Snow on the High Plains

There are late freezes, and there are late Freezes.  Unfortunately, the High Plains experienced the latter this week, with temperatures in the 20’s and snow on the vines.  Its impact is still unknown, but it could mean a challenging year for Texas grapes and Texas wine.  According to Betty Bingham of Bingham Family Vineyards, the extent of damage is related to the location of the vineyard, the variety, timing of pruning, and even the rootstock.  There’s a wide range of estimates for crop damage across all High Plains vineyards, from 0% to 80%, dependent on all these variables, but truth is these are just estimates.  Still-tight buds can be unaffected and many vines see a secondary budding.  Several other wine regions around the world like Burgundy, all throughout Germany and even Australia fear the frost and look secondary and tertiary budbreak for a good crop replacement.  As Betty says, “We really won’t know for two more weeks. Then again we won’t ‘really’ know till next August and September.”

This news reminded me of one of my first interviews with a Texas winemaker while working on a different project.  He told me that every month of the growing season he is on his knees for something different: please no late frost in April, please no hail in May, please no drought in June, please no rain at harvest.  Growing grapes in Texas is one of the most difficult agricultural endeavors one can undertake, and it requires a lot of monitoring, experimenting, collaborating and intelligence to be successful.  As we sit here, there are people all over the world researching how to delay budbreak, how to fight or prevent Pierce’s disease, how to optimize a variety’s potential through rootstock, how to prepare for and recover from Mother Nature’s whims.

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Photo courtesy of Dusty Timmons.

Texas is very much like Europe, constantly reconsidering strategy and looking for ways to maximize the elements.  That’s the reason vintages are so important for world class wines like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and Port: every year is so different.  California, for the most part, sees relatively stable weather conditions and is at less risk for extremes, but our wine growers are always on their toes, readjusting, learning new techniques, trying new approaches.  Several vineyard owners told me how they would be out the middle of the night, just walking through the vines, measuring, observing, worrying.  One winemaker and vineyard manager in the Hill Country told me he had a late night vision of setting a small grass fire under the vines, just to keep them warm.  I have no doubt they will find ways to make the best of this freeze as well and will come out of this season even more prepared for the next.

So “Thank you” to these obsessed, intelligent, passionate folks- for working so hard to put good wine in our cups.  Cheers!  And blessings.

– Margaret Shugart

relationships

Yes, growing grapes is farming, and most people I have met farmed other crops before they took up a vineyard.  But there’s something very different about this sort of agriculture and its product, and certainly something special about it in Texas.  In one word: relationships.

I recently attended a grape growers meal held by Becker Vineyards.  They invited all the people who grow their grapes to dinner, then paired single vineyard wines with each course.  As the food came to the table, the grape growers from that specific vineyard were asked to stand and share something about that year’s harvest, or about that particular grape, or a story.  It was so intimate.

Jet Wilmeth with his single vineyard Lone Oak cabernet

Touring the different vineyards in Lubbock, it began to dawn on me how different growing wine grapes is from growing, say, cucumbers, which many of the farmers in that region have done.  For one, as Jet Wilmeth of Diamante Doble Vineyards described with his previous cucumbers, much of the crop (the “imperfect” fruit) is left to rot or thrown away.  The farmer has very little say in his harvest.  And second, those cucumbers (or pumpkins or cotton) go into the market and the farmer seldom sees the final product, and certainly does not receive credit for it.

But with grapes, and especially in Texas, it is very different.  The farmer, in essence, creates a paint of sorts and turns it over to the winemaker/ artist.  The winemaker then creates a piece of art and hands it back to the farmer (and sells it en masse) in the form of a bottle.  Oftentimes the vineyard is placed on the label, giving the farmer direct credit.  This became clear sharing a lunch with the Bingham Family as they served wines made soley from their grapes.  Or at a dinner with the Newsoms, Canadas and Wilmeths, each family providing a bottle of wine from their soil.  The relationships between the drink and the earth, and between the farmer and the winemaker, were clear as day.

VJ Reddy and Bobby Cox standing in front of Reddy Vineyards

My favorite moment of this Becker dinner came when VJ Reddy stood to explain the Viognier made from his grapes.  He talked about how old the vines were and how, this whole time, he had hoped for someone to make the grapes into their true expression of wine.  And how the Beckers had finally done this.  He expressed his gratitude and thanked the Beckers directly, to which they quickly and emphatically replied, “No, thank YOU.”

This doesn’t happen with peanuts or pumpkins.  I’d dare to say it’s something better.