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Winter's Effects Linger for Finger Lakes Grapes

Jun 14, 2016

As a recent transplant to the Finger Lakes, I was curious what our relatively mild winter would mean for this year’s grape harvest. When I asked people in the wine industry who to talk to, the answer was unanimous, Hans Walter-Peterson, the Viticulture Extension Specialist for the Finger Lakes Grape Program, which is part of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

I spoke to Walter-Peterson at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. The first thing I learned is that the answer to my question didn’t just begin last winter.

Credit Kelby Russell

“The thing with grape vines or apple trees or any other permanent crop, perennial crop is that what happens in one year can carry over into future years. So, if you have some kind of pest invasion in a soybean field, it’s one year, you plow it under, probably put corn back in that field or something. What happened in the previous year doesn’t necessarily translate into what happens the following year. With a perennial crop like grape vines, what happens in one year does have the potential to carry over and cause problems. So, the past two years before this one we also had some very cold temperatures especially last year. We saw some effects of that in vineyards this past year. I anticipate that we will see some of the effects of that this year or even next year. Some of those carryover effects can happen one or two years later.”

The biggest carryover effect growers worry about is injury to the trunks.

“You can think of the trunk, it’s an over simplistic picture of it, but if you think of the trunk as just a bunch of straws basically, because that have to move water and nutrients up and down the vine. If the temperature gets cold enough, some of those straws get plugged up and die basically. They can’t function the way they normally would.”

The danger to the trunks following the mild winter was the sudden cold snaps, which can freeze water that has begun to circulate up the vine. To get the perspective of a grower and winemaker, Walter-Peterson sent me out to talk to his predecessor, Dave Peterson co-owner of Swedish Hill Winery.

“We had a bit of a Valentine’s massacre, so to speak. We had one cold morning for the whole Finger Lakes. It varied by what part of the Finger Lakes you were in and how much cloud cover and breezes and so forth. It was supposed to be a very windy night. The lows were predicted from zero to five below in the area and most of the Finger Lakes went ten to fifteen below. Then we had another episode, I believe it was in April when the sap was starting to run in the vines, they’re waking up, moving toward bud break and a very cold night again, colder than what was predicted throughout the area. Some of the areas that fared the best on the Valentine’s massacre had the coldest temperatures in the area."

Back at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, scientists are working on solutions that may already be close to home.

“The grapes that grow up telephone poles all around us in upstate New York. That’s a different species than the one that we grow for wine. Those grapes are incredibly winter hardy. There are species like that and other ones that have traits that we would like to bring into varieties that we would also like to grow for wine purposes, or juice, or whatever. So, if we can find the genes that control those things in those wild species and bring them into a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon or something like that and maintain the fruit quality we get from that variety, but then bring some of these other traits in just through normal breeding processes then that can potentially help us.”

That’s a long-term solution. For now, Finger Lakes vineyards tend their vines and look ahead to the fall harvest.