After record year, North Fork grape harvest could retreat in 2016

Long summer days provide the heat and light to set a bountiful crop but too much heat can be detrimental to grape development.

It’s not unusual for the thermometer to hit the century mark for short periods in the middle of a Grand Valley summer, and this week’s forecasted highs of 100-plus degrees are typical for these longest days of the year.

The early-summer heat comes at a critical time for western Colorado grape growers, particularly those in the higher elevations of the North Fork Valley where tiny grape buds are just now unfurling.

“Our vines are just starting to flower, so the heat could be a factor,” said Brent Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars in Paonia. “If it gets too hot, the vines won’t set fruit and the bunches will be smaller.”

There currently aren’t any indications this is happening, but studies indicate even short periods of high heat (95 degrees and above) affect grape vines.

“The stomata (tiny pores on leaves used for transpiration) shut down and the leaves go into a sort of dormancy,” Helleckson said. “And if it gets too hot, the fruit won’t set and you get really small berries.”

And that results in smaller bunches and a lighter crop.

“You just make sure you get plenty of water to the vines,” said winemaker Rob Kimball, owner of 5680 Winery near Paonia. “Right now, things are looking pretty good.”

Most grape growers seem to agree, saying the mild winter and moist spring was welcome, a time of resurgence for vines still recovering from the stresses of 2013 and 2014, when hard winters and late spring frosts killed off vines.

“You can almost consider ‘13 and ‘14 as lost years,” Kimball said. “Most of us didn’t get much of a harvest, if any at all.”

Maybe not having a load to bear for two years helped, with the rested vines providing the record grape harvest seen last fall.

Although this winter was similar to last, with few really cold events and lots of spring moisture, several winemakers doubt this year will have the same results.

“I don’t know,” said Helleckson, a frown crossing his face.

“I think it’s going to be a good crop, but I don’t think it’s going to be as big as last year.”

Last year’s crop, the biggest production so far recorded by the state wine industry, actually may work against seeing this year’s production eclipse that of 2015.

Some fruit, such as apples, bear big crops every other year, so growers prune heavily in the big years and lighter in the others to even out the dips and peaks of production.

There is some thought that many grape growers, a bit gun-shy after being short of grapes for two years, took advantage of the bonanza and failed to prune or thin their grapes in 2015.

A lot of fruit was produced, but that heavy production also put a lot of stress on the vines.

“I think that’s what we have going here,” said Eames Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellar and Puesta del Sol vineyards east of Paonia.

He pointed to three men slowly working their way through Petersen’s vineyard, pruning back unwanted growth spurred by the heat.

“I think last year we had so much fruit, it just took a whole lot out of the vines and they haven’t recovered,” he said. “I mean, everyone had a lot of grapes and no one wanted to prune. Maybe we got a little greedy after having two years of almost no fruit at all.”

It’s a bit of a guessing game, this early in the season. Each day there are changes, and winemakers only respond to what Mother Nature offers.

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