The O’Keefes of Northern Michigan -Edward and son Eddie- have been farming grapes on the Old Mission Peninsula since 1974. So when the O’Keefes express concern about the cold damage of the past two years at their Chateau Grand Traverse Winery (see below), it’s not Weather Channel style meteorological hype.
At daybreak Friday morning, the temperature in Traverse City was -17F. A few degrees warmer at the better local vineyard sites probably won’t make much of a bud kill difference.
But Traverse City was warm compared to the Ohio wine growing areas along Lake Erie. Reports from Wooster, Ohio saw thermometers at -23F on Friday morning. (Meanwhile, at my primary residence in Louisville it was colder than Calgary, Canada, which is 900 miles north. Go figure.)
Last winter, a statement from the Ohio Wine Producers Association called the 2014 record low temperatures a “once in a lifetime event.” Making bold pronouncements about the climate is risky, but speculation about changes in weather patterns is now rampant.
There are scientists who think global warming is causing the polar jet stream to penetrate the mid latitudes of the eastern U.S. more frequently. Humans have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the air and water, so it seems plausible that recent cold winters are not just random events (unless you’re a Republican party die hard.)
Last April, I wrote a story titled “Does This Winter Signal the Rebirth of Hybrid Grapes?” This story resulted in a few reader emails expressing disdain for the partially pessimistic tone of the article. In retrospect, I would have changed a few things about the article.
First, I have come to believe that growing vinifera grapes on a commercial scale in the Midwest is a fantasy. Some local wineries will continue to grow old world grapes for their tasting rooms, but the Midwest will not achieve the levels of production necessary to compete with other grape producing regions. Developing a new cold hardy grape industry is the only route for the Midwest.
Also, the story I wrote about last year’s winter damage seems cold hearted to me now. When anything we’ve nurtured- whether it’s another human, an animal or a plant- dies or is injured, there is a heartfelt sense of loss and sadness. People invested their lives trying to grow old world grapes in the middle of North American and it was a noble endeavor. At times, they even succeeded in producing world class wines.
But in every ending there is also a beginning. Let this be the beginning of a new era of cold climate wines. When spring comes, it will be time to plant hybrid grapes and say a fond farewell to vinifera produced in the Midwestern United States. We are now big enough and strong enough to chart our own direction. The weather is cold but the future is bright.