Frigid temperatures may have some Grand Valley grapes sitting out this wine season
An unexpected and unseasonable cold snap in early December has left widespread concern among Mesa County grape growers and winemakers.
The annual meeting last week of the Western Colorado Horticultural Society was dominated by stories of damage and loss resulting from sub-zero temperatures Dec. 9–10.
Thermometers across the valley plummeted to as low as minus 16, killing about a quarter of Mesa County’s grape crop.
“At minus 4 there’s no damage, but at minus 10 you can pretty well count out vinifera grapes,” said state viticulturist Horst Caspari of the Colorado State University Orchard Mesa Research Station. “At the research station, we saw minus 13, and it was minus 16 in the vineyard.”
Vinifera grapes are the more-familiar European grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay, among others, commonly grown for wine and table grapes.
The temperatures got colder the farther west you went from East Orchard Mesa, where the valley widens and the river of cold air slowly sank and stopped.
Temperatures at some vineyards east of Palisade hovered above minus 5, but at Bob Witham’s Two Rivers Winery on Redlands Mesa, the thermometer read minus 18 on the morning of Dec. 10.
“I don’t count on any grapes west of the big wash (Sink Creek on Orchard Mesa),” Caspari said. “I’ve been walking vineyards in the west part of the valley and haven’t seen any live buds on the vines. They just aren’t out there.”
Vineyards in Delta County generally were unaffected by the cold, Caspari said.
Nancy Janes and John Behr of Whitewater Hill Winery on 32 Road said the double-digit below-zero cold wiped out a 14-acre plot of merlot grapes near Clifton as well as vineyards near their house and winery.
“We won’t know for sure until spring, but John’s been out looking at buds and the damage is pretty bad,” Janes said.
“At our house it was minus 6, and just down the hill it was minus 15,” Behr said. “We lost that vineyard, too. I ran the wind machine for a while, but it got too windy and I had to shut it down.”
The 30-foot-tall wind machines bring warmer air from as high as 100 feet off the ground and mix it with heavier, colder air. But even that didn’t help, Behr said.
The loss of grapes will be noticeable, Janes said, particularly to other winemakers who each year buy some 100 tons of her surplus grapes.
“I won’t have the grapes for them but, other than that, I’m in pretty good shape,” Janes said. “We have plenty of wine; I still have 2008 and 2009 in tank, and I’m bottling the 2007. Plus, last year I kept everything and didn’t do any bulk wine sales.”
She said she may bring in some out-of-state grapes to fill out some varieties, “but we’ll still be in business.”
Grape and fruit grower Bruce Talbott said vineyards west of Sink Creek are finished.
“Everything west of the Big Wash on Orchard Mesa will have no significant crop this year,” said Talbott, who is the valley’s largest grape grower at 120 acres. “I hope I get proven wrong, but I’m not counting on anything.”
Temperatures at his vineyards west of Sink Creek reached minus 15, he said.
Talbott said his vineyards along 35 Road might yield “50–60 percent,” while a vineyard near his headquarters closer to Palisade may produce a 25-percent crop.
He also expects significant trunk damage in some orchards, but that can’t be evaluated until spring.
Growers said the cold events varied so much because some varieties are less cold hardy than others, and the terrain either caught or released the cold air.
“It’s variety, location and luck of the draw,” Talbott said.
Caspari said many vineyards were killed to the ground, which means at least three years of training and pruning before another commercial crop can be produced.
“I suspect we lost 20–25 percent of the grape crop in Mesa County,” he said.
Galen Wallace, vineyard manager for Plum Creek Cellars, said the riesling vineyard next to the winery west of Palisade was killed when temperatures dipped to minus 12.
Other Plum Creek vineyards on East Orchard Mesa were damaged, but Wallace saved a cabernet sauvignon crop on the south side of the river by running a wind machine during the cold snap.
“I’m guessing 80 percent of the riesling crop in Mesa County is gone,” he said.
One of those hit by the riesling loss is Parker Carlson of Carlson Vineyards on 35 Road.
“One of my riesling vineyards that I buy from in Palisade was pretty much wiped out,” Carlson said. “I also buy grapes from Bruce Talbott, who has 5 acres west of Sink Creek, and that’s pretty well gone.
“I’m probably not going to get what I need, and I might need to bring in some grapes from out of state.”
However, he said damage was minimal to the vines at the winery on 35 Road, where temperatures dipped to minus 6.
“Typically, the bottom part of the property is where we have most of the trouble, and when I checked buds, most of them looked pretty good,” he said.
The loss of grapes is a mixed blessing. While the economic loss will affect many budgets, losing some buds might make for better wine, Carlson noted, as most grape growers thin their crops anyway.
“The quality of the wine may be good because of the lack of grapes on the vines,” he said. “In terrible weather years, that’s some of the best wines.”
Wallace expressed a similar sentiment.
“Economically, this will allow some winemakers to cut back a little and get rid of a surplus of wine,” he said.