Finger Lakes wineries hard-hit by "Polar Vortex" - New York Now

May 13, 2014

Story begins at 18:35

The vineyards around Seneca and Cayuga Lake might not look like disaster areas, but the Federal Government recently declared the 19 counties of the Finger Lakes to be just that. Several vineyard owners lost as much as 50 to 100 percent of their crop due to the frost from the last winter, however a lot of them feel as though with some warm weather and a little bit of help, they can still get through.

“Our Merlot damage is 95-percent so we will probably take that out. We don’t have a big acreage of it which is good news and yeah 95-percent.”

John Martini is owner or chief-bill-payer as he puts it, for Anthony Road Winery.  A tasting room and vineyard on the west bank of Seneca Lake. Anthony Road encompasses 75 acres of grapes and they produce about 20-thousand cases of wine annually.  This year the polar vortex, a large scale cyclone of artic air that moved down over North America breaking record low temperatures may have cost Martini as much as 50-percent of his crop, depending on the grape.

“So cabernets for example, cabernet sauvignon, we had two acres of it, we took it out. We could get it ripe two years in 10 but what’s the point? California, France and Australia can do it so much better. Pino Noir on the other hand we can do. Pino Gris we can do, chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurzt well I’m not sure about gewurtz we had quite a bit of bud damage with gewurzt. But these are the varieties that suit our soil and climate or we’re learning that suit our soil and climate. It’s a learning curve.”

There are 3 types of grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. The Natives, like concords and Niagara’s, the French American Hybrids like Seyval Blanc and De Chaunac, and the Vinifera or European grapes like the popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Merlot.

Martini’s been farming for over 40 years and has dealt with previous cold snaps like the winter of 2004 but this year was different. European grapes produce some of his most popular wines but they don’t always like upstate New York weather and this year they hated it with buds damaged or dying on a massive scale. So Martini is skipping the usual spring trimming to allow the buds that did survive winter to grow.

“Normally this would all be trimmed, all this… we might have kept this, we might have kept this one, this one would be gone, this one, this would be gone they would come and trim all these things away so that we had roughly 40 buds on this vine. We don’t know that we’re gonna get 40 because the mortality rate here is about 50-percent so that means if we did the trimming first we might only have 20 buds instead of the 40. So this time we just left them all.”

Grape vines consist of essentially 3 parts, the root system and the trunk. The cordon or the vines that growers tie to wire lines to keep them horizontal and the stems that produce the fruit. An unseasonably cold spring has slowed the sprouting of the stems, so their still in ‘bud’ phase.

This type of Viticulture is taught at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life sciences. The school is part of a satellite campus in nearby Geneva where they have 700 acres of experimental vineyards and orchards to come up with training systems for farmers.

Cornell Professor Tim Martinson of Viticulture and Enology gives us a close up view of how their Riesling vines faired this winter.

“So you can see there’s a little moisture coming up a little sap coming up  from the roots and that’s what brings the vine back to life but that does not mean the buds are alive necessarily.”

The National Weather Service says the polar vortex plunged temperatures as low as -12 and the sub-zero temperatures hung around for 8 days. Martinson says just one night of that can severely damage the buds that produce the stems that make the grapes.

“So this has 3 growing tips on it. And the one in the center, I can see that it’s kind of dried out and dead. That’s the primary bud, that’s the one that would have pushed so probably the secondary that’s bright green a shoots gonna come out of there and it will have less grapes on it than this one in the middle that’s turned all black.”

He says the university makes recommendations to growers to employ weather proofing tactics like grafting the root system for all vinifra grapes and using spare parts viticulture. Meaning growers should not trim the excess vines that sprout from the trunk and instead allow them to grow increasing the possibility of a healthier vine. They also recommend covering the graft union between the native roots and the vinifera trunk with soil to limiting exposure to cold air.

But Martinson also says the trauma caused by the 2014 winter may not all be visible to the naked eye.

“What we’ll typically see a couple years after this freeze event is that you’re going along and you have a vine that’s doing fine until June or July and then all the sudden it will die. It will collapse very suddenly. And I’ve seen this up to harvest where you have these beautiful clusters and then all of the sudden, ‘Boom.’ It dies and that cluster shrivels up.”

All of this potential for massive crop loss is why the federal government stepped in to offer help to the 19 counties of the Finger Lakes region.

Executive Director for the New York State Farm Service Agency, James Barber, explains the official disaster declaration.

“At this point basically we’re saying there was a disaster event a weather related disaster it was the cold weather back in January we won’t know what the damage is until summer.”

With the declaration in place, Finger Lakes vineyard farmers are eligible for low interest emergency loans of up to 125-thousand dollars and if necessary vine replacement through the tree assistance program known as TAP or help from the non-insured crop assistance program known as NAP.

They’re not free passes, just support and help.

“To the extent that a farmer needs to follow what they call ‘best management practices, so that means he’s doing what been recommended to be done to produce a crop. I think as far as if a particular crop is commonly hurt by disaster then I think the farmer themselves is gonna make that decision not to grow it because the assistance we offer is still not nearly as efficient as producing a good crop. So it doesn’t replace even nearly the full loss of the crop that the farmer suffers.”

Losing any percentage of your crop can be traumatic enough when your lively hood relies on the harvest. Vineyard owner John Martini says the winter damage goes a step further.

“In fact one of the issues that the winter has given us is, we had a big crop last year and we have a lot of wine in the tanks. If we have a small crop this year and I sell all of last years crop, I’m gonna loose shelf space next year. Because a lot of our sales are in retail stores and restaurants and if you don’t have the wine, someone else is gonna take that spot on the shelf.”

“So even if, IF you were saying you end up with something like 50 percent crop loss, that’s just part of the price of being a vineyard farmer in this part of the country, in this part of the state.

It’s the joy of agriculture.”

The failures or shortcomings of the 2014 harvest won’t be seen on the shelves until the 2015 summer season. Some vineyard owners are planning to sell grapes to wineries in need and everyone is patiently waiting for the stems to sprout.

The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance estimates the central New York region contributes about a billion dollars to the state’s 4-point-8 billion dollars wine and grape industry.

At Seneca Lake, I’m Jenna Flanagan for New York NOW.