Growers examine vineyards to see what survived a cold snap last December
Take a drive past the Grand Valley’s vineyards and you’ll notice how different they appear.
Some are lush and green, with thick, wild-looking vines, while other vineyards appear barren and empty.
And you’ll see, too, how selective grape growers are about their choices whether to cover their grapes with protective netting.
Much of that irregular grape cultivation has its roots in the unexpected cold weather early last December, which caused countless vines, still with juice in their veins, to freeze and split.
Once a trunk splits, roots are unable to send nutrients to the rest of the plant, and while you may get a little early growth from nutrients remaining in the upper vines, there isn’t enough to sustain an entire season and the vine eventually fails.
In most cases, the plants are allowed to regrow from their roots, which can be done in Colorado since grapes commonly are own-rooted, meaning they aren’t grafted on top of some other grape type.
This new growth is the green jungle you see in many vineyards.
But all that new growth needs trimming and retraining, which takes time and money, both of which are in short supply for small-acreage growers.
Unhappily, many of the buds that survived December’s freeze were damaged in yet another late-spring frost and aren’t producing grapes this year.
This is the third year since 2010 that Colorado grape growers have taken a substantial hit, and although in other years the damage was more scattered, this year the damage is deep and widespread.
Winemakers are predicting a shortage of some grapes (merlot, once the mainstay of local winemakers, is but a fraction of former years) and some winemakers may look to other states for grapes.
“Rumor has it there’s a crop out there,” said Horst Caspari, state viticulturist at the Western Colorado Research Center on Orchard Mesa. “But a lot of places got hit pretty bad.”
His personal vineyard on Orchard Mesa has about one-sixth its normal crop while other grape growers are reporting 60–80 percent losses this year.
That includes Neil Guard, who grows grapes and peaches on East Orchard Mesa.
“I have eight rows of riesling, five of petit verdot and 14 of cabernet franc, but they’re shorter than the other rows,” he said, assessing his vineyard on a recent afternoon. “So, that makes about two acres of grapes out of nine. What’s that, about 20 percent? All the rest, there aren’t any grapes.
“Peaches are going to carry the farm this year.”
The bushy vines seen around the valley are misleading, since productive vines would be well-trained, not the jungle-like first-year growth allowed this year as growers wait to see what survived.
Caspari said syrah and merlot seemed to get hit the hardest last winter, although many growers lost other varietals.
“I even hear of people losing riesling, which normally can withstand cold temperatures,” Caspari said. “It depends on where the plots and blocks are located.”
Caspari has urged grape growers to start retraining their new-growth vines as preparation for next season but acknowledged many growers are reluctant to spend the money.
“I understand them not wanting to spend the money on (retraining) but they need to spend the money on it now to make sure you have full potential” for next year, he said.
Most of the valley’s surviving grapes are at veraison, the color-changing stage of development when sugar levels rise, acids start to decline and vines refocus their resources on ripening grapes.
The deepening color also attracts grape-loving birds, which is why growers cover their crops with netting.
“I’ve got some nets up on the cabernet franc and I may side-net the riesling, but the rest I won’t bother to net,” Guard said. “There isn’t enough fruit there to justify the time and expense of netting it.
“Why net something you don’t have?”