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Midwest Rains Flood Iowa Vineyards

Hawkeye state winery owners fear rot; most Missouri vines in the clear

Tina Benitez
Posted: June 23, 2008

Heavy rains and an overflowing Mississippi River have saturated America's heartland in recent weeks, and the vineyards of Iowa and Missouri have not been immune. In Iowa, where more than 84 of the 99 counties in the state have been affected by flooding, many of the state's vineyards could be looking at a long road to recovery once the water recedes.

"Our president tried to call one winery in Cedar Rapids and had no luck getting through—we assumed they are flooded," said Joan O'Brien, executive secretary for the Iowa Wine Grower's Association, based in Des Moines. "There's going to be significant loss of business across the board. Plenty of vineyards had damage. Northwest Iowa is the only area that's dry."

The devastation comes at a crucial time for a young, growing industry. Iowa's wine business has been steadily increasing during the past several years, and the state is now home to more than 400 vineyards, 71 wineries and more than 600 acres of grapes, according to Iowa State University's Midwest Wine and Grape Institute. The institute estimates that 2008 wine sales will total more than $22 million. Until this year, corn prices had been plummeting, leading some Iowa farmers to rip out their corn and plant vines.

The flooding in the Midwest, believed to be the worst to hit the region in 15 years, has killed at least 24 people and damaged more than 5 million acres of land, 3 million of which are cropland. The Mississippi River is expected to rise to as much as 37 inches above normal near St. Louis this week. The flooding has already had a significant effect on crops with corn and soybean prices soaring, as commodities traders fear a small crop this autumn.

Despite the sinking water levels in the past few days, vineyards are not in the clear yet, particularly in Iowa and parts of northeastern Missouri. Eastern Iowan vineyards suffered heavily saturated soils, but the central region of Cedar Rapids, and areas north from Mason City, on down through Cedar Falls and parts of Des Moines, have suffered the most severe flooding and damage.

Tabor Vineyards in Baldwin, in Iowa's northeast region, hasn't suffered full flooding like some vineyards in central Iowa, but a major concern has been the growth of mildew. Black rot and downy mildew are possible threats because of humid air and sodden ground.

"Saturation of the ground causes humidity and saunalike conditions that can lead to mildew. Even if it rains in a much lighter amount now, the mildew is going to be exacerbated," said Paul Tabor, winemaker at Tabor Vineyards, which produces 1,000 to 3,700 cases of wine per year, depending on the vintage. "What would be optimal is if there is no more rain for the rest of the year. Spring was late, and the grapes got a late start. We're probably two weeks behind where we should be."

Mason Grobin, winemaker at at Jasper Vineyards, in Newton just 30 miles east of Des Moines, said heavy rains have made their grapes more susceptible to mildew, but they won't know for a few weeks how bad the problem really is. "We're sort of on a hill, so it hasn't affected us in terms of washout," he said. The new Jasper Winery, which is set to open this August, had a levee built around the building, so there was no damage.

Down in Missouri, which is home to a much older and more developed industry, with more than 50 wineries and 1,200-plus acres of vineyards, the damage isn't as bad as in Iowa, but soggy soil from excess rain is pushing back planting schedules for most.

Of the state's seven major wine regions, the Hermann and Augusta regions are in closest proximity to the affected areas near St. Louis. Vineyards in Augusta Valley, just 35 miles west of St. Louis, have escaped major damage, but owners have delayed new plantings because of excess rain.

Chuck Dressel, owner of Mount Pleasant Winery, said planting is on hold for an undetermined amount of time. "We've had one of the wettest springs—it's wetter than '93," said Dressel. "It's pushed back our ability to plant. The ground is so soupy you can't get the plant in. We usually begin harvesting the last week of August. Now, we should begin the 22nd or 23rd of September, which is unheard-of for us."

Mark Baehmann, Mount Pleasant's senior winemaker, added that there has been no damage to the buildings, and other wineries in the region have reported no significant damage. "As long as the rain stays away," he said, "we'll be fine."

Mount Pleasant, which was founded in 1859, sits several hundred feet above the Missouri River. Still, heavy rains have closed major roads along Highway 94, preventing people from visiting the wineries. "This is a problem for the region's vineyards," said Baehmann, "because tourism is their backbone."

Ridge top planting, primarily done to prevent frost, has also saved some vines from the waters at vineyards like the Stone Hill Winery in the Hermann region. "The rain has slowed our spring planting a bit," said Thomas Held, director of sales at Stone Hill, which has Missouri's oldest winery in their Branson location. "It's nothing like Iowa. The Missouri [River] is quite full, but we have not had a levee break. Hopefully, it doesn't rain anymore out west. Any rain in Kansas and nearby states comes straight down to us."

Held said all the water will soon dry up, but there's an even bigger problem affecting Midwest wineries—oil. "The center of our wineries is tourism," he said. "Certain areas like Branson have seen business down 15 to18 percent. Gas and travel prices have affected how people are going about their daily lives."

Dressel of Mount Pleasant is desperate to enter summer and leave a long, rainy spring behind. Of the 113 acres at Mount Pleasant, approximately 93 were waterlogged by rain. "It seems like spring, which is our wet season, has gone on for four weeks longer than usual," he said. "I don't know if this is global warming or what?"

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