Record March warmth and severe April frosts have combined to destroy most of the Concord and Niagara grape crop in states bordering the Great Lakes from Michigan to Upstate New York. Some labrusca growers in Southwest Michigan and Northern Ohio say the repeated freezes have completely wiped out their grapes.
Dr. Tom Zabadal, who coordinates Michigan State University’s viticulture research, says that based on early estimates, the Concord and Niagara crops, mostly used for juice, are virtually destroyed throughout Southwest Michigan’s grape growing areas. “It’s probably the worst frost in living memory, and it’s probably 90% damage or so at this point.” Although Zabadal stresses that his figures are estimates, he foresees that “losses will be very high.” He says that although there is optimism for wine grape growers, “For the juice grape growers, unfortunately, whatever the salvage is, it’s still going to be a very small percentage of a normal crop.”
Further east, in the Lake Erie grape production region that extends for 60 miles from Buffalo, New York to the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, there are 32,000 acres of grapes of which 30,000 are Concord. Dr. Terry Bates with Cornell University’s Lake Erie Viticulture Research Project monitors nine sites in the region. Bates says the first frost on March 27th did considerable damage, killing much of the premature growth caused by record warmth. However, with secondary buds still in good shape, they were expecting a manageable 25% loss of the Concord crop.
Then the worst in a series of regional frosts came on April 28th. “Now we probably have more primary bud loss and maybe secondary bud loss and that’s going to dramatically drop the crop,” Dr. Bates said. Vinifera grapes, like Riesling and Chardonnay, which had escaped the first frost, had budded by this weekend’s frost and were also “fairly hard hit,” he said.
The distribution of damage varies across the region. “Further from Lake Erie it gets colder and the buds were out further there, so those are the areas that had 100% primary bud loss,” he explains. “Closer to Lake Erie, you’re looking at almost no damage at all. Further west into Pennsylvania you also tend to have less loss,” he said. Dr. Bates estimates 50% overall damage to the Concord and Niagara crops in Lake Erie Wine Country and says the Finger Lakes grape-growing area is similarly affected.
Growers across the Midwest confirmed these grim reports from the academics. In Southwest Michigan at Arrowhead Vineyards, fourth generation owner Dan Nitz manages 450 acres of vines, half of them labrusca varieties. Nitz says the buds on 95% of their Niagara and Concord juice grapes were killed by the first serious frost in the state on April 12th, leaving them no option but to collect crop insurance. “This has been the worst frost my dad can remember. He’s been growing grapes here for forty some years, and it definitely did the most damage of any frost ever.” Nitz adds that many vineyards across the state are in a similar situation and says the frosts have been so cold – 24F degrees or lower - that wind machines have been useless.
Frost damage in Southwest Michigan is not as serious for growers of vinifera grapes which bud later than labrusca grapes. Todd Robbins, vineyard manager for Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville, Michigan, says site selection played a major role in protecting vinifera grapes which tend to be planted on higher, and therefore warmer, land than labrusca grapes.
Fenn Valley, the oldest family owned winery in the state, plants 18 different varieties of wine grapes including Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet-Franc in Southwest Michigan. The only significant damage was to their Marechal Foch grapes that, like the labrusca varieties, were quick to bud after March warmth. Initial estimates suggest 10% to 50% damage across the vineyard, which Robbins describes as “manageable” losses.
In Ohio, frost damage in some areas close to Lake Erie is particularly severe. Dave Scurlock, Viticulture Outreach Specialist with Ohio State University, says the Marechal Foch in Ohio was also hard hit, but again the impact on Niagara and Concord was worse. He estimates that up to 70% of these labrusca grapes were affected by the frosts with the worst hit areas around Lake Erie in Northeast Ohio.
Near Geneva, Ohio, Monte Stoltz owns 27 acres of Niagara and Concord grapes at Stoltz Farm. He says frosts on Sunday morning were the worst since his father and grandfather planted grapes in 1946 and have destroyed his crop. “First buds were pretty well wiped out, regardless if they were on high ground, low ground or right next to the woods where they’re usually protected – everywhere.” Stoltz says this year is a write-off, but his family will survive thanks to income from last year’s crop.
A few miles from Stoltz Farm, Debonne Vineyards near Madison, Ohio is the biggest grape-grower in Ohio, producing 85,000 gallons of wine each year. Owner Tony Debevc confirms the unprecedented severity of the frost damage. “We’ve just been hammered,” he says. “My vineyard manager just gave me more bad news. He says in fifty or sixty years no one can remember when the frost was this bad.” Debevc says at his vineyard – which is about one-third Concord and Niagara, at least 80 to 90 percent of the primary buds are destroyed. “Which in my book is about 100% loss,” he adds, “It wouldn’t pay the fuel costs to pick 10% of the grapes.”
Debevc says he could also lose 50% of his Chardonnay grapes. “I would say, we lost about 50% of all the vinifera in the region and probably at least 80% of the labrusca varieties”. However, as a winemaker, Debevc doesn’t seem too concerned about availability of Concord and Niagara. He says a nearby grower is likely to be able to meet most of his needs, but he expects to drastically reduce sales of bulk wine and is not yet sure if he’s going to try Californian sources to replace juice shortages for some of his reds. If not, he says inventories from the last two years are good, so they’ll just keep selling those. “And hope for a better year next year!” he adds with a philosophical chuckle.
The Midwest’s biggest buyer of labrusca grapes – Welch’s – says it’s too early to calculate the damage but the company does not expect grape juice shortages. Welch’s Marketing Director, Karen Mitchell says other grape sources outside this freeze-affected region are in a more normal state and added that “there’s a lot of growing season left and lots of factors.”
Dave Scurlock from Ohio State expressed a more cautious opinion. “I think buyers are already scrambling to try and source grapes even though it’s early, and we don’t really know the extent of the damage.”
Even if there is a scramble to fill gaps left by frost-affected grapes, both Dan Nitz from Michigan’s Arrowhead Vineyards and Tony Debvec of Ohio’s Debonne Vineyards say finding replacement grapes in a global wine market shouldn’t be difficult. Nitz says Welch’s could source similar tasting grape varieties from South America. Debevc mentions a glut of French grapes and also Chile and Argentina as grape-producing countries that could fill any breach.
In a complex grape juice market, the issue of how 2012 crop loss could impact grape prices is difficult to answer. Zabadal says winemakers who need Concord grapes could face some price volatility, and Scurlock suggests those price increases could be passed on to the consumer. But for the 90% of Lambrusca grapes used in juice, it’s a different situation. Zabadal says those prices are set ahead of time by the National Grape Cooperative (Welch’s owner) so supply and demand is not a factor. Welch’s Karen Mitchell insists that it’s unlikely her company will pass on price increases to the consumer. “At this point, I don’t see that as a reason to be taking our prices up,” she says.
Bates says the price of grape juice is more likely to be influenced by California production levels. “Especially for Concord and Niagara, the price is influenced by the bulk juice grape market,” he says. “So if there is a surplus of grapes from California, more of their grapes go in the concentrate market and that probably has a bigger influence on price than a freeze.” So if California has a short grape crop like last year, it seems possible that, together with the frosts, Labrusca prices could go up. However, for many grape growers across the Midwest, the issue of price is moot because the extent of crop loss.
So with wine and juice makers able to find other grape sources and consumers unlikely to be seriously affected, the victims of these recent devastating frosts are the labrusca growers and other industries that rely directly on them. “All of the support people that are involved with this crop – processors, equipment dealers and suppliers of vineyards materials – for them it’s going to be very difficult for the next year or so,” says Zabadal.