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Early blooms and late freezes put vineyards at risk of losing crops

Grape vine at Barren Ridge Vineyard. | Credit: WHSV
Grape vine at Barren Ridge Vineyard. | Credit: WHSV(WHSV)
Published: May. 8, 2020 at 5:21 PM EDT
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The weather has increasingly been getting warmer over the past few years, and wineries in the Shenandoah Valley say that is having an impact on their vineyards.

The life cycle of the vines advance with warmer weather, which means they come out of their winter dormancy sooner. That puts the grape vines more at risk when temperatures drop, like they have this year and are about to do this weekend.

After one major freeze in April, Barren Ridge Vineyard said they lost 50 percent of their chardonnay, as well as some merlot and cabernet franc.

Most vineyards produced a high quantity of high quality wines last year, so experiencing a late freeze this year gives them some flexibility when it comes to losing crops.

"If you have two consecutive years where you lose a lot of your production, then you're really at risk to not having wine to sell or you have to source grapes or wine in order to produce," Robert Higgs, general manager of Barren Ridge Vineyard, said.

Higgs said they did take a financial hit by losing part of their crop, but he said so far, it's been manageable.

Some vines, like Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin, bud later than others, so they are more protected if a freeze does happen. Vines that have already budded will be at high risk Friday night due to the

.

There are some techniques that can be used to protect against frost, but Higgs said none of them are conclusively proven, so they don't tend to rely on them for saving the crop – especially when it comes to a hard freeze.

Higgs said they do keep the grass cut around the vines because when the grass is low, there is more absorption of heat from the sun, which keeps the vineyard a bit warmer.

Some other techniques include installing big ventilators to blow cold air away, misting the vines to freeze them to protect the buds, and spraying pot ash on the vines.

"The weather is definitely having a big impact this year, and it's difficult during a pandemic to handle all the different stresses that happen at one time," Higgs said.

The warmer weather also brings out more pests, which can have an impact on the vines.

"So we're always in the vineyard just seeing what's out there. So, we're monitoring the vines, we're monitoring the growth of what's on the ground and we're monitoring what kind of living organisms we have in vineyard," Higgs said.

In addition to having to deal with the results of volatile weather, Barren Ridge Vineyard is also dealing with changes in business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barren Ridge Vineyard quickly moved from a traditional tasting room and winery to more of an e-commerce business.

They have been able to stay connected to their customers and community through social media, email and virtual tastings.

Barren Ridge Vineyard has also partnered with the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton to reach the community. They have hosted virtual events with some of the actors paired with wine tastings, and have been promoting the playhouse by adding tickets to some of their wine packages that are for sale.

"It gives people at home something to do, it keeps them connected to us and helps us communicate, so we've gotten a lot of strong responses from that," Higgs said.

Higgs said they have been using this time to kickstart some projects they were planning for the future. They are working on a new website and have launched a new point of sales system. They are also working on creating YouTube videos for customers to continue connecting with them as well.

"We're going to keep doing these things into the future because they were things we wanted to do, and we're probably going to be, as long as we make it through, a better operation on the other side," Higgs said.

Higgs said sales are down but have been consistent. He said he is looking forward to reopening but said that needs to be done properly so everyone is safe.