Killing frost turns its wrath on grapes

John Brehns of the Whitewater Hill Winery cuts a merlot vine to help rejuvenate the vineyard. The vines grow back with a harvestable grape crop in two years.

That sound you heard late Thursday night and very early Friday morning was frost alarms going off across the valley.

It’s been a familiar sound this spring, as seasonal freezes keep orchardists and grape growers awake until the wee hours of the morning.

When the alarms sound, growers race out to start wind machines and sprinklers, all in an attempt to keep ambient air temperatures at or above freezing.

“My weather station told me it got down to 32 (last weekend), so without the frost protection it would have gotten lower,” said Neil Guard of Avant Vineyards on East Orchard Mesa. “We had the wind machine and the sprinklers going and me out there praying.”

Grape growers across the valley have mixed responses to the cold temperatures last weekend and again Thursday night. Some say it didn’t do much to a grape crop that was decimated by the deep freeze last December, when temperatures in the valley plunged to minus-22 in some areas.

Others, however, say the latest setback was the final blow.

“The damage in December was pretty much confined to the vineyard at the winery, everything else is fine,” said Jenne Baldwin-Eaton, winemaker at Plum Creek Cellars. “We got a little hit this weekend in Delta County, but that was primary buds, so we’ll still have a full crop with secondary buds.”

Parker Carlson, whose vineyards surround three sides of his winery on 35 Road, said he lost 75 percent of his riesling and lemberger in December.

“And the frost (last weekend) took care of the lemberger,” he said. “It wiped them out.”

He didn’t lose much of the remaining riesling, he said, but “our baby petite syrah vines are down to the ground. We’ll have to start over with them.”

State viticulturist Horst Caspari said the two grape varieties that appear to have best survived the cold are riesling and cabernet franc.

“But they still won’t be the same crop as before the frost,” he said.

During a recent tour of the valley with state enologist Steve Menke, Caspari noted that in some places the damage isn’t as bad as feared.

“I think overall the situation looks a little better than we first thought, although we still are seeing a lot of damage,” Caspari said. “In some places, the vines are just dead to the ground. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Most of the damage happened west of Sink Creek, which cuts across East Orchard Mesa at around 35 Road.

Bob Witham of Two Rivers Winery and Chateau lost all of his vines at the vineyard on South Broadway but said his Palisade vines survived just fine.

“Our vineyard is just down the road from (Canyon Wind Cellars), and those grapes are OK down there,” Witham said. “And our Hotchkiss riesling seems to be having a good year.”

Guard hopes Thursday night’s freeze was the spring’s last, so he can turn off his fans and avoid the overnight irrigation for another year.

“I think I actually slept in (Friday morning), once I got the water going,” Guard said. “But I can’t really remember, I’m so sleep-deprived this spring, anyway.”

His fans towering above the vines bring warmer air (if there is any) from 30 feet up to mix with colder air hovering along the ground. The irrigation water may be cold, but it’s above freezing when it comes out of the pipe, which adds a little warmth to the air and a bit of heat through the process of freezing.


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