When it Rains it's Poor: Challenging Weather, But a Silver Lining
By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photography by Morgan Dawson Photography
Harvest is coming, and if any winemaker or grape grower tells you that things are right where they need to be in the vineyard, they're spinning like crazy.
In basic terms, most growers in the Finger Lakes are anywhere from 10 to 14 days behind ripening schedule. It's not just a lack of heat that has been a problem. The heavy and near-constant June rains put growers in a difficult spot, and July simply failed to dry it out and heat things up. In other words: No pressure, August, but it's kind of up to you.
"Right now we're headed for a lot of sparkling wine," said Fred Merwarth, winemaker and owner of Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake. "Getting things ripe is going to be an enormous challenge for reds especially."
Cornell professor Gavin Sacks, whose expertise is in high demand in this region, is cautious about making predictions. But he's not trying to spin the weather, either. "Even with a hot, dry August, it's going to be a real challenge because of the disease pressure and other factors that have already come into play," Sacks told me. "I've seen many vineyards working very hard to adjust canopies and do what they can, but I've also seen vineyards where those adjustments are not being made. That will matter."
So would he dump stock on the 2009 vintage already? "Absolutely not. We don't have enough information to say that whites in the Finger Lakes are going to be in trouble. In fact, some of the toughest vintages have seen stunningly strong whites. So I'm not concerned right now about whites. I think there is reason to be concerned about reds."
After two strong vintages for red wine in the Finger Lakes, it's easy to understand why growers might be disappointed at this stage of 2009. But winemakers who keep yields low -- winemakers like Merwarth and Ravines Wine Cellars' Morten Hallgren -- say there is one reason to welcome such a challenging weather year.
"If anything is going to convince people to reduce yields, you would think it would be a year like this," Merwarth says. Hallgren, who consistently encourages growers to bring their vineyards into balance, agrees.
"There is an excess of grapes to begin with," Hallgren explains. "Growers have not been able to sell all of their crop, or they're not getting a good price. So instead of letting fruit rot, the solution is to grow less of it. And as a result of that, you'll get better wine."
It's true that it's possible for vineyards to be under-cropped, but that's hardly a concern in this region, where some winemakers confess of vineyards producing 8 tons an acre or more. And it's still possible that a heat wave could salvage the vintage on the red side. In the meantime, industry experts are encouraging growers to watch this video of White Springs Winery's Derek Wilber explaining how to meet the challenge, manage the vineyard and get through a tough weather year.
"We've been challenged before," Wilber says. "If you've grown grapes in the Finger Lakes for very much time at all, you prepare yourself for anything. And if we're getting the grapes more exposure to the sun through leaf thinning, and if we're guarding against disease, we can have another strong year. Don't give up on it yet."