Summer is almost over, and while many of us are dealing with the new school year, celebrating the start of football season, or perhaps simply just wishing for cooler fall temperatures, it’s worth noting that for the past few weeks Texas grape growers and winemakers have been in the thick of harvesting grapes for the 2013 season. It’s an arduous two- to three-month process that often lasts from August to early October and in most years, can have industry professionals working around the clock to pick and press grapes at their peak of perfection.
But this year looks to be different.
Based on a series of late spring freezes, Texas winemakers are looking at a dismal harvest. Last April was one of the coldest on record in both the High Plains and Hill Country viticultural appellations, and the High Plains was done in on May 3 by the worst spring freeze in recorded history since 1911.
The unseasonably cold weather halted the progression of developing grape clusters by killing the early buds. Buds typically break in March or April, and when there are late spring freezes, it stunts their growth. In some cases, it can even damage or kill the entire vine.
While many grape growers speculated that the freeze would end the 2013 harvest before it even began, there was still some hope for a second budding. Often times, the vines that survive a freeze will put out a second bud that can develop fruit, though usually at a lesser quality than an original bud. But now that we’re in the thick of the harvest season, the proof is in the one-ton bins—or in most cases this year, the five gallon buckets.
“It’s hard to express how devastating the crop is this year,” said Cliff Bingham of Bingham Family Vineyards, who manages 225 acres of vineyards for about two dozen wineries. “We hope to harvest maybe two percent of what we usually bring in, which is basically just zero when you consider that we were projecting about 1,300 tons of fruit. Now we’re looking at about ten to twenty tons.”
“We have zero,” said Neal Newsom of Newsom Vineyards, who manages about 130 acres of vineyards for a dozen wineries in the state. “We were completely frozen out and we’re not able to harvest anything. We’ve already cut our losses and started retraining the vines that didn’t make it through the freeze.”
Grim news is prevalent throughout much of the High Plains growers, though some, including VJ Reddy of Reddy Vineyards and Andy Timmons of Lost Draw Vineyards, may be looking at yields closer to twenty percent each, which is good news for some of the wineries they sell grapes to including William Chris Vineyards in Hye, Texas.
“There’s definitely a lot of bad news coming from our High Plains vineyards, but the good news is the fruit that we are seeing is pretty incredible,” said Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards, who is expecting to see a few tons of red grapes such as Mourvedre from Timmons’ Lost Draw Vineyards. “We’re only getting about twenty percent of our annual estimate from the High Plains, but we’re so thankful to the skill and expertise farmers like Andy Timmons have been able to lend during times like this.”
In the Hill Country, vineyards are faring slightly better. The Central Texas region also suffered from late spring freezes, but many wineries who source their fruit from this area are seeing better yields overall. Fall Creek Vineyards lost a lot of their co-opted fruit from the Salt Lick Vineyards in Driftwood, but Sergio Cuadra, the winery’s new winemaker from Chile, is pleased to claim much of the expected fruit from the Dotson-Cervantes vineyard in Voca as well as from their estate fruit in Tow near Lake Buchanan.
“We’re seeing lower yields than we expected, but it happens everywhere,” said Cuadra, who has traveled extensively to vineyards all over the world. “Overall, I’m impressed by how good the vines and grapes look here.”
So what does this mean for winemakers? For one, they’ve had to quickly come up with solutions to their problems. In many cases, some wineries will just have to work with what they have. Others, including Pedernales Cellars have intentionally managed vineyards in both the High Plains and the Hill Country to try to survive on the better performing region when there is an off year, like this one.
“We grow a lot of red grapes in our Hill Country vineyards, which will help us have wines for this year,” said Pedernales winemaker David Kuhlken.
But while they can grow grapes like Tempranillo in both of these regions, other grapes like the winery’s signature Viognier, can only be grown in the High Plains.
“Our white grapes like Viognier are just not going to happen this year,” said Kuhlken. “We’ll have to make up in red wine what we’re missing in whites from the High Plains. It’s just the world of Texas wine.”
This year, Viognier was wiped out, which means if you’ve become a fan of Texas Viognier, ration what you have because you’ll have to wait until next year to see more.
Other wineries such as William Chris Vineyards, which heavily sources grapes from the High Plains, began searching for grapes elsewhere throughout the state as soon as they heard about the May 3 freeze.
“We’re looking at about 45 percent of production from our usual Hill Country vineyards, but we also looked to smaller growers around us who we had not worked with before as well as to vineyards in San Angelo and in East Texas as well,” said Chris Brundrett. “We were amazed by the grapes we received from Longview and Tyler.”
Down in the Hill Country near Driftwood, Duchman Family Winery is hoping they can rely on the wine they currently have in inventory to last them through the year.
“This year is just brutal,” said Duchman winemaker Dave Reilly. “Fortunately, our business model allows for having enough inventory that would allow us one in seven years of having low or no harvest. We can handle a year or so based on wine we have saved up, but we would need to build that back up over a few years to prepare for another extreme event.”
But not every winery has the resources to hold a year’s worth of inventory back for a rainy day—or in this case, a freeze. Nor are they able to scour the state for extra grapes either because they are too small, or just too large. This year Llano Estacado Winery, one of the oldest and largest wineries in the state will be off by 85 percent in their Texas fruit projections. It means their estimate to deliver 63,000 cases of Texas Appellation wine sank to about 10,000 cases for 2013.
“It’s hard on you when everything you’ve planned for the next three years is based on the grapes we wanted to get this year, but didn’t,” said vice president and head winemaker Greg Bruni. “So far we have about 150 tons of grapes in from our Texas vineyards and I’m really happy with the maturity and flavor ranges we’re getting, but it certainly derails our plans.”
With projections to deliver about 70,000 cases to retail and restaurant shelves, Llano Estacado has to produce something.
“It means we will have to produce wines with grapes from California and New Mexico. We want to use Texas fruit, but with a year like this, we have no choice,” said Bruni, who made clear that any wine made by Llano Estacado with non-Texas grapes would be clearly labeled as American Appellation wine to let consumers know it’s not from Texas.
Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars, up near Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, is in the same boat. He anticipates seeing twenty percent of his usual grape yield in Texas. As a result, he will also source grapes from California and will make wine that clearly indicates its source on his labels.
“You have to put the truth on the label,” said McPherson. “We’re even going to tell people exactly what happened on the back label. We suffered a tough time this year. I’ve never seen a frost like this in my life and it’s not something that will happen every year. We’re going to put out all of the Texas fruit we can, but we need people to stick with us.”
And while it’s a grim outlook for the 2013 vintage, both winemakers and grape growers echo McPherson’s sentiment. They’re in this for the long haul. People who work in agricultural businesses understand they have to work with the reality of the roadblocks Mother Nature can put in the way.
“In farming, you have to make calculated risks. That’s just the truth of it. We probably won’t see another freeze like this for 100 years,” said Cliff Bingham. He added that there is a silver lining in this rather tumultuous farming year: “We took the direction of our vineyard consultant Bobby Cox to plant warm climate grapes like Vermentino, Dolcetto, Trebbiano, Tempranillo, which are generally late-budding grapes that escape the average spring freeze—when we don’t have an anomaly like this year. The High Plains has a collection of vineyards combined that can produce quality fruit in an average year. That’s why we’ve been bullish and plan to plant even more grapes in a year or two. We don’t let anomaly determine how we move forward.”
Perhaps the biggest take away for Bingham and many of his grape growing and winemaking colleagues is that you can’t give up.
“I know it’s a heartbreak for a lot of Texas wineries,” said Bingham. “But you can’t sake your fist at God when things like this happen. It singes your tail feathers. But we can live through this. And we will.”