The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 30, 2014

Ashtabula County grape growers prepare for huge losses

Star Beacon

— Area grape growers are hoping for the best, but realize they are likely facing heavy losses after frigid temperatures blasted northeastern Ohio for much of the winter.

“We have not been this cold for over two decades. Most of the vinifera grapes, like Chardonnay and Riesling, had all their buds completely killed by the extreme cold temperatures,” said Ashtabula County Extension Agent David Marrison.

While the expectations are dire, the full effects will not be known until the cold temperatures go away. “We will not know the amount of damage to the vines until we warm up this spring,” he said.

“This is the worst winter ever (since the active planting of vinifera grapes),” said Greg Johns of the Ohio State University grape research center in Kingsville Township. He said there was a brutal cold weather period in 1994  when temperatures went to negative 14 degrees, but it was for a short period of time.

One of the biggest issues this year was the amount of times the temperatures went below zero. “(There were) eight separate events that would have caused separate damage to our vineyards,” he said.

Some estimates indicate the region could lose about $1 million in Chardonnay grapes alone, Marrison said.

Tony Kosicek opened Kosicek Vineyards in November of 2013, but the Harpersfield Township farm has been in the family for generations.

“I had my first vineyard when I was 15 years old,” he said.

The vinifera grapes are an important part of the growth of the wine industry in Ashtabula and Lake counties. The downside of the specialty grapes is they are not as hearty as the more traditional juice grapes like the Concord grapes.

“I’ve got Concord and vinifera,” Kosicek said. He said the damage to the Concord vines is not expected to be significant, but the 2014 vinifera crop is likely a 100 percent loss.

“We will be very happy if the vines survive,” Kosicek said. He said the best case scenario is probably a full loss this year and a 50 percent crop in 2015.

Johns said there could be as much as a 50 percent loss of the Riesling and Cabernet Franc varieties. He said the risk may be worth it for area growers, but nobody knows if this year is a once in 20 year event or whether it will occur more regularly.

“You don’t call it quits if you have one bad year out of 20,” Johns said. He said French vineyards were severely damaged with a hail storm while California growers are battling significant drought conditions.

“Everybody has their nightmare hiding in the closet,” he said.

A potential scary part of the grower’s nightmare is the possibility that significant cold damage could turn into a bigger problem next year, Johns said.

A bacterial disorder, crown gall, could become a major problem for several years.

Johns said that damage to the vines could last only a year or two, but the bacterial disorder could extend it to five years which multiplies financial woes considerably.

Kosicek said buds that are above ground will likely be destroyed because of the depth of the freeze, but it is possible those underground might survive.

“If the vine wall survives we can bring up new canes,” he said.

Growers that were able to create dirt mounds around the base of the vines will have a better chance of saving the vines, Kosicek said.

Johns said the research center is hoping to get more information that will help them understand the grapes reaction to cold weather.

One experiment is under way that includes the application of a hormone, from the plant to increase its resistance to cold weather, said Shsouxin Li, an associate researcher Ohio State based in Wooster.

An additional problem for wineries is the lack of available grapes to fill in the shortage that is likely to occur, Marrison said. He said most years smaller wineries can buy grapes from other growers, but that will not be possible this year.

“I think all wineries are at risk especially since this polar vortex and winter has affected Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania so it will be hard to source grapes from other areas this year.

Mark Debevc, of Debevc Winery in Harpersfield Township, said he grows a small amount of Niagara grapes that are somewhat sensitive to cold temperatures, but concentrates mostly on the Concord variety that are relatively hearty.

Officials from the wine industry, and farming organizations, are working on ways to help growers make it through the tough times.

Kosicek said his new winery is in a difficult spot, but hopes to find a way through.

“We don’t have a whole bunch of inventory. We will have to supplement some how,” he said.

“We (vineyards and wineries) are all going to find ways to cope,” he said.