Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How three wineries cope with hail damage

Photo: hail-battered grape cluster

The violent hail storm that swept across East Kelowna on the evening of August 12, 2013, seriously impacted three wineries: SpierHead Winery, Sperling Vineyards and The View Winery and Vineyard.

Now that the owners have had almost a month to assess the damage, they have also come up with winemaking strategies for this vintage that will keep them doing business.

“We do have insurance,” SpierHead’s William Knutson says. “The biggest significance isn’t financial. It’s just a pain. In our case, it isn’t going to have an enormous impact on overall production.”

“We have inventories,” says Ann Sperling, the winemaker and a principal at Sperling Vineyards. “It is not suddenly that we won’t have any wine to sell.” But because Sperling does not buy grapes, the impact of the storm “will affect us over two or three years that we will have a gap in one variety or another.”

The winery, which had planned to make about 3,500 cases of wine this fall, draws its fruit from 45-acre Pioneer Ranch, one of the oldest vineyards in the Kelowna area. The insurance adjustor has estimated the loss at about 80% of the crop.

“The hailstorm has made it a big question mark how much fruit we will be able to harvest,” Ann says. “We have very few leaves on probably 80%, 90% of the vineyard. Our table grapes were a total write-off.  There are a couple of blocks of wine grapes where, because of a hill pattern or the wind, that have a few more leaves. We are looking at those and netting those. Then we have to see if the rest of the fruit evolves normally or not.”

She continues: “Whole clusters got knocked on the ground and others were cut in half. It is going to take some berry selection. Thank heaven we have sorting tables to work with. It will take a big effort to harvest what we do this year. At this point, it is still early to tell if the fruit will ripen normally or whether there has been too much damage already.”

The storm was so ferocious that a neighbour of SpierHead gave the winery a curious memento: a beer can that had been exposed to the storm. Two hailstones completely punctured the can.

“Our rows are aligned almost exactly north/south,” Knutson says of the winery’s Gentleman Farmer Vineyard. “This hail came with a strong wind from the exact east. It hit the rows broadside.”

Where the canopy of leaves was light, unprotected bunches were battered. SpierHead was fortunate that some of the vines had not yet had the canopy thinned.

“If the canopy was thicker, it did not tend to do much damage on the east side because the hail just shredded the leaves,” Knutson says. “But the fruit on the other side of the plants is undamaged or moderately damaged.”

“That’s how ours is,” says The View’s Jennifer Molgat, who estimates 65% damage to her crop. “If you walked along the west side [of the rows], you would think everything is well. Then you walk to the other side of the vine and it is completely gone basically. I spent the whole next day with tears running down  my face. It was heartbreaking.”

The vineyards all were sprayed shortly after the storm to thwart rot on any of the damaged bunches. Crews have since gone through to clean out the damage so that the vines can still ripen undamaged bunches.

“What we are doing right now, emphasizing the areas where there is something that can be salvaged, is going through and dropping all the damaged stuff, which basically means everything on the east side,” SpierHead’s Knutson says. “Then on the west side, we are leaving what we can leave and thinning the rest. We have kind of an ironic situation. If everything works out well, with this excessive thinning, we will certainly have a diminished crop, but it might be of higher quality.”

His optimism does not seem to be shared. “At this point, it is still early to tell if the fruit will ripen normally or whether there has been too much damage already,” Sperling says.

“Our plan is to use most of the Gewürztraminer for our Bling sparkling wine in a can,” Molgat says. She is referring to a low-alcohol carbonated single-serve wine that, with filtering and blending with purified water, accommodates less than perfect grapes.

Sperling anticipates making more sparkling wine and perhaps her winery’s first rosé. Knutson was already planning to increase rosé production.

The objective in each case to pick grapes early, sparing the hail-damaged vines the stress of maturing fruit rather than storing up carbohydrates that help the plants survive through the coming winter. Most of the vines have begun to grow new leaves to replace those that were shredded. Whether these leaves will produce enough carbohydrates is an open question.

“The sugar accumulation would normally go to the fruit and the wood at this time,” Sperling says. “If any of it is compromised, it is hard to know how hardy things will be for the winter. So we pray that the winter is not hard. We can’t ask too much of the vines next year either. We will play it by ear and do the best we can.”

Both SpierHead and The View expect to maintain production with purchased grapes.

“Luckily, we have been able to purchase premium fruit from a lovely vineyard near CedarCreek winery so that we can keep our wines on the shelves this coming year,” Molgat says. “I cannot have a year when I don’t have premium wines. It would be too big a hit on how hard I have worked already in establishing the label.”

SpierHead does not expect to take a big hit of its production, largely because of a vineyard-designated wine program that Knutson had begun before the storm.

“If there is a silver lining in this, it is that a number of Pinot Noir growers have offered grapes to make up for our losses,” he says.  “Unrelated to our hail damage, my plan has been to develop a line of vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from vineyards throughout the valley.  To that end, I had already made arrangements to purchase Pinot Noir from a couple of different vineyards for the 2013 harvest.  Now, I will be able to audition a couple more.  We will ferment the grapes from each vineyard separately and the wine will be segregated as well.  If it is of high quality, we'll do a separate vineyard designated bottling.  Going forward, I really want to try and carve a niche with series of unique vineyard- designated Pinot Noir bottlings.”

The impact on the 2014 production from the damaged vines is still to be determined. “Pruning is going to be a nightmare as well because so many of the little spurs are bashed off,” Molgat says. “We are going to have to be creative with our pruning. What can you do?”


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