Average to Challenging Wine Harvest in Midwest

Growers and extension experts report a "mixed harvest" because of fluctuating weather

by Linda Jones McKee
Harvest at Oliver Winery in Indiana where owner Bill Oliver uses a mechanical harvester that he says left rotten Vignoles on the vine while picking clean fruit. The machine also enables him to pick as needed to avoid rain by not having to wait to assemble a team of workers. Photo: Oliver Winery

Lancaster, Pa.—The upper Midwest encompasses a large area, and growing regions in Ohio, for example, often do not experience the same weather events as the cold climate region in Minnesota. The main factor impacting this year’s harvest was the rain that many vineyards across the region experienced, especially during harvest. Mike Williams, owner and winemaker at the Winery at Versailles located northwest of Dayton in western Ohio, told Wines & Vines, “It was not a dry summer. We got some rain, more than usual. Sometimes it seemed like constant rain all the time.”

 As a result, overall, it’s a “mixed harvest” in Ohio and in most of the upper Midwest.

The southern to northeastern areas of Ohio had above average rainfall, according to Todd Steiner, enology program manager at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio. “Hurricane Florence brought some rain, but not as much as in other places like West Virginia and Virginia.” He noted that in vineyards in regions with quite a bit of rain have had more disease pressure, and the rain forced some growers to pick earlier than they might prefer.

Williams, who has a 10-acre vineyard in Versailles, Ohio, noted that the rain encouraged both vine growth and very tall weeds — he found 10- to 11-foot tall morning glories growing on some vineyard posts. Because of the frequent rain, Williams picked Vidal so early that by the first week in October, those grapes had finished fermentation and he was cold stabilizing the wine. “The yields were very good,” he said, “but the quality is average.”

The Winery at Versailles also purchases grapes from other growers in northern Ohio and Michigan, and Williams noted that when some growers have picked earlier than normal, the grapes are underripe. On the other hand, growers who have waited to pick have had more issues with sour rot. “This harvest is going to be difficult to manage,” he said.

Williams has already harvested Chambourcin, Maréchal Foch and Chancellor; the Cabernet Franc is light in color, and he will be happy if the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are even close to normal parameters.

“It’s been a tough year, hovering around annoying,” Bill Oliver, owner of Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Ind., reported. “We got 6 inches of rain from Hurricane Florence at the worst possible time (mid-September). That’s not quite as bad as farther east, but it’s a problem for grape growers.”

By the end of the first week in October, Oliver Winery had finished picking its 40 acres of vineyard. “We didn’t have ideal grape maturity, but the wines have been impressive, based on the circumstances. It’s a good time for rosé,” he said. “We’re getting nice yields, ones that are economically viable from Chardonel, Traminette. Vidal is always big–6 tons an acre.”

Four years ago, Oliver purchased a Pellenc grape harvester, and noticed when they harvested the Vignoles with some rot in it, the rotten fruit stayed attached to the vine while the mature fruit was picked. “It worked well this year; it selected for the sound fruit,” he said. “The machine can go out and pick on the fly if rain is predicted. We don’t have to get a crew together — that can take 24 to 48 hours.”

“The vineyards looked good ‘til mid-August,” Mike White, extension field specialist at Iowa State University, told Wines & Vines. “We’ve seen a lot of grape diseases–bunch rot, Phomopsis, Pestalotiopsis, and, for the first time, Esca and Eutypa. One of two things happened. Growers didn’t have an intensive enough spray program [when the weather was nice] or second, the canopies were too thick and sprays couldn’t penetrate. Marquette was hit hard, and some vineyards didn’t get any crop from that variety.”

As of the second week in October, Iowa had had two weeks of rain, and harvest was being delayed yet again.

After a very hot summer, Minnesota also had a wet early October. When Wines & Vines spoke with Matthew Clark, assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the University of Minnesota, on Oct. 11 it had been raining for the preceding ten days. “We went from winter to summer this year. On April 24 we had about two feet of snow. In a couple of weeks, we went to summer temperatures,” Clark said. “Bloom time came earlier, we had opportune rain falls, and the vineyards were in pretty good condition to set a crop and bring it up to harvest.”

“I’m pretty optimistic,” Clark continued. “Harvest started early — some varieties were picked a whole month earlier than last year. But because harvest was early, it was hot to harvest. We’re not used to hot weather during harvest, and the wineries were hot and the fermentations were, too.” Rain in the region had arrived at opportune times — until later in September when harvest was well underway.

Clark reported that most people were finished with harvest. That’s good, because parts of the state already had snow on the ground and the weather forecast for that night was for a hard freeze.

Annie Klodd Freeman, assistant extension professor for fruit and vegetable production at the University of Minnesota, noted that there was rain during veraison that resulted in some bunch rot and reduced yields. “June and July were dry, until August-September,” she said. “Then we had some rain, but not as bad as it was in 2016 and 2017. Quantities are not high, but the quality is good.”

“We’ve only had four months this year with no snow,” Tami Bredesen, co-owner of Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria, Minn., reported. “It’s been an odd year. We had snow in May, and there’s two inches of snow on the ground in southwestern Minnesota right now in October. We had a hot summer in between, with 16 days with temperatures in the 90s. Last year we didn’t have any days in the 90s. Bud break was two weeks late. After bud set, the heat set in, which became a drought problem in some places. We [at Carlos Creek] had intermittent rain at just the right times, the heat set in, and we picked up a month towards ripening.”

Harvest started at Carlos Creek in mid-August with Brianna picked on Aug. 16-17. The winery had purchased a grape harvester that arrived on Labor Day, and when Fall arrived with persistent rains, especially on weekends, Bredesen was glad they had it. Until this season, they had been able to find people to hand-pick their 26 acres. “It’s not pleasant to pick grapes when it’s cold, windy and rainy,” she said, “but a harvester can pick in two hours what it takes four days to hand pick. It’s fast and did a better job.”

Bredesen reported that the chemistry numbers on the grapes were “incredibly good. It’s a fine vintage, but not over abundant.” They finished harvesting the last week in September.

The weather issues for vineyards in Michigan began with a late spring and continued to the end of harvest. Dave Miller, owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, Mich., told Wines & Vines, “We’re just glad we have a crop. It was a very wet summer and very warm. There was lots of disease pressure and lots of spraying.”

Like vineyards in Minnesota, Michigan had snow through April. The benefit of that was there were no spring frosts. On the other hand, Miller had planned to plant additional vines in mid-April but couldn’t get them in the ground until the first week in May. The frequent rain events during the summer and into the fall resulted in constant disease pressure even for the late season varieties. “We had canopy management issues even with using everything in our spray arsenal,” he said.

By the end of September, Michigan had accumulated almost 3,000 heat units. The very warm summer temperatures continued into harvest and the region had 80° F days in October.

In spite of these challenges, Miller thinks that the quality of his crop was good, although yields were somewhat lower than normal. “We saw some winter injury to Cabernet Franc in low spots when we had -10° temperatures in January. Fewer clusters set and berry size was down — we saw two clusters of Riesling rather than three,” he said. “Last year we had three dry months and harvest was superb.”

This year definitely was a different story. Miller finished harvest on Oct. 17.

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