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Mother Nature May Not Be a Wine Fan

Hurricanes, earthquakes—and stink bugs—strike the northeast's winemaking regions

Posted: September 1, 2011

• "Dodged a bullet" was the phrase most deployed by winemakers up and down the Eastern Seaboard to describe the fallout from Hurricane Irene, which landed on North Carolina's Outer Banks Aug. 27 and plowed its way up to Vermont over the next two days. Precautionary early harvests, slight salt spray damage, a bit of excess rain and tangled bird nets are about the worst that winemakers in North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and New York reported to Unfiltered.

In North Carolina, the Yakim Valley in the western part of the state was completely shielded from damage by mountains that protect it. "We had a little tropical breeze. It was actually beautiful. I haven't had rain here in four weeks," said Steve Shepard of Raylen Vineyards. "The eastern part of the state, that's a whole 'nother story." While rain was heavier there, however, most growers rely on the native Muscadine grape instead of fragile vinifera. "It's native to the area so it knows how to protect itself against the inevitable that can come through in the fall."

Kirsty Harmon at Blenheim Vineyards in Virginia fared equally well during both Irene and last weak's earthquake: "I buy grapes from just about all over the state of Virginia, and most of the growers that we buy from have all been lucky."

In New Jersey, where Irene became the first hurricane to make landfall in over a century, the storm predictions were as dire as its outcome was benign, at least for wineries. Rich Small, who represents the Garden State Wine Growers Association, said of winemakers, "There was flooding, but actually they welcomed it, because they only had about a half-inch of rain in August in the Cape May area." The sandy soils of the area sloughed the water off easily. The worst damage to wineries was from precaution: Some picked plots before they had reached the desired ripeness rather than risk losing the crop.

Finally, the storm ambled up to New York, where vintners were also nervous. Ron Goerler Jr. of Jamesport Vineyards said, "I was here when Gloria hit 25 years ago, and the vineyards that were here got flattened. There was so much damage from the salt and the wind." This year, Jamesport put up nets and sprayed a salt-protecting solution on some parcels.

Yet damage was almost nil: "Three inches of rain is considered a normal event in today's world," remarked Goerler. Paumanok Cellars' Kareem Massoud summed it up as "a lot of clean-up work." Steve Bate, director of the Long Island Wine Council, hadn't reached any winemakers on Monday, because the power grid was still down. Yet then, only two days after the storm, he saw "there's quite a few people out touring the vineyards today." And Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation felt nothing more than "a gentle mist" up in the Finger Lakes region. The Hudson Valley, of New York's major grape areas, seems to have gotten the worst of it: One vintner reported 14 inches of rain and "quite a few grapes on the ground."

So East Coast winemakers are grateful, and cautiously optimistic. Joked Richard Olsen-Harbich of Long Island's Bedell Cellars, "We now have the infamous 2011 vintage which has made it through both an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week. We will be waiting for the locusts to arrive any day now."

• A plague of winged invaders has inundated the Eastern Seaboard this summer as well, in the form of the brown marmorated stink bug. First identified in the U.S. in the late 1990s, the pesky invaders from Asia have started to wreak havoc on the crops, houses and noses of many Americans in the Mid-Atlantic states. These bugs quickly developed a taste for grapes, and vineyards in Virginia are getting hit hardest. While they do not bite or sting and pose no threat to humans, other than the foul odor they release when threatened (don’t smash them unless you want to learn how they earned their names), the bugs pierce the skins of grapes, sucking out the juice, and leaving brown patches on the outside of the grape. According to Virginia viticulturist Lucie Morton, the bugs do cause crop loss, but the biggest worry is bringing the bugs into the winery. The bugs do not like cold weather and growers have noticed that on chilly mornings, they are noticeably absent from grapes. If some do make it to the winery, the “coriander-like” stink does not survive fermentation, but there is nothing to stop the bugs from taking over tasting rooms, and Unfiltered isn't keen on that tasting experience.

• We felt a bit of a tremble here at Unfiltered headquarters in New York when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit Virginia last week. Our colleagues in Napa of course laughed at our panicked reaction, but in Virginia wine country there was indeed cause for some albeit minor concern. At Virginia's Cooper Vineyards Rebecca Cooper told us that the epicenter was only about 2 miles from their tasting room, causing "a bit of a shake up" and they experienced some ground fissures and some tasting room beams were knocked out of place at the winery, which have now been hammered back into place. "A lot of wine fell off the racks in the tasting room," Cooper said, "creating a river of wine," but their cellars did not sustain any damage. At Weston Farms Vineyard and Winery in Louisa, Va., owner Penny Martin told us that they "had very moderate damage—a few bottles broke but that was it. We were very fortunate." Much of the damage was of sentimental value, however. "Some of the things that were broken were antique items, so there's really no way to put a price on something like that," Martin said. Between earthquakes, hurricanes and stink bugs, Unfiltered is buying meteor insurance.

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