How Prepared Were Eastern Wineries?

Hurricane Sandy topples barrels in Brooklyn, chases customers away in Finger Lakes

by Linda Jones McKee
Red Hook damage
Winemaker Christopher Nicolson looks at crushed grapes covering the floor of Brooklyn's The Red Hook Winery, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Peter Hobbs/NonaBrooklyn.com
Lancaster, Pa.—Staff at wineries in the East Coast readied their facilities as best they could in the face of Hurricane Sandy but some wineries still received damage and Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn was devastated after receiving the full brunt of the storm surge floodwaters.

Because this year’s harvest in the East was, on average, about two weeks early, even winemakers who often don’t pick late ripening red varietals until late October or even early November had finished bringing in their grapes. Consequently, preparations for a hurricane were focused on the issues of flooding, winds and, for those near the coastline, storm surges. Wines & Vines contacted several wineries along the East Coast to find out how they prepared and how they fared during and after the storm.

East Coast residents had more than a week to get ready before the storm made landfall on Monday, Oct. 29, and as hurricane season coincides with the ripening and harvest periods for winegrapes, winemakers in the East are used to keeping track of hurricanes or other storms.

Buttoned up in Cape May
The town of Cape May is located at the southeastern most tip of New Jersey where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Cape May Winery and Vineyard is not directly on the water, but about three miles from the ocean and two and a half miles from the Bay. According to Darren Hesington, the winemaker at Cape May, the most important aspect of preparedness is to keep things out of harm’s way. “We button the winery up, tie things down outside, say a little prayer and hope for the best.”

Hurricane Sandy moved far enough north before it made its unusual turn to the west to avoid a direct hit on the tip of New Jersey. In the days before the storm, Hesington followed the European hurricane prediction model and, as a result, knew on Wednesday, Oct. 24, that Hurricane Sandy was due to make a westward turn toward New Jersey. “Our barrel room is lower than the rest of the winery, and knowing that many days in advance where this hurricane was headed allowed us the time to get ready,” Hesington said. Hurricane Sandy reached Cape May two hours before the high tide, which was scheduled to be 5% higher than normal because Oct. 29 was the night of the full moon.

During the storm Cape May Winery never lost power. “We have a generator to do our pumpovers, but that wasn’t necessary,” Hesington reported. “The wind was a problem, but not crazy, and we actually got less rain than we did with Hurricane Irene last year.”

One New Jersey winery learned the hard way about the importance of checking backup equipment before a hurricane arrives. The winery had a generator to provide power in an emergency, but when they turned it on after the power went out during Hurricane Sandy, the generator malfunctioned and sent twice the voltage over the lines, and ruined every transformer the power encountered.

Staten Island Winery above flooding
Staten Island was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, but fortunately for Bob Rando, owner of Staten Island Winery, his facility is on the opposite side of the island about five miles from the ocean and high enough not to be damaged by major flooding. “We were more concerned with the winds,” Rando told Wines & Vines. He prepared for the storm by tying things down outside and having a pump on stand-by in case he did have some water come into the winery. “Our electric did go off,” he reported, “and I was just getting ready to punch down by flash light when the power came back on.”

The major problem he and many others in that area now face is getting gas for transportation.

Storm pounds Winery on Brooklyn pier
Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery is located on Pier 41 on the upper bay and almost directly across from the southern tip of Governors Island south of Manhattan. The pier took a direct hit from the storm surge that flooded the winery and other stores and businesses on the pier with five feet of water. Even though winery staff had sandbagged the entrances and elevated as much equipment and barrels of wine as they could in an attempt to minimize the impact of the flooding, the force of the surge was too great. Barrels and other equipment were toppled over, and without power, the winery has no temperature or humidity control.

It remains to be determined what the future for Red Hook Winery will be. In the meantime, those interested in helping in the effort to clean up and rebuild both the winery and other businesses damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Red Hook can contact The Red Hook Initiative (718-858-6782), which will be matching up volunteers and donations with local businesses in need.

Power stays on at the Brooklyn Winery
Brooklyn Winery is four blocks from the East River in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn and only six miles from Red Hook Winery. Despite being so close to the surging floodwaters, Julie Oehme, the marketing director at Brooklyn Winery, said the building received only minor damage from the wind and never lost power during the hurricane or afterwards. “We feel extremely fortunate,” she said.

‘Battened down’ in Long Island
Long Island is often in the direct path of a hurricane moving up the East Coast, and Eric Fry, the winemaker at Lenz Winery on the North Fork at the eastern end of Long Island has prepared for many such storms. “We batten down the hatches,” he said. “We clean up anything that can blow away or weigh it down to keep it in place. We often have tanks outside when hurricanes arrive, and they can turn into big stainless steel balloons. I fill the big tanks that can’t be moved at least half full with water and move the smaller tanks inside.”

“Our biggest issue with hurricanes is power loss,” Fry said. “They usually happen during harvest, right at the time we need to do pumpovers and control fermentation temperatures.” Hurricane Sandy was an exception only in that all the grapes for Lenz had been harvested. “We finished picking two days before Sandy arrived, so I cooled the grapes down to 40°F before the storm hit. Then, when the power went off, the grapes gradually warmed up for two days until it came back on again.”

Storm squashes Sunday sales in Finger Lakes
Even wineries hundreds of miles from the hurricane’s center felt its effects. Chris Stamp, owner and winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards near New York’s Lake Seneca, told Wines & Vines that usually by the time a hurricane reaches the Finger Lakes region it has weakened into a tropical depression, with sustained winds of 38 mph or less. “If you don’t have grapes hanging, you thank God,” Stamp said. “We put things away outside, just like any homeowner does and make sure other things like empty tanks are weighted down.”

His sister-in-law, Kay Stamp, retail specialist in the Lakewood tasting room, noted that the biggest impact was on the tasting room traffic. “Our tourists come primarily from New Jersey and around New York City. With Hurricane Sandy, the tourists left early on Sunday to go home and prepare for the storm, so our Sunday sales were dead.”

There’s not much a winery can do to prepare for tourists leaving, except to encourage them to come back. Jen Kurtz, manager of the Strasburg Wine Tasting Room in Strasburg, Penn., reported that by Wednesday, Oct. 31, she started to see tourists come to the tasting room in the heart of Amish country. “We get a lot of people from New Jersey, and I’ve had people here who came to Lancaster County because we have power and they don’t at home. They’re happy to be here and are buying wine!

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