Wineries everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges as they have been forced to adapt business models and get creative during the COVID-19 outbreak. Local wineries were presented with an additional threat in the form of weather. A warmer than average winter brought early grape budding. This can be good, because it provides more time for ripening later in the season. However, it also brings risk, and these buds were exposed to multiple spring frosts capped off by a polar vortex during Mother’s Day weekend. This last event brought more than frost, in some areas it brought temperatures well below freezing, which damaged and killed nascent grape buds.
There are a variety of techniques used to protect vineyards when cold is expected. Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards, says they use “burn piles, wind machines, drain machines, and irrigation” to keep warmer air circulating. Some wineries even fly helicopters in hopes of bringing warmer air down to the ground. Of course, this requires labor and money, and many simply don’t have the resources to do much more than watch and pray.
Others rely on the specific characteristics of their vineyards to protect the vines from cold. Lee Hartman, winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard, says they planted vines on a hill “with our earlier breaking varieties at the top so cold air can drain away,” and Emily Pelton, winemaker at Veritas Vineyard & Winery, explains that “typically our elevation protects” from cold weather. But, Pelton expects that Veritas will harvest slightly more than half of what it initially projected this year. “You can clearly see that the biggest influence here was elevation,” she says. “Low spots were completely toasted, with 100 percent of shoots affected. As you move up the hill towards the top at about 950 feet, you start to see less and less damage.”
The problem with relying on the movement of warm air to protect the vineyard comes when you simply run out of warm air to move. Jake Busching of Hark Vineyards and Jake Busching Wines says with a freeze, even closed buds can be killed. “Prior to May 10, the frosts we had experienced were marginal, with losses to maybe a 30 percent loss. However, on May 10, we experienced a freeze, which is significantly different from a frost.”
Busching estimates that Hark experienced a loss of 95 percent of its potential fruit for the 2020 vintage. This represents approximately 3,200 cases of production and vanished sales. Unfortunately, this tale of severe damage is repeated by many others. Chelsey Blevins, winemaker at Fifty-third Winery & Vineyard, says her entire Louisa site, and approximately 80 percent of the winery’s sister vineyard site located in Free Union, is lost.
Tyler Maddox, vineyard manager for Fifty-third, explained on social media that, while it’s good news that the vines themselves survived, keeping the vineyard healthy requires the same amount of labor and investment even without the reward of fruit at the finish. This can be particularly demanding for smaller operations that are already financially challenged by coronavirus.
Certainly, not every winery experienced the same degree of damage. Maya Hood White, associate winemaker and viticulturist at Early Mountain Vineyards, reports that Early Mountain “for the most part got very lucky” with damage primarily in vineyard areas planted with chardonnay and petit manseng. Kirsty Harmon at Blenheim Vineyards, had varying degrees of damage. “We have had damage to our vines in the lower spots in the vineyard…based on elevation and where the cold air was not able to keep moving. Some blocks in those areas have been completely wiped out.”
With very little fruit from which to make wine, Hartman hints at an uneasiness perhaps shared by many, “The one-two punch of sales plummeting and ‘farming for free’ is going to hurt many across the state, leaving some to close their doors willingly or unwillingly,” he says. “We’ll see a boom of wineries buying out of state fruit…a fear I have is that many wineries might [decide to buy wine every year]. And that would lead to a loss of identity and a loss of value to Virginia grapes and farms.”
Yet, there is clearly hope that is buttressed by both a high-quality, productive 2019 vintage and the very strong consumer support that’s been evident during months of winery closures and social distancing. Blevins, for whom the 2019 vintage was her first as a head winemaker, says they have “absolutely beautiful 2019 wines aging in the cellar that will help keep us going.” Hartman too says there is plenty of wine to be sold: “Our biggest saving grace currently is our inventory…So maybe your best defense in a bad year is to make too much in a good year.”
According to Busching, customer support of the industry has been “heard and appreciated more than folks imagine.” Robust consumer support is undeniably a very positive indicator. Barnard is adamant that 2020 represents only a small setback for an industry with strong forward momentum, “We have never faced anything like this before, but we are resilient and we will get through this, I am positive that better days and months are ahead of us.”