- Associated Press - Saturday, April 12, 2014

NORTH EAST, Pa. (AP) - Memories of a long, cold winter could soon fade, but the effects might not.

Months before the annual grape harvest, Bryan Hed, a research technologist with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Center in North East Township, has been searching the center’s 23-acre vineyard for signs of trouble.

And he’s finding plenty of them.

“This is dead, and this is dead,” he said, carefully wielding a pair of pruning shears to cut into the dormant vines of riesling wine grapes. “Everything I cut into is going to be dead.”

The source of the problem is hardly a mystery.

In less than 24 hours on Jan. 6, Erie experienced a 57-degree temperature drop that saw the temperature fall from 48 degrees to minus 9 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

The good news, Hed said, is that both Concord and Niagara grapes, which account for more than 95 percent of the 11,000 acres of grapes grown in Erie County, survived with just minimal damage.

“The Concords and Niagaras, as of right now, are just beautiful. They can take this weather,” said Nick Mobilia, co-owner of Mobilia Fruit Farms and Arrowhead Wine Cellars.

But the more expensive wine grapes are often less resilient.

A recent study of bud mortality by local grape researchers shows 13 percent of all Concord buds examined were dead. By comparison, 58 percent of all riesling buds and 81 percent of all Gewurztraminer grapes were dead.

Hed said each vine holds the potential for secondary and tertiary buds, which can produce grapes when the primary buds fail.

But some concerns extend beyond the next crop.

Growers face the possibility of so-called vine collapse caused by damage to the woody trunk of the grapevine, Hed said.

“The vines may leaf out a little bit in the spring,” he said. “If we hit a dry spell later in the summer, which we often do, the plumbing system is unable to deliver water, and the vine collapses.”

If that happens, he said, the damage can be permanent and some growers might have to replant their vineyards.

Mobilia is braced for that worst-case scenario.

“I expect them all to die,” he said, referring to his wine grapes, which make up about 20 percent of the grapes on his farm.

The grapes, he said, not only experienced an extreme temperature swing, but just hours after a heavy rain that filled the plant’s woody cells with water that would later freeze.

As a result, he said, “There is not going to be a bumper crop (of wine grapes). The best we can hope for is a third of a crop.”

There’s a lot at stake for Debbie Phillips and her husband, Jack Russell, owners of Trolley Line Vineyards in North East Township. Phillips, who was pruning cabernet sauvignon vines recently, said 40 of their 185 acres are planted to traditional wine grapes.

“We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” she said. “I think some of the more tender vines may be very challenged.”

Phillips said her random checks showed about one in 10 buds appeared to be healthy.

“At least it was something,” she said. “It made me feel as though the vine is still viable.”

Mobilia expects to have the verdict on his wine grapes before summer officially begins.

“If the damage is as bad as I think, the vines will collapse. If we can get past the second week of June they will be fine.”

Others, including Doug Moorhead, co-owner of Presque Isle Wine Cellars in North East Township, are more optimistic.

Like Mobilia, Moorhead is worried about premium wine grapes.

“We figure (the weather) did huge damage,” he said.

He expects, though, that the damage will be no greater than one season’s production, and that, treated with care, the vines will bounce back.

Mobilia hopes so.

“I would love to be proven wrong,” he said. “But I have a gut feeling this is going to be a mess.”

Phillips said crop insurance could help remove the financial edge if the worst predictions come true. She’s philosophical, though, about the possibility that one very cold January day could set back years of work to build.

“Occasionally, Mother Nature humbles us,” she said. “But enough times she rewards us. It’s a blessing to do what we do.”





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com



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