grapes available in the state of Ohio to supply us currently,” Williams added. “So we buy grapes from Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky. We’re seeing some vine loss in some varietals, and each is affected differently. And we’re seeing some crop loss in some. So it may, from variety to variety, be that there is no fruit at all from certain types of varietals this year, but because we buy from a large geographical area, some are not hurt at all, some are hurt a little. The state of Ohio has probably seen some of the most dramatic loss.”

According to the survey completed by the OSU Grape Team, 97 percent losses were seen in “old world” style grapes, or vinifera (European) grapes, used in the “most popular and profitable” wines, though this variety is most susceptible to cold temperatures, Dami noted. Hybrid grapes saw an average loss of 57 percent, according to the survey, and “cold-hardy American” grape varieties reported losses estimated at 29 percent.

According to the OSU Grape Team, these losses amount to nearly $4 million for Ohio grape producers.

Despite the fact that the 2014 crop will be lacking, the 2013 crop was fantastic, Williams said, giving their wineries tons more fruit than they’d expected.

“What is interesting is that last year was an incredible year; it was incredible everywhere,” Williams noted. “…Between our two wineries, we ended up with an extra four or five tractor trailer loads of grapes. What that means, is we have extra wine available.”

But some growers overcropped their grapes last year, taking too much fruit and not leaving enough vine to withstand a harsh winter, Williams added. Keeping the right amount of buds and trimming the vines to the proper length can go a long way to keeping a healthy crop, Williams explained.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we hear the sky is falling, and that causes a lot of panic, but if you stay the course, basically we have a permanent vine - and if the vine is properly taken care of, there are those who have overcropped last year - they took too many grapes off for what the vine could actually stand. Those vines are going to be in trouble,” Williams commented.

“When you work too hard and you can’t rest over the winter because it’s too cold, what’s going to happen? You enter spring in a weakened state - weakened to any disease or pest that comes along,” Williams continued. “So there will be a little change in the market, more late harvest wines available for 2014, and we’ll have to see what 2015 will bring as far as those type of wines. The wines we have from last year, 2013, are excellent quality, the ones that we’ve put in the bottle.”

Grapes are “kind of funny,” Williams explained, because they’re similar to trees, “you put them in, and they really have no ending date,” he said.

“I don’t often panic,” Williams stated. “There’s a plan, there’s a bigger plan than all of us for all of this, you know? Because of the heavy crop load last year, we’re in a pretty good position right now, and we’ll have to see what 2014 brings.”