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Harsh winter still haunts Ohio vineyards, wineries

Ohio’s harsh winter has wreaked havoc on the state’s grapevines and sent a chill through Ohio’s budding wine industry, which is preparing to seek federal help to recover.

The extreme subzero temperatures of the winter all but wiped out the 2014 vintage of some varieties of wines and inflicted an estimated $4 million in damage to Ohio wineries, according to a winter damage survey report prepared last month by Ohio State University viticultural researchers.

Ohio wineries are assessing the damage to their vineyards and have taken the preliminary steps necessary for seeking federal assistance to replant grapevines killed by the frigid temperatures, according to Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

The OSU report, based on a survey of 62 grape producers in 35 Ohio counties, said some wineries reported temperatures as low as minus-27 degrees, with an average lowest temperature recorded of 14 below zero. Those frigid temperatures devastated some vineyards, causing a projected loss of 97 percent of the 2014 crop of “vinifera” grape varieties of Europoean heritage that are most well-known to consumers, such as chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc and pinot noir.

The crop loss will be about 57 percent to “hybrid” grapes that are slightly more tolerant of cold weather but not as well known to consumers, such as vidal blanc, chambourcin and traminette, the report said.

Southwest Ohio wineries appear to have fared somewhat better than their colleagues in the northeastern part of the state, especially if a large portion of the local vineyards consist of hardier grape varieties. But they face a greatly reduced 2014 crop that may cause a shortage of some varieties of wines over the next couple of years.

Joe Schuchter, whose family operates Valley Vineyards in Warren County, said the winery might lose 85 to 90 percent of the 2014 crop of three dry-red-wine varieties: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. But many other varieties came through the winter in better shape, and the winery is hopeful few vines were killed or heavily damaged, Schuchter said.

“We’ll be a little low on some wines, but the impact is not as dramatic as we feared initially. We’re going to be okay,” Schuchter said.

The situation was similar at Caesar Creek Vineyards east of Xenia in Greene County, where vineyard manager and winemaker Patricia Chalfant said as much as 90 percent of the 2014 crop of a Noiret grape variety that produces a dry red wine may be lost for this year. But some other varieties are producing healthy buds, Chalfant said. And she doesn’t expect any significant loss of entire vines, thanks in part to owner Walter Borda’s decision several years ago to plant winter-resistant grape varieties.

That’s especially important at Caesar Creek, which produces only “estate-grown” wines grown on its property, unlike most Ohio wineries that bring in at least a portion of their grapes or grape juice from elsewhere.

Jim Brandeberry, co-owner of Brandeberry Winery in southern Clark County, uses estate-grown grapes for only 10 percent of the wines he produces, so vineyard damage will not have a huge financial impact on his winery. But he has worked hard to cultivate and nurture the estate vineyard, and is painfully aware of reports of severe damage elsewhere in Ohio.

“I haven’t had the courage to go out there and look” at the vines, Brandeberry said Thursday.

Those who visit Ohio wineries this summer probably won’t notice any negative impact, at least not on the tasting-room wine menu, the wine producers association’s Winchell said. The fall 2013 vintage was unusually large, following a high-quality 2012 vintage, she said.

“Tanks in our cellars are full,” Winchell said.

But those tanks “may well be empty in 2016, or very close to it, and we are looking for ways to mitigate that,” Winchell said.

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