Winemakers across the United States are doing damage assessment following early April frosts that savaged vineyards in much of the country (though not major regions such as California). Producers in the hardest-hit regions, such as Texas and parts of the Midwest, said they estimate crop losses could surpass 75 percent. Even less-afflicted areas, such as Virginia, where some vintners suspect about one-fifth of the potential harvest has been destroyed, early-growing varieties--especially Chardonnay--suffered badly.
This is the second consecutive year that frost has hurt Texas winegrowers. Frost doesn't usually occur so late in the season, said Pat Prendergast, owner of Texas Mesa Vineyard in West Texas, but subfreezing temperatures started late on April 6 and lasted more than a day. Prendergast said he expects no more than one-third a normal crop this season.
Damage is widespread across the state's 3,500 acres of vineyards. "The last couple of days have been very emotional for a lot of people ... There's been such excitement about the [wine] industry here, and this isn't the direction we want to be going," said Dakota Julson, executive director of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, who said that the Texas wine industry had an economic impact of $997 million in the state in 2005.
At Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, located about 20 miles northeast of Charlottesville, winemaker Luca Paschina lost about half of his earliest-budding varieties, Chardonnay and Nebbiolo, but saw no ill-effects in Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot. The estate employs a variety of frost protection measures--windmills, smudge pots and a helicopter--but those methods had limited value in the face of five straight nights of frost that started on April 5. "It had a lot to do with vineyard location. Southern exposures were further ahead on budbreak and suffered more," said Paschina, who noted that in Virginia the threat of frost usually lasts until early May.
In Ohio, most of the frost damage occurred in the south, near the Ohio River. "I wouldn't call it devastating, perhaps about 20 or 25 percent [of vinifera varieties]," said Doniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. (Earlier-budding juice-grape varieties suffered about 60 percent losses.)
An unusually warm March started the growing season early in Ohio, where the threat of frost lingers through late May. "We're very much a long way from being out of the woods," said Winchell.
But they could have had it much worse. In Kentucky the state agriculture commissioner asked Gov. Ernie Fletcher to request federal disaster relief. Peach and apple crops were apparently wiped out, and the prospects for wine grapes look severely reduced. Chris Nelson, owner of Chrisman Mill Winery south of Lexington, buys grapes from about 25 acres and also has 3.5 acres of estate vineyards. He knew trouble was likely when temperatures soared into the low 70s for two weeks at the end of March (typical highs are in the low 50s). Then came five consecutive nights in April when it dipped into the low 20s. Nelson suspects at least half the crop was destroyed.
"I knew we were going to get bit. If you see leaves in the first week of April, you know it's coming," he said.