Vines Shredded in Lodi Hail Storm

Some vineyards suffer extensive damage as storm drops dime-sized hail

by Andrew Adams
Hail stones that fell near Lodi, Calif., damaged and destroyed some young grape clusters earlier this week. Photo source: Tom Hoffman
Lodi, Calif.—The storm that brought rain, thunder and hail across much of California this week caused extensive damage in some Lodi area vineyards.

Described like a Midwestern tornado that obliterates some houses yet leaves others untouched on the same street, the storm shredded leaves and clusters in several vineyards, while others nearby were spared.

“This is the worst hail storm I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been farming for 30 years,” said Tom Hoffman, owner of Heritage Oak Winery and 130 acres of vines. Hoffman said he thinks he may have lost 30% to 50% of his entire Zinfandel crop and could lose more if damaged canes can’t recover or snap off in a strong wind. “We’re just going to have to see what happens,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns right now.”

No drought relief, just damage

The storm swept through April 7, bringing rain and several inches of much-needed snow to parched California, but it’s not nearly enough to put a dent in the ongoing drought.

Hoffman’s son, Matt Hoffman, is the grower program coordinator for the Lodi Winegrape Commission. He said there were reports of hail in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the west of Lodi and in the town of Lockeford, Calif., to the east. The most severe hail damage appeared to have occurred in vineyards to the west and north of Lodi city limits.

Matt Hoffman said damage reports ranged from complete defoliation and torn clusters to only partial leaves left with some cane bruising. Based on what he’s seen and heard so far though, Hoffman doesn’t expect the storm to have caused enough damage to significantly affect the 2015 harvest. “From what I can see it’s difficult to get a sense of the scope, but it seems like there’s one smallish area of Lodi that this storm cell hovered on for a while,” he said.

The Lodi AVA is one of California’s major grapegrowing regions. Located within state Grape Pricing District 11, the region produced 674,176 tons of wine grapes in 2014. The city of Lodi is located in San Joaquin County, which is home to 94 wineries, according to the Wines Vines Analytics winery database.

Lodi grower Brad Peterson said his family’s ranch was in the path of a severe storm cell, which caused extensive damage. “The vines are shredded; the immediate damage has us losing at least 80% of the crop,” he said. Peterson mentioned it’s even more dire in his cherry orchards. “We will not be able to pick one cherry of our 20 acres. 100% loss.”

Peterson said the damage to the vine’s young, soft tissue is so bad he may try the radical move of pulling all the new growth on his 60 acres of vines and “then cross your fingers and see if basal buds push and are fruitful.”

Heather Pyle, the winemaker at Lucas Winery, which she owns with her husband David Lucas, also said up to half their Zinfandel harvest could be a loss. Pyle remarked it looked as if cherries suffered even worse than wine grapes. “The most remarkable thing yesterday was I couldn’t find a single cherry that wasn’t pitted from the hail,” she told Wines & Vines.

New growth suffered the worst
Pyle said they wait to prune far longer than their neighbors, and as a result their Zinfandel vines had shoots only about 4 inches long and small clusters about an inch or less. The hailstones scraped off parts of the clusters and left scarring along the length of the tender shoots. On the upside, some of the Lucas’ shoots hadn’t pushed yet. “I’ve never been in hail like that. Being a California girl, that’s about the worst I’ve seen,” she said.

Neighboring vineyards with more advanced vegetative growth fared better. Vines with thicker canopy and Zinfandel clusters of about three inches in length survived the storm in much better condition. “They seem like they just might have been tougher,” she said.

Tom Hoffman also said his Chardonnay vines that started earlier than his Zinfandel made it through the storm in better shape.

Robert Lawson is the owner of WildRose Vineyards and winery and 60 acres of vineyards north of the city of Lodi. Every vine in his vineyard suffered some damage in what the Lodi native said was the worst hailstorm he’d ever seen. He was in town when the storm hit and described the hailstones as being penny to dime in size. “Penny size for around here is gigantic,” he said.

Lawson said it’s been another early year in Lodi, and that may have helped protect some of the vines. Still, he estimated he lost about 20% of a normal crop and said he’d already been on the phone with his crop insurance agent who told him he was dealing with a flood of calls.

Jon Bjork, a winery consultant and co-owner of Pantheon Cellars, recounted watching the storm ravage the small block of Petite Sirah vines in his backyard. “I watched as the hail fell straight down, as if someone dropped a huge box of white marbles with no regard to who was down here,” he said. “Looking at the vines now, some shoots have no leaves whatsoever. Many leaves were loosened from their petioles and are now drooping down and beginning to dry out. But we’re so early in the season that laterals at the leaf nodes should take off to get photosynthesis back to nearly full capacity.”

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