While many farmers worry about the record drought that is devastating this year's crops, Virginia's winemakers have reason to celebrate: The dry weather is cutting down on disease and is producing a more concentrated -- and to some, a more flavorful -- product.
"We're not crying, like some other folks," said Douglas Flemer, president of the 25-member Virginia Wineries Association. The state's young but growing wine industry, valued at about $25 million, is in third place in domestic wine production, behind New York and California.
Part of the reason the grape crops aren't suffering like other crops, according to winemakers, is that the plants' roots are very deep and can tap water from 30 feet or more underground. The usual wet-weather fungus diseases aren't a problem this year, either, producing healthier vines and grapes and saving growers money on fungicides.
At Montdomaine Cellars, about 15 miles south of Charlottesville, dry weather is forcing grapevine roots to bore deeper than usual into the soil, which is good, said Steve Bowles, vineyard manager. "The best, best grapes are definitely made from years that have lower moisture pulled up by the vine," he said.
"I don't want to say it's all roses, because we are in the middle of a drought. But there's no reason to be alarmed. We can go quite a while yet without any serious trouble."
The spring of '86 was the driest in more than a century. In the Washington area, the National Weather Service recorded a total of 3.47 inches of rain in March through May, instead of the normal average of 9.87 inches. Only 1.17 inches of rain have fallen so far this month, instead of the usual 2.5. Throughout the region, farmers are complaining of stunted corn, potatoes the size of golf balls and withering fields.
Many Virginia winemakers are experiencing their first severe drought. The state had six wineries in 1979, with 286 acres planted in grapes; today, it has 33 wineries, with more than 1,500 acres in cultivation. Only 65 percent of Virginia's vineyards are considered "established," or more than three years old.
Increasingly, there is much at stake. Although the state still imports grapes, this year's local harvest is expected to be up 30 percent -- a result of new vineyards, plus the better yield coming from maturing plants, Flemer said.
Flemer, whose family runs Ingleside Plantation Vineyards in Oak Grove, on the peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, is not bothered by the drought so far. "We like a little rain, a few drops here and there, but generally, the vines can take it."
He believes it will be a great year for quality, but the size of his harvest could be reduced. The drier the conditions, he said, the less fruit an individual plant can support. "At this point, I think Virginia needs quality more than quantity," he said, adding that the state is still trying to establish a serious wine reputation.
The Prince Michel Vineyard near Culpeper was started in 1983, and is expected to produce 10,000 cases of wine this year. "So far, the crop looks good -- very good," said Joachim Hollerith, the general manager and winemaker.
His biggest worry is that the vineyard's youngest, shallow-rooted plants are not growing as quickly as they would under normal conditions. "It's not a real big thing," he added, "but another four weeks without rain could be critical."
Archie Smith III of the 60-acre Meredyth Vineyards in Middleburg, wouldn't mind some rain. "You can reach a point, and I suspect we're approaching it now, where it has been so dry that even the vines start to suffer."
"We've done okay so far," he added, "but what's going to happen between now and the end of August is anybody's guess."
Because of the uncertainty over the weather and the winegrowers' inexperience with drought, they can't predict precisely the characteristics of the 1986 wine.
Smith said he recently sampled some California Cabernets from 1980, an extremely dry year. He described them as "very dense," "very dark" and "almost raisin-y."
"I'm not trying to put them down. It's just that stylistically, they were very different from what you'd call a normal harvest."
At the MJC Vineyards near Blacksburg, the soil is heavily cracked, and grapevines are beginning to show signs of stress, including diminished growth. But manager Charles Lytton said he doesn't miss the fungus. And he doesn't want his grapes to grow too plump and juicy; that would dilute the dense flavor he prefers to make wine from. "I think, personally, you get a better quality."
"I'm not worried at all," he said of the drought. "Not yet. In about another week, I'll be biting my fingernails."