Harvesting what’s left: Southwest Michigan vineyards work to recover from harsh winters

Tim Lemon of Lemon Creek Winery inspects a bushel of grapes Monday that survived the rough winter months. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Tim Lemon of Lemon Creek Winery inspects a bushel of grapes Monday that survived the rough winter months. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN SPRINGS — The last two winters have left Southwest Michigan vintners and winemakers frustrated.

During the winter of 2014, Michiganders experienced the polar vortex and its extreme cold for a number of consecutive days. In 2015, vintners saw another winter that was still too cold for the already stressed vines. Crops did not get the needed time to recover.

For Jeff Lemon and his two brothers who run Lemon Creek Winery near Berrien Springs, their grapevines have not had to deal with such intense cold weather in more than two decades. Since the 1990s, Lemon Creek Winery has increased its wine production from 30 to 170 acres.

“We had very little crop last year,” said Lemon, who with his family has been growing wine grapes from more than 50 years. “This year there has been more. Together, the winters created a lot of havoc as there have been very reduced yields.”

The extreme cold temperatures in January and February killed a large portion of the vineyard’s plants because of how much wind they received with little to no snow for coverage. Lemon said four to five varieties were lost completely, while other vines were 60 to 70 percent diminished.

The wine grapes that seemed to suffer the most are the more tender ones – in particular the European variety. Lemon said a lot of the hybrid crops pulled through unharmed.

“We will be doing some major replanting to get the vineyard back to 100 percent,” Lemon said. “We’re used to dealing with what Mother Nature throws at us. We had a very good 2013 crop. We were able to bring in more fruits than we normally would bring in to accommodate with the small returns this year.”

Linda Jones, Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council executive director, said wine vineyards within the state lost 50 percent of their crops last year, totaling about $3.5 million. With more than 120 wineries in the state, they sell about 1.4 million gallons of wine each year.

This is devastating for Southwest Michigan markets, as Berrien and Van Buren counties are among the state’s primary wine producers.

Jones said vineyard acreage has more than doubled in the last decade to accommodate the demand for wine. In 1993 – the last time Michigan experienced a polar vortex – there were 850 acres dedicated to vineyards. As of 2015, there are more than 3,000 acres in the state that produce wine grapes.

There are some bare spots, such as this one, at Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs, as two straight extremely cold winters have taken a toll on many wineries across the region. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

There are some bare spots, such as this one, at Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs, as two straight extremely cold winters have taken a toll on many wineries across the region. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Rudy Shafer and Chad Hartline are associate winemakers at Dablon Vineyards in Baroda. Since encountering the winter of 2014, they began using straw to cover their vines. The straw acts as a form of insulation.

“The first of the two was pretty devastating,” said Shafer, when asked which winter was worse. “We lost almost 90 percent of everything we have. Last year we took a few precautions so it would not happen again. We laid the vines down last winter and covered them with a thick layer of straw. That, with the addition of the snowfall, saved us a full crop.”

While each variety of grape differs in its susceptibility to cold, all grapes depend on snow cover, its location and how the grower tends to each crop. Like Lemon Creek Winery, Jones said 2013 gave vineyards a boost in quality grapes that have helped cover the 2014 and 2015 returns.

“There is a lag factor in producing wine. It’s not like an apple where you pick one and eat it,” Jones said. “With wine grapes, you pick them, you make them into wine – and if it is a white wine – it can be bottled and released six months after grapes are harvested. If it’s red, it takes one and half years because red benefits more from timing and aging. The impacts we are seeing for the 2014 year hasn’t hit yet.”

Jones said consumers will not see a jump in prices, but winemakers will sell less labels than years before due to half of their crops dying.

It could be worse

The majority of Michigan’s wine grapes are grown in four counties: Berrien, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Van Buren counties.

Jones said these Northwest and Southwest Michigan counties have success growing grapes for several reasons. The soil along Lake Michigan is rich, the lake-effect snow insulates the soil so the vine roots won’t freeze, and the temperate climate in the region prevents extremes of heat and cold, helping protect fragile buds in the spring and ripen fruits in the summer.

Growers in Southwest Michigan reported higher yields this year compared to 2014, but not as high as previous years. The same cannot be said of Northwest Michigan.

In May of 2015, there was a late spring frost in the Northwest around the time grapevines come out of dormancy. The buds were introduced to below zero temperatures, reducing productivity through the summer. On Aug. 5, there were damaging winds and hail that hit the same Northwest Michigan region.

Compared to last year, Jones still believes winemakers will sell only 50 percent of the normal intake. However, Southwest Michigan will sell 75 percent of its normal wine production, while the Northwest will produce 25 percent.

Jones said some Northwest vintners say it’s hardly worth their time to pick the crops. It costs about $20,000 to replant an acre for wine grapes and it takes about four years to produce full yields.

Despite the loss in crops, Lemon Creek workers have been clocking in 12-hour days for harvesting and pressing grapes for fermentation.

“We’re in the middle part right now,” Lemon said. “First couple of weeks are a busy time. We started in mid-September and normally wrap it up the last week of October.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 13, 2015)

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