PORTLAND – It might be hard in August to remember the bitter cold from last winter’s blizzards.
But not for Mike Jordan. He recalls it every time he walks through his Chautauqua County vineyard.
Vines that only last year were rows of vibrant riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer or pinot gris varietals are now sparse-leaved or barren.
Rows of cabernet vines show brown, shriveled-up fruit clinging to the trellis – left over from clusters that died when vines collapsed when they couldn’t pull up water.
“We got hurt bad,” Jordan said. “A smaller crop would be OK. But, in some cases, I’ve got no grapes.”
Jordan estimates he will have 90 percent fewer grapes for wine because of the extreme and sustained cold of last winter.
Come September, he won’t be the only one with a lighter crop. Cornell Cooperative Extension’s recently released vine survey shows sharp crop reductions along Lake Erie among this region’s tender vinifera plants and some hybrid varieties. The survey projects 96 percent fewer pinot gris grapes this year, 84 percent fewer pinot noir grapes and 72 percent fewer riesling grapes. The cold hit the gewurztraminer varietal the hardest – 30 percent of the vines are dead, and this year’s crop is wiped out.
As a double-whammy, vineyards won’t be able to offset those losses with profits from Concord juice grapes because there is little market for them. Concords weathered the winter well; another bumper crop is projected this year.
What’s more, federal aid expected to help growers recover from the winter disaster has also largely withered on the vine.
Jordan’s Olde Chautauqua Farms on Route 20 just west of Brocton is one of the biggest vineyards in Chautauqua County – and ground zero for damage along the eastern end of Lake Erie’s grape plain.
Smaller vineyards like Johnson Estate in Westfield, seven miles to the west, and Mazza Vineyards in nearby North East, Pa., were also damaged by the extreme cold. But growers there are confident they’ve come through it OK.
“Does it qualify as a disaster? No,” said Fred Johnson of the estate that his grandfather Frederick founded 106 years ago. “It qualifies as a once-in-30-year event that we should not be surprised we get.”
“We’re seeing a reduced crop load,” added Mario Mazza of the 30 or so acres at Mazza Vineyards. “It’s very variable. Some growers got hit worse than others.”
“There’s some damage,” he said. “It’s nothing we’d consider catastrophic on the whole.”
Luke Haggerty, a grape specialist with the Lake Erie Grape Program for Cooperative Extension, surveyed the grape vines during January and February looking for bud damage.
“The vinifera took it really hard,” Haggerty said. “We’ll be lucky to get 20 percent of the crop.”
“There’s more damage than I expected,” said Bill Merritt, owner of Merritt Estates Winery in Forestville, Chautauqua County.
Finger Lakes puzzle
And it could have been worse.
A lot of the damage, growers and scientists agree, was mitigated by above-average spring rainfall and a warm, sunny June.
“If you have real dry conditions right out of the gate, you’re stressing that already stressed root-and-transit system,” Mazza said. “By not having that water stress, and having healthy plants, they’re able to repair themselves.”
“We’re fortunate the majority of the vineyards that did see some damage, those vineyards were not killed entirely,” Mazza said.
Some of variation depended on topography. Low-lying vineyards – with less air circulation – seemed to get hit harder by the cold, Haggerty said.
Grapes along Lake Ontario’s shoreline and in the Finger Lakes seemed to fare a little better than early forecasts predicted, Extension data shows.
Finger Lakes riesling production is expected to drop only 53 percent this year. Pinot noir and gris were hit harder, with projected reductions of 73 and 75 percent, respectively, in the Finger Lakes. Gewurztraminer suffered an estimated two-thirds reduction.
“It’s sporadic,” said Bob Madill, board chairman of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance in Corning.
Madill said damaged vineyards were hit hard, but others seemed unaffected by last winter’s cold. The damage varied by both grape species and geography.
Generally, the most damage seemed to occur farther north and on eastern slopes in the Finger Lakes.
“The puzzling part is how to understand the pattern,” Madill said. “It’s not a regional disaster. If it was a fire, the neighborhood didn’t burn down, but the neighbor who lost his house is really feeling it.”
Juice grape rebounds
But the few bright spots this growing season are tempered by the specter of poor economic news.
Native Concord grapes rebounded robustly this summer – too robustly, according to growers.
Last year, juice grapes were so bountiful that the resulting glut of juice still remains. Now, with the announced closing of juice manufacturer Carriage House in Fredonia and cutbacks by Cott Beverages in Dunkirk – both with local contracts – growers scrambled to find buyers for this year’s crop.
Welch’s national grape cooperative and Westfield-based Grower’s Cooperative Grape Juice Co. are filling the void for some growers, but because of the vast supply, there isn’t expected to be much of a profit margin for juice grapes this year.
“The demand is pretty poor in the juice market,” said Dave Momberger, general manager of the grower’s cooperative. “It’s really bad timing for those who have homeless grapes right now.”
Concord and Niagara grapes comprise roughly 95 percent of the region’s grape crop.
Niagara grapes took a little bit of a hit from the winter – about 25 percent reduction – but Concord grapes came through almost unscathed.
The financial hit
Hybrid and vinifera grapes comprise only 5 percent of local grapes. They cover about 33,000 acres in the Lake Erie region, or about 52 square miles.
Jordan estimates that about two-thirds of his vineyard is juice grapes, from which he makes roughly one-third of his money. Conversely, the more prized vinifera, wine-producing species, deliver two-thirds or more in return but cover substantially less acreage.
That’s why growers will feel the brunt of last winter in their pocketbooks, as well.
While some, like Jordan, have crop insurance to compensate for losses, there’s not likely to be much federal grant money available to help vineyards recover.
In February, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. visited Portland’s 21 Brix Winery – which is co-owned by Jordan – and others across the state, only days after reports about vineyards sustaining winter damage.
Schumer called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to aid vineyards through the Tree Assistance Program in the 2014 Farm Bill and to make emergency disaster loans available to growers.
The latter has happened, but TAP funds have been scarce.
The agriculture program requires more than 15 percent of vines to be dead to qualify for aid, Haggerty said.
Program funds, he said, were formerly granted for both dead and damaged vines.
Jordan’s one of them.
His farm, which would likely have approached or reached the maximum annual TAP reimbursement threshold of $125,000 given the damage his vineyard, won’t see anything close to that.
“Now, we’ll be lucky to get $10,000,” Jordan said. “What perturbs me the most is the politics of it.”
Still, Jordan remains hopeful last winter was just a bump in the road for Olde Chautauqua Farms and 21 Brix Winery.
The vineyard is covered by crop insurance. It’s financially well-managed. And it’s coming off a successful 2013, he said.
Jordan plans to begin the expensive and time-consuming effort of replanting the 12 acres of vinifera grapes killed last winter – four acres a year for the next three years.
Though they will produce a small crop this year, the plants that survived will start to produce fruit again in 2015 and then be closer to full production the year after that – weather permitting.