“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Galileo Galilei
No matter the crop, all growers are subject to Mother Nature’s whims—and grape growers are no exception. Vineyard owners throughout Central Virginia were hit hard by several late spring frost events after a warmer-than-average winter. While not everyone lost all, all lost some of their 2020 harvest, especially close by.
Winemaking is big business in Virginia, which is the sixth-largest wine region in the United States with 300 wineries across the state, according to the Virginia Wine Board. The industry generates roughly $1.37 billion in economic impact and creates 8,218 jobs in the commonwealth. In 2015, more than 2.2 million tourists visited Virginia wineries, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation.
The Monticello Wine Trail, which includes Jefferson Vineyards near Monticello where Thomas Jefferson made his first attempt at growing a vineyard in the late 1700s, consists of more than 30 wineries in Greene, Albemarle, Nelson, Madison and Orange counties.
Throughout the region, more so than even other parts of the state, grapevines lost primary buds in overwhelming numbers from the cold over Mother’s Day weekend.
Roe Allison, owner of Reynard Florence in Barboursville, said there is always something going on with the grapevine.
“I like to tell people that grape vines are not very smart, but they have a real will to live and you can see that within the bud,” Allison said. “The three parts to that is the primary, which is where all the fruit comes from in a normal year. There’s a secondary bud that is going to give you maybe 20-30% of fruit. Then there’s a third bud, which is there for survival. You may not always have fruit, but chances are it’ll give you more fruit the next year.”
Justin Falco purchased his property off Advance Mills in 2016 and began planting Bordeaux varietals that year and harvests were good.
“But this year has been rough because we had a bit of early bud break,” said Falco, who said he lost about 15% of his crop in one of April frost events. “I could have gotten through that. But it was the polar vortex that came around Mother’s Day.”
He was up all night with fans and fires going in the aisles that Saturday night, with no luck.
“It wasn’t even frost—there was no sign of frost at all when the sun came out,” he said. “It was just the fact that it was around 23 degrees for about three hours. Our primary clusters they were just demolished. Everything was just curly and a brownish gray and almost looked burned. That was a rough sight.”
A visit to the vineyard last week, however, showed long, green leafy vines stretching up from the trunk through the Vertical Shoot Positioning trellis.
“What you see now is deceiving because they bounce back,” Falco said. “The cordons bounce back with new tendrils forming which makes me happy because at least now I will have lush vines and a lot of photosynthesis will take place, which helps the root systems develop.”
Falco said in Virginia, the ripening period is pretty short as you get into hurricane season and summer storms and sometimes he’ll do an early harvest to avoid that. But he doesn’t have that luxury now.
“The secondary clusters that are growing right now just aren’t going to have a lot of time to ripen, but I’m going to do the best I can,” he said.
While agrotourism is a big part of the wine industry, the coronavirus pandemic restrictions meant closing tasting rooms and vineyards for many weeks.
Ironically that’s helped some winemakers.
“Because of the pandemic and not being open to the public, sales were way down so my inventory is strong,” Falco said. “I don’t need to make wine this year if push comes to shove.”
Falco has taken advantage of his property’s smaller size by planting a few more obscure varietals, including Sémillon, which is a white Bordeaux; Rkatsiteli, which is a white Eastern European grape; Saperavi, which is a red/purple-skin Eastern European grape; and Garanoir, a German-Swiss grape.
As Virginia reopens, Montifalco is taking reservations to keep people spread apart and there will not be traditional tastings in the tasting room but flights brought out. He will continue with curbside pickup, as well. For information, visit montifalcovineyard.com.
Aaron and Candice Hark purchased their property at the intersection of Markwood and Davis Shop roads in Earlysville in 2015 and put parts of it under vine in 2016.
“We had bud break by mid-April and we had buds broken on a lot of our vines,” Aaron Hark said. “Those tissues are really sensitive at that point in time. The first few frost events, we were fine. We lost a little crop—maybe 20-30%—but the one on Mother’s Day; it was just too cold. It measured 26 degrees.”
The Harks have a wind machine on their vineyard to help offset cold snaps. As the cold air sinks there is usually a portion of air above that is warmer and the wine machine will push that down to keep the area near the grapes warmer.
“Unfortunately, on that Sunday morning around 6 a.m., there just wasn’t the warm air. The wind machine kept the air moving, but there just wasn’t any warmth,” he said. “With the frost and then that, it pretty much finished off the crop for 2020. We think in one of our vineyards there’s a section that may be OK so we might have a little bit of a harvest.”
With the pandemic, Hark just reopened to the public on Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s actually pretty good for us because we had to be entirely outdoors and we were largely outdoors anyway,” he said. “Our tasting room is actually in our production facility. We have plans to build a formal tasting room with a little bit of space, but we have delayed that a bit.”
Hark consists of 80 acres, with 20 under vine, so there’s plenty of outdoor space to be socially distanced and enjoy a nice afternoon.
“We’re fortunate to have the winery where we know we’ve got wine in a barrel that will just get better over time,” he said. “We hope people will realize we’re a place they can come to simply enjoy the grounds and the wine and maybe take their minds off the challenges of this year for a little bit.”
Hark said it can help give some semblance of normal in a very not normal year.
