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  • Special Report: The Drought of '99

  •   Dry Weather Could Bring Tastier Wine

    By Steven Ginsberg
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, August 7, 1999; Page B1

    As growers across the region watch their crops shrivel under the searing sun, winemakers are offering a toast to the weather.

    The high temperatures and lack of rain resemble a typical growing season in California's Napa and Sonoma valleys, renowned for their wines. Winemakers from Virginia to New York are giddily looking forward to the impending harvest and are anticipating award-winning results.

    "This could be one of our best years," said Emma Randel, owner of Shenandoah Vineyards in Edinburg, Va., which has been operating for 23 years. "We are the only farmers around here that like this weather, that's for sure."

    Grapes thrive in this weather because their flavor is not diluted with excess water. The less liquid they hold, the higher concentration of sugar and other natural flavors they have, the lower their acidity levels are, and the better the wine tastes, said Angel Nordone, executive director of the American Wine Society.

    For many of the same reasons, peaches and apples also will taste sweeter this year, said Elaine Lidholm of the Virginia Department of Agriculture. While sweetness is up, profits will be down, however, because the hot, dry weather has reduced the size of the fruit and the yield of the trees, said agriculture analysts.

    Still, orchards are in far better shape than the region's parched, wasted farms. To dramatize their plight yesterday, Virginia's agriculture commissioner toured farms in a half-dozen drought-stricken counties, including Loudoun.

    Many winemakers, meanwhile, are making cautious comparisons to the banner crop of 1991 and the seemingly once-in-a-lifetime harvest of 1997.

    "Who knows?" said Bert Basignani, owner of Basignani Winery in Baltimore County. "Maybe this is another one."

    At Naked Mountain Vineyards in Markham, Va., owner Bob Harper is reckoning on having the most flavorful grapes in his 24 years in the business. Walking through his mountainside vineyards, as a thunderstorm again poured sheets of rain on the surrounding hills and not his vineyard, Harper both lauded and lamented the dry weather.

    The long dry spell has prevented his three acres of new vines from producing, Harper said. While the five acres of old vines, with their deep roots, can persevere with no rain, the new vines are stunted and can't produce any grapes.

    On the mature ones, "there aren't as many bunches as usual," the self-taught vintner remarked as he pointed to a vine of chardonnay grapes. The white wine grapes, similar to all the others, are smaller than normal--about the size of marbles--and a few have purple marks from burning in the sun.

    But, all things considered, Harper is not upset. "We care about quality, not quantity," he said. "And from a quality standpoint, this might be the best wine we've ever had."

    Yields will suffer by as much as one-third in these harsh conditions, because less plump grapes mean less juice for making wine. Winemakers are not bothered, though, because the quality will more than make up for the loss of quantity both in terms of marketplace value and personal satisfaction, they said.

    The Napa-like quality that producers expect could also have another savory aftertaste: propelling the East Coast vineyards into the national and international spotlight.

    "I have to say from my own perspective, I'll dedicate more coverage to the East Coast," said Robert Parker, author and publisher of the "Wine Advocate" and an internationally known wine critic based in Monkton, Md. "Any time you have a good vintage, especially in an area that's unheralded, obscure and unknown, it's really good" for wine makers.

    Yet some producers are concerned that they may be getting too much of a good thing. Wine makers who don't have irrigation facilities and have been missed by the few, scattered thunderstorms, are starting to lose vines.

    "Every year can't be like this because we won't have grapevines," said Doug Fabbioli, vineyard manager of Tarara Vineyard & Winery in Loudoun County. "There needs to be a water base in the soil."

    And while Parker and nearly everyone else associated with East Coast wine eagerly anticipates this year's harvest, he cautions with an old, French proverb: June makes the quantity and September makes the quality.

    "Certainly to this point, things look terrific," he said. "But if we get a tropical storm in September that moves up the coastline, whatever has happened will get washed out."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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