Crop hurt, but wineries still upbeat

Last Thursday, I slipped into the annual meeting of the Western Colorado Horticultural Society, which really is more interesting than it sounds.

While initially I was interested in hearing state viticulturist Horst Caspari talk about some new white wine-grape varietals being tested in Delta County, it turned out, as usually happens at such gatherings, the real story was being told in the halls.

Much of the conversation focused on the sub-zero cold of mid-December, particularly the two nights of Dec. 9–10 when temperatures as low as minus 22 were reported in vineyards near 21.5 and H roads.

Caspari said vinifera vines, the familiar European varietals, can’t survive below minus 10 and much of the valley went well below that, particularly west of Sink Creek, a large gully roughly separating Orchard Mesa and East Orchard Mesa.

Bob Witham at Two Rivers Winery on South Broadway reported minus 18. It dipped to minus 13 at the Colorado State University Research Station on Orchard Mesa and minus 12 at Garfield Estates west of Palisade.

Galen Wallace, vineyard manager for Plum Creek Cellars, said it dropped to minus 12 at the winery near Palisade, a place near the river Caspari described as “you won’t find a much colder spot.”

Many vines were killed, the loss entailing as much as 25 percent of the Mesa County grape crop, Caspari estimated after walking vineyards and assessing early damage.

The economic hit is estimated at around $5 million, including loss of grapes and potential wine sales.

Much of the actual damage won’t be known until spring and the vines fail to respond to longer days and warmer temperatures.

But winemakers are a resilient lot and while the “hort” show heard some talk about a possible disaster, most of the growers are moving on.

Witham, for one, understands the challenges of weather, particularly where his vineyard is on Redlands Mesa.

“We habitually have weather issues here and we knew that going into the project,” Witham said in a phone message. “So we only get about one-third the grapes other growers get because of those issues.”

The loss of the Redlands vineyards hurts but can be offset with grapes from another vineyard Witham owns near Palisade, where temperatures barely dipped below zero and damage was negligible, as well as from other growers.

“We already have firmed up contracts for next season and we feel we’ll have enough grapes for our needs,” he said.

Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards also lost a substantial portion of her grapes, but she said she’ll simply adjust her farming and her bottling schedule and be just fine.

“If we get any buds at all we can adjust our farming and get a crop,” she said. “We may bottle some wines earlier than planned but that will be OK.

“Even at 90 percent of damage we’ll have plenty of wine.”

It also helps she still has three years worth of wine sitting in tanks with some 2007 ready for bottling.

Another plus is local winemakers enjoyed big crops in 2008 and 2009, leaving many of them with reserve wine in storage.

Parker Carlson, who is considering importing some grapes to make up for this year’s loss of riesling, reflected a thought shared by many local winemakers. As the industry has grown, it’s no longer possible to sit out for a year and rebuild your business.

“When we were smaller we could live with a smaller crop or no crop but now we’re too big, it’s turned into a business,” he said. “Last year was a big year, we made more wine than we ever did, but we’re also selling more than we ever did.”

Wine of the Week: In this all-too irregular feature, I’m seeking out affordable and drinkable wines, trying to keep the price around $10.

I recently tasted some samples from R&B Cellars of Alameda, Calif. Owner Kevin Brown is a jazz pianist and singer and the winery and its wines borrow on the rhythm and blues theme.

I tasted the Swingsville Zinfandel, Saxy Syrah and Serenade in Blanc Sauvignon Blanc.

While all were quite pleasant, I most enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc ($13), with hints of grapefruit, melon and enough minerality to sparkle on the tongue.

According to the RB Cellars Web site, the wines are available locally at Crossroads Wine & Spirits and Fisher’s Liquor Barn.


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