Does winter weather spell trouble for area growers?

Although grapevines are dormant in the winter, wind and low (think single digit) temperatures are the top concerns for causing damage. A layer of snow actually helps protect the vines. Photo by Robert Llewellyn Although grapevines are dormant in the winter, wind and low (think single digit) temperatures are the top concerns for causing damage. A layer of snow actually helps protect the vines. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

By Natalie Jacobsen

Between sporadic power outages, icy roads and burst pipes, Charlottesville is dealing with plenty of winter woes. But we aren’t the only ones grappling with the freezing temperatures: Central Virginia vineyards are facing this weather head-on, with growers keeping a close eye on their property.

David Geist, co-owner of Arcady Vineyard Bed and Breakfast, is fairly new when it comes to grape-growing (he and his wife, Kathy, bought the business a few years ago). He took several courses and reached out to experienced area vineyard masters to learn the ins and outs of maintaining healthy crops.

“Last year was quite mild; we didn’t anticipate how cold it’d be this year, but [what I did] to prepare was actually wait to prune,” says Geist. Putting off pruning will give vines an extra layer of protection against the cold, “[and] the hardier they will be when the frost hits. Frost affects vines from the outside in, so the more mature you leave on, the better the actual vine and roots will survive,” he says.

Arcady, one of the hobby vineyards in the Charlottesville area, grows chambourcin grapes, which are used to make a dessert wine. Typically, smaller vineyards run the risk of having higher devastation rates during harsher and more extreme weather than larger farms do. But Geist isn’t worried because he’s bringing in reinforcements this season: They have donated their vineyard to Piedmont Virginia Community College’s vintner cultural department, which will perform periodic check-ups. PVCC’s Greg Rosko says his students will study the effects of the winter weather on the vines when it gets closer to spring to determine the success of the crop.

Similarly, Valley Road Vineyards’ CEO and co-founder Stan Joynes expresses little concern for this season’s weather. “We did nothing different [from past winters],” he says. “So far, we don’t see any evidence of damage, but it is also too early to tell.”

The Afton vineyard is currently growing younger vines, which are three seasons old. Younger vines are more fragile and may be more susceptible to the cold. “We won’t know for sure until bud breaks on our chardonnay grapes—our first in every season—which could happen late February or early March,” says Joynes.

He doesn’t expect this year to be akin to last winter’s season, “which was a near perfect growing season: It got warm early, and never got cold again.”

The absence of fluctuating temperatures and a steady increase of sun means a larger crop haul. “In ’16, we got to single digits in April, which was devastating to chardonnay and other early buds,” says Joynes.

A blanket of snow, however, can help protect vines.

“While the vines are dormant this time of year, you actually hope for snow to protect them from the harshness,” says Joynes. “Winds and chills are a concern for damage.”

Another wish is for moisture—for constant irrigation. Both Geist and Joynes hope to see more precipitation in the second half of winter.

“We are all way down on moisture, but there is still time,” says Joynes. “Trying not to be pessimistic, timing of the cold and veracity of the cold is everything. Protect them when they’re dormant and it’ll all be fine.”

Production value

According to the Virginia 2016 Commercial Grape Report, the central Virginia region (which includes Albemarle, Amherst, Bedford, Greene, Hanover, Louisa, Nelson, Orange and Spotsylvania counties) produced the most grapes—2,744 tons—statewide.

Vineyard owners experienced a challenging winter with significant snowfall and low temperatures in January and February, including late frost in the first and second weeks of April that caused some smaller growers to lose their entire crop. Compared with 2015, there was a 10.4 percent decrease in total tons of grapes produced throughout Virginia.

Top regional grape producers in 2016

1. Albemarle County—933 tons

2. Orange County—896 tons

3. Nelson County—709 tons

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