Last year's wet, soggy weather will not be remembered fondly by the region's wineries. Many vineyards had below-average production levels for 2003, and for some, the soaking rains set up additional problems for the forthcoming harvest.
"We've experienced more trouble than we've ever seen," said Jim Law of Linden Vineyards in Fauquier County. "Usually we call it winter damage, but this past winter temperatures were normal. So we call it '2003 growing season damage.' "
The damage resulted when the trunks of waterlogged vines developed deep fissures and split open. The damage went unnoticed until early spring, when workers began pruning the vines. In many instances, the vines died outright. Other vines produced canes that bore no fruit.
"What seems to have happened is that in certain varieties, particularly the older vines, a large amount of moisture in the soil allowed moisture to remain in the trunks," said Lew Parker of Willowcroft Farm Vineyards in Leesburg. "It affected our older vines, particularly our cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling."
Juanita Swedenburg of Swedenburg Estate Vineyard in Middleburg agreed. "The young vines are unaffected," she said. "It's the oldest and most valuable section that's hurt the hardest, the vines that produce premium fruit."
The loss of the old vines, rather than the younger ones, surprised vineyard owners. "Usually, it's exactly the opposite," Law said.
Some of the vineyards will produce less wine this year, but others are forecasting a better harvest than in 2003, and owners say prices should not be affected