While many Texans were up late watching the Blood Moons, grape growers in the High Plains and the Hill Country spent their nights tending vines and hoping for the best. Both regions experienced below-freezing temperatures Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, and late spring freezes like these are the sort of weather events that panic the Texas wine industry, which is carefully nurturing the delicate and young buds on the vines. Fresh spring buds, which usually appear in late March and early April, are the first step in the life of a grape cluster. Once this “bud break” has occurred, if those buds freeze and die, it means the wine growing season is off to a dismal start.
“We had already seen a number of warm days this spring that pushed pretty much all of the buds to grow in both Hill Country and High Plains vineyards,” said Lydia Wessner, vineyard manager for Grape Creek Vineyards in Fredericksburg. “If a freeze happens that reaches those buds, there’s nothing you can really do about it. They’re pretty much going to die.”
In the life cycle of a flowering vine, there are generally three opportunities for a bud break. The first, which has already occurred throughout Texas, can eventually develop into quality grape clusters that are optimal for wine making. If these buds freeze or break off from other weather events such as hail, there is a chance for the vine to push forth a second bud break. And while this second break may still produce grape clusters, the energy the vine has used to produce it lessens the quality in fruit you would get from a first bud break. While a third tertiary bud break is possible, it really only creates foliage for the vine to help it survive through the summer, leaving no fruit for a grape grower to harvest.
Already across the state, there have been reports of these late spring freezes destroying many vineyards. Wessner reported that Grape Creek’s Hill Country vineyards missed the freeze by a mere two degrees and are still in good shape, while areas north and west of Fredericksburg managed by William Chris Vineyards and Lewis Wines experienced a total loss.
“If you take all of the vineyards we have spread out throughout Texas, we’re looking at potentially a fifty percent loss,” said Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards. “It will be interesting to see what the next few weeks will bring.”
While many grape growers can still hope to recoup fruit from a second bud break this season, the spring is still far from over, and many are fearful that another freeze could develop in coming weeks. Last year, in the first week of May, the wine regions were hit with a very late spring freeze following a series of April freezes that sealed the fate of the 2013 growing season. The result left many wineries without an ounce of Texas wine to produce, and many other wineries scrambling outside of the state to source juice to make something to put on the shelves. If another freeze hits vines in coming weeks, grape growers and winemakers alike fear they may have to zero-out production for 2014 as well.
The Hill Country seemed to fair better than the High Plains this week, with temperatures staying just above freezing. But in the High Plains, reports were coming in as early as 8 a.m. Monday morning from grape grower Bobby Cox of Pheasant Ridge Winery that snow was beginning to blanket the vineyards. On Tuesday morning, Cox was notifying his community of grape growers and wineries that temperatures were hovering in the twenties.
Dave Reilly of Duchman Family Vineyards received reports on his grapes at Bingham Family Vineyards that his Viognier was pretty much wiped out, but that things appeared to be holding steady with his Italian varieties Montepulciano, Aglianico, and Vermentino.
“Thankfully our flagship wines are faring well,” said Reilly. “They tend to break bud a little later than other grapes, which has allowed them to survive. But it’s still too soon to tell what we’ll be dealing with for the season.”
Following a dismal 2013 growing season, many Texas grape growers have tricks to help mitigate potential losses due to freezes. In the Mason County area in the western Hill Country, grower Drew Tallant has long implemented a frost-protection plan of using sprinklers to keep buds wet throughout a freeze. Counterintuitively, if ice forms on the buds prior to a hard freeze and continues to form from consistent sprinkling until the temperatures rise again, the buds themselves will avoid freezing. But sprinkling through a freeze requires a lot of water, a resource that the High Plains doesn’t really have.
“I wish I could use sprinkler’s like Drew does,” said High Plains grower Andy Timmons of Lost Draw Vineyards. “He’s got a great vineyard with consistent crops, but we just can’t compete with that up here.”
In previous years, the relative newcomer to Texas grape growing has seen his neighboring colleagues use everything from helicopters flown close to the vineyards to blow cold air off of the vines to torching hay bales near the vines to keep them warm. But Timmons caught on to a different idea.
This year he invested in four large wind machines to stand 45 feet above forty acres of his vineyards, a practice used in many of the world’s wine regions. The large eighteen-foot fan panels are designed to propel enough wind over the vines to keep temperatures a few degrees above the actual temperature.
For Timmons, this week’s freeze proved he’d made a good investment. Of the forty acres covered by his machines, only about fifteen acres on the edges of the fan perimeter were effected by the harsh freeze, allowing him to salvage more than sixty percent of his vineyard. Last year, he would have had to count those as a total loss.
Timmons, who is fast becoming one of the largest High Plains grape growers—he estimates he’ll have 1,000 acres planted in coming years—is determined to be as prepared as possible with each new growing season.
“If I’m going down, then I’m going down swinging,” says Timmons. “I’m not just going to be an observer when Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball.”
Grape selection also seems to make a difference in the case of some wineries. Those grapes that tend to break bud later in the season do have a better chance against spring freezes. While Duchman Family Winery looks to a few hearty Italian varieties, others look to French Rhone red varieties like Cinsault and Mourvedre to sustain even the hardest of seasons.
“I personally love Mourvedre,” says Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines who sources his Mourvedre from Timmons. “I think it’s going to be a great grape for Texas simply because it’s so tough. Last year Andy didn’t have his wind machines yet and after the May freeze, he was still able to bring in four tons to the acres of Mourvedre. Everything else was lost.”
While reports from this week to provoke a level of trepidation about the 2014 vintage among Texas wine industry insiders, the next few weeks will really bare out the reality of the season. For Grape Creek’s Lydia Wessner, it’s simply a waiting game. “It’s still hard to tell what we can expect and there’s really not a lot you can do, except hope.”
“In times like these,” said William Chris Vineyards’ Chris Brundrett. “All I can do is crack open a Texas beer on the back porch to remind myself of where I’ve decided to farm.”