Disastrous Texas Harvest Expected

Frost and rain diminish grape crop by as much two thirds

by Jeff Siegel
Frost and rain diminish grape crop by as much two thirds
A second growth of canopy on these Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at Driftwood was also infected with downy mildew; unable to apply bird netting, Gary Elliott watched helplessly as hungry birds attacked what remained of his crop.
Dallas, Texas -- Yes, Gary Elliott said last week, it was raining. He was not happy about it. And why should he be? Many Texas winemakers and grapegrowers, who endured two years of drought, saw that end this spring with record-setting rains in the Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio that flooded their crops.

Meanwhile, Texas High Plains growers in West Texas, who avoided much of the rain, never recovered from more than two days of below-freezing temperatures over Easter weekend in April. Crop yields could be down as much as two-thirds throughout the state, said viticulturist Ed Hellman of Texas A&M.

Elliott, who owns the 1,500-case Driftwood Vineyards in Driftwood, about 20 miles southwest of Austin, said, "This is going to be a disaster year for the whole state. But we should be used to being devastated one year out of every two or three years by now."

The mid-August rain, delivered by the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin, was insult added to injury. Parts of the Hill Country, Texas' second-most important appellation, had as much rain in June and July as they normally get all year. It rained every day for three to four weeks in the middle of that period, which not only deluged vineyards and stripped leaves from vines, but made it almost impossible for Hill Country growers to spray for the various blights common to the area, like powdery and downy mildew.

Frost and rain diminish grape crop by as much two thirds
Enabled by constant rains and inability to spray, downy mildew destroyed the canopy at Gary Elliott's Driftwood Vineyards.
In West Texas, meanwhile, Neal Newsome, who farms 88 acres at 3,700 feet in the High Plains appellation southwest of Lubbock, recorded 50 hours below freezing over Easter weekend. He lost not just the first growth, but much of the second growth as well. His Cabernet Sauvignon, annually among the best in Texas, and Muscat Canelli, were all but wiped out. Newsome, one of the most respected growers in the state, anticipates half a crop of Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio, while the Tempranillo and Malbec will be close to normal. In all, he expects to get just 90 of his normal 300 tons.

Also hard hit: Mason County, an up-and-coming area located near where the Hill Country meets the High Plains, about 40 miles northwest of Fredericksburg.

One of the worst hit varieties in the state was Viognier, which has been a Texas success story over the past couple of years. The freeze killed most of the best Viognier, and wineries will be scrambling this fall to find grapes to produce the 2007 vintage, Hellman said. Some wineries have already made plans to buy fruit from California.

What about quality? At best, it will be a challenging year, said Paul Bonarrigo of Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, which produces about 33,000 cases a year. The rain has delayed harvest, which usually starts around the last week of July and goes through the end of September. It's running 10 days to two weeks late in many parts of the state.

In addition, some growers had to pick before the fruit reached their preferred ripeness, either because it had stopped ripening since the canopy was gone or because rot had started to appear. Today, Elliott at Driftwood related the disastrous chain of events that will cost him most of a 60-ton harvest. Months of constant rains retarded ripening and prevented spraying; consequently, downy mildew invaded the vineyards, destroying the canopy and making it impossible to apply bird netting. A puny second growth of canopy proved inadequate. Birds were devouring the unripe, rotting fruit.

"It rained every day, and the leaves all fell out," Elliott said. "We're trying to salvage what we can."
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