“(All the wineries) are suffering and I think if you haven’t lost something in 2020, you’re just not playing this,” he said.
Reservations are not required. For more information, visit harkvineyards.com.
Reynard Florence Vineyard
Dee and Roe Allison bottled their 10th vintage on their property in Barboursville in 2019, but Roe has never seen something like what happened in May.
“We’ve been frosted before, but not like that,” he said. “We dodged the bullet pretty well for the one in April (April 20); mainly because the bud had not really awakened yet.”
The leaf tips had a bit of frost on them that morning, but things started to bounce back.
“We were encouraged; things were looking pretty darn good and we could even see signs of fruit out there,” he said. “Then Mother’s Day—there were two events that weekend Friday night and Saturday night. We did OK Friday night. But then Saturday night just did us all in.”
Allison said in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, May 11, the temperature in his vineyard reached 27 degrees. He has a weather station in the vineyard that shows him what the temperature is at any time.
“We’re bouncing back now; it’s a little bit like a jungle but I let things go a bit to see what I was going to have to train,” he said. “There is some fruit here, but we should be in bloom by now and we’re not. It’s slowed everything back. We were thinking in March it was going to be an early year. Everything was so laid back in 2019; it was a wonderful harvest. But that’s what it is to grow wine in Virginia.”
Allison’s trellis is a bit different style than most called a Smart-Dyson Ballerina style, which has a high fruit zone and then skirts are trained to go toward the sun.
“We’re thinking ahead for our pruning plan now,” he said.
As a smaller winery without much of a retail presence, the Allisons depend on visitors for tastings and bottle purchases.
While people are not allowed in the tasting room at this time, the vineyards are open and people can purchase a bottle to enjoy on grounds or pick up and take home. Reservations are not required at this time.
For more information, visit reynardflorence.com.
Glass House Winery
Jeff Sanders, owner of Glass House Winery in Free Union, said frost scares are common most years, usually two to four after bud break. While every site has some good things and some bad things about it, one good thing on his site had always overcome the bad—the lake he had put in when he purchased the property.
“Most frost events are radiational,” Sanders said. “Radiational cooling means (the air is) dead still and the cold air is sinking and the lower you are, the more cold air you’re going to get.”
He said that’s why some people hire pilots in helicopters or use wind machines on their vineyards to keep the air moving. And the lake does the same thing. The water temperature in May was probably around 52 degrees and as the cold is pulled along the grass to the lake below it will create a little breeze to keep the air moving.
“The lake has always protected me,” he said. “I’ve only had damage once before in 13 years … about 20% damage. This year I think we lost 75% of our crop.”
That Saturday night May 10, Sanders lit eight huge fires and hoped the lake would continue to do its thing. Around 5:30 a.m. the temperature reached between 23 and 25 degrees throughout his vineyard and the dense cold continued to build up higher and higher before the sun came out two hours later.
“The cold was just too deep,” he said. “I pretty much lost everything and what I didn’t lose is pretty much variety specific; it’s the tougher vines and it’s the vines that the secondary buds sometimes carry fruit, but the primary buds are just gone.”
The quarantine and closures happened at the same time as this loss, which helped the vineyard stockpile, but it’s still a financially significant loss.
With only a quarter of a usual harvest, Sanders said he will have to buy grapes.
“Central Virginia was hit way worse than anywhere else in Virginia,” he said. “So, I think there will be grapes in Virginia. I’ve never gone outside the state to buy grapes, but I may have to go outside this region because this region is pretty thin right now.”
He said if he has to get grapes from outside Virginia, the labeling will note that.
Glass House is taking reservations on the weekends and they’re filling up fast. Orders can still be picked up on site and the vineyard is still doing delivery regionally twice a week and they’re running specials on the website. For more information, visit glasshousewinery.com
Early Mountain Vineyards
Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison managed to squeak by without much damage to the crop after the May cold, but have been hit hard by the closures, according to Aileen Sevier, director of marketing.
Bud break was about two weeks earlier than normal, which added a bit to the drama of frost watch—which lasts from late March through mid-May, she said.
There are certain varietals that bud earlier than others, putting them at risk.
“Our winemaker always makes it a point to say there’s not really anything normal in Virginia,” Sevier said. “There were a number of really scary frost events or almost frost events and Mother’s Day weekend was a big one.”
Sevier said one of the vineyards off Quaker Road sits between 900-1,300 feet above sea level and that’s where they try to put their earlier-budding varieties.
“In the vineyard that surrounds the winery we have 35 acres planted there and it’s pretty susceptible to frost,” she said. “We just really, really lucked out this year. We had some damage to recent plantings of chardonnay and we had some damage to the Petit Manseng, but that was it. It wasn’t a total loss, probably 30-50% in some blocks.”
The vineyards do utilize windmills to help and when they’re on frost watch a member of the team will stay up all night at the winery, watching the different temperature gauges and making sure the windmills property activate when they need to.
“We were incredibly lucky and we’re super thankful,” she said.
Early Mountain is slowly opening up again. It will open to members June 12 and the public June 19. To help them through the closures, Early Mountain offered free shipping and virtual tastings. As it opens again, Sevier said the website will be kept updated of new procedures. For information, visit earlymountain.com.