Hurricane Batters Eastern Vineyards

Heavy rains caused most damage; N.Y. grapes in good shape; fermenting without electricity in Pennsylvania

by Linda Jones McKee and Hudson Cattell
rob deford boordy vineyards
Boordy Vineyards, seen here in July, suffered wind damage as a result of Hurricane Irene. Vineyard owner Rob Deford says the normally straight vineyard rows are leaning, and many of the metal posts will need to be replaced.
Lancaster, Penn.—As with other aspects of real estate, in vineyards and hurricanes, location is everything. The impact of a hurricane on the wine industry depends on many variables: Wind speed and rainfall total are critical, but timing matters too. A vineyard that is ready to be harvested will suffer greater damage than one four weeks from harvest; a vineyard under disease stress will respond differently than one that is well managed and disease-free.

Hurricane Irene was a big and potentially damaging storm that could have devastated vineyards from the Carolinas to New England. As it played out, Irene diminished into a tropical storm with wind speeds less than 50 miles per hour and moderate to heavy rain in some places. After making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Irene spiraled north to Atlantic City, N.J., and Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., then blew along the Hudson River and into Vermont. The heaviest rains followed the center part of the storm up the coast.

Along the eastern shore of Virginia, south of the Potomac River, the maximum wind speed was 50 miles per hour; rainfall totaled 8 inches. In this and other areas in the storm’s path, the power went out: Some customers are still waiting for the lights to come back on. Fortunately, Chardonnay already had been harvested here. Inland, Charlottesville, Va., had little wind and less than 2 inches of rain.

Surprisingly, there was no significant flooding along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland: Unlike previous hurricanes, Irene’s winds pushed water out of the bay rather than into it. In many vineyards, wind damage was confined to the first row or two of vines, but 42,000-case Boordy Vineyards outside of Baltimore in Hydes, Md., suffered wind damage to all rows of its vineyard at that location.

Rob Deford, owner of Boordy, described the vineyard rows as “leaning uniformly in one direction. While the trellis is not totally down, every post on the north/south rows needs to be straightened. Many of the metal posts will need to be replaced, and we may switch back to wooden posts when we get the vineyard cleaned up. Meanwhile, our rows in that vineyard are narrow anyway, and this will make it hard for tractors to get through. Fortunately, we have no disease pressure, and no defoliation. The vines just look like they had a bad hair day.”

With only minor wind damage in southern New Jersey, the biggest issue was rain. The Cape May area has registered 19 inches of rain in August; inland locations were flooded for the first time in memory. According to Dr. Gary Pavlis, county agricultural agent at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, it is important for the vineyards to dry out as soon as possible. In standing water, vine roots will start losing function after 28 hours, although it will take longer for them to rot. There are also disease concerns, and the problems that come from grapes swelling from so much rain.

New York vineyards unscathed
While harvest was under way in North Carolina and Virginia, farther north growers had not started to pick their grapes. On Long Island, harvest is more than four weeks away, and according to Roman Roth at 15,500-case Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, N.Y., the grape berries are still quite firm and far from ripe.

Roth told Wines & Vines that the eastern end of Long Island was well to the east of the storm and actually received only 1.5 inches of rain. “We lost five big trees on the winery property,” Roth said, “but no trellis is down and there was only minor damage to leaves at the ends of some vineyard rows.” The hurricane passed west of eastern Long Island’s grapegrowing area; there were power outages but little wind damage to vineyards. With more than four weeks to harvest, berries are still hard and will have time to ripen.

The Finger Lakes region in New York was on the western fringe of Hurricane Irene. According to Scott Osborn, owner of 18,000-case Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan, the area received about 0.1-inch of rain and had no effects from the storm. Liz Stamp at Lakewood Vineyards (24,000-cases) in Watkins Glen reported a brief power outage, little wind and less than an inch of rain.

In contrast, the Hudson River Valley north of New York City received 12 to 14 inches of rain; Vermont and New Hampshire had similar downpours. Heavy rains had drenched the entire Northeast over the summer, and the saturated ground could absorb little more moisture. Flooding along many of the rivers reached record levels and provided much of the dramatic television news coverage of the hurricane. Most vineyards, however, were on higher ground.

The New York Times commented that Hurricane Irene will be remembered more for what didn’t happen than what did. This time, the East and its vineyards and wineries dodged a bullet—the storm could have been much worse.

Surviving a power outage
In contrast to vineyards, wineries aren’t normally affected by too much rain or strong winds, but power outages can be a major problem. Richard Carey, co-owner and winemaker at 10,000-case Tamanend Winery in Lancaster, Penn., told Wines & Vines, “We only got a little over 3.5 inches of rain from Irene, instead of the 5 to 10 inches the forecasters had predicted, but Saturday night the power went out at the winery. We had just received the first grapes for this harvest, and they were in the middle of fermentation. Saturday evening the temperature of the grapes was at 55°F, but by Sunday morning, with no power for the refrigeration system, the temperature had risen to just under 60°F.

“To slow things down, I added 50 pounds of dry ice to the fermentation, which lowered the temperature by about 4°F. Dry ice may seem to be very cold at -80°C, but because it doesn’t have the heat capacity of water, the energy transfer to the wine is much less than what one might expect. Consequently, dry ice is only good for a very short-term effect on a liquid such as wine. A winery must have a secondary backup for controlling fermentations if a power outage lasts for a long period of time. Fortunately for us, the power came on early Sunday afternoon, and our wine will be OK.”

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