Cold Snap Hits Northeast, Midwest Regions Hard

Life in the Midwest and Northeast came to a halt when a polar vortex brought record low temperatures this week. Here is a roundup of stories from local news media concerning the impact of cold temperatures on winegrapes.

New York
Winegrape growers in the Finger Lakes were concerned that temperatures would dip low enough during the early part of this week to freeze the moisture in the trunks of the vine, cracking the vines open. Fred Merwath, head winemaker and vineyard management at Hermann J. Wiemer Vinery in Dundee, NY, told that researchers from Cornell University determined heavy damage to Riesling would occur if temperatures dipped below –12°F.

Peter Martini, vineyard manager of Anthony Road Winery in Penn Yan, NY, told that this cold snap will mean a smaller 2014 crop. “Things like Gewürztraminer and Merlot, we’ll probably lose 50 or 60%. Riesling might be better off, and maybe Cabernet Franc.”

Merwath says that regardless, site selection is still a key component of whether a vineyard can withstand extreme cold in the winter, telling that “the best vineyard sites will prove themselves year-in, year-out.”

Lee Hartman, manager and winemaker of Bluestone Vineyard in Bridgewater, VA, told WHSV-TV3 of Harrisonburg, VA, that he was worried about what impact the cold snap would have on his grapes.

“Two years ago, we had two days in a row of negative 10 degree weather, and we lost a couple thousand vines. It would be a very significant impact. If you don’t have vines, you don’t have grapes. If you don’t have grapes, you don’t have wine,” Hartman told WHSV-TV3. “We had a late frost this past year. We were still able to get a little more than half of our original anticipated harvest, but it really hurts a lot.”

Colio Estate Wines in Harrow, Ontario, Canada had to stop the harvest of Vidal grapes for ice wine thanks to temperatures reaching -17°C, according to the Windsor Star.

Winemaker Lawrence Buhler told the Windsor Star that wind machines would be deployed to try and prevent the vines from freezing. Buhler did say that cold temperatures are far better in the winter than in the fall or spring. “In January usually (the vines are) already ready for that cold weather and some fingers crossed, we come through unscathed.”

Northeast Ohio grape growers are expecting a large loss to the 2014 crop, Doniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association told the Willoughby News-Herald.

“It’s at least a $3 million loss of vinifera grapes. More than 90% of the buds among the Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Pinot Gris were killed,” Winchell tells the News-Herald.

Wind machines proved useless with wind gusts of 25 mph, Tony Debevec of Debonne Vineyards in Madison, OH, told the News-Herald.

“When we get frigid weather on a still night, we can use the machines to invert the warm air in the inversion layer and raise temperatures 5 to 7 degrees. But this wind thoroughly mixed it up and made it impossible to do anything,” Debevec told the News-Herald. “I‘ve been in this business for 50 years and know it’s cyclical. Everyone in this region will see a big loss this year. We just have to hope that the vines haven’t been destroyed.”

Lee Klingshirn of Klingshirn Winery Inc., in Avon Lake, OH, is slightly more optimistic that his vines of Concord and Niagara will be OK. Damage is likely to his Riesling, Cabernet, and Pinot Grigio grapes. Klingshirn told the News-Herald that it is too early, “at this point you really cannot tell if and or how much damage may have occurred until things start to warm up a little bit.”

Peaches are also a concern for Tod and Ame West of West Orchards in Perry, OH, who lost trees in a 1994 deep freeze. “We saw -11°F early Tuesday. But we won’t know until May if our peach trees survived,” Ame West told the News-Herald.

Winegrape growers in Minnesota hoped that cold-hardy varieties such as Frontenac, Fontenac Gris, Marquette, and La Crescent would withstand the cold temperatures, according to the Minneapolis StarTribune.

University of Minnesota enology project manager Katie Cook told the StarTribune that the vines should withstand -25°F temperatures and La Cresent has withstood temperatures of -30°F.

Jim Luby tells the StarTribune that winegrape vines are the most dormant and hardy in January. The growers who took good care of the vines have may have avoided problems, but the vines probably experienced some stress.

“Some growers may already have some damage from cold in December after a mild November. This is only the first week of January. Even if vines make it through this week, we have a lot of winter yet to come,” Luby tells the StarTribune.

Peter Helmstad, research viticulturist at the University of Minnesota, tells the StarTribune that he worries that growers were “lulled by the recent mild winters,” and planted vines in less than desirable places. Helmstad does think that this cold snap could “increase the level of interest in our cold-hardy grapes.”

Bruce Bordelon, professor and Extension specialist of viticulture and small fruit, and Peter Hirst, professor in the department of horticulture and landscape architecture, of Purdue University sent out a bulletin to subscribers of the university’s Facts for Fancy Fruit eNewsletter discussing the potential damage from the cold snap. Temperatures in the region have been as low as -15°F.

“I don’t think we will know the full extent of damage until the winter is over and we can evaluate damage to the various crops. That is relatively easy to do in grapes but more difficult in other crops. It doesn’t make much sense to do an exhaustive survey of damage now because we still have 6 or more weeks of potentially damaging temperatures to go,” said Bordelon. “We normally do our evaluations on grapes in early March in preparation for pruning.”

Hirst and Bordelon’s observations include:

“Because there are so many factors that influence the amount of damage that will result from a cold snap, it’s very difficult to predict accurately. The recent ‘polar vortex’ resulted in an extended duration of very cold temperatures, so we may well see more damage than the minimum temperatures would suggest,” said Hirst. “Crops of many fruit types was very heavy in 2013 due to severe spring freeze damage the previous year. Normally we expect heavy cropping to predispose buds to increased damage. Despite heavy apple crops, we have seen a high degree of flower formation in buds for the 2014 crop, so if we did see some “early thinning” of buds, this might not be such a bad thing.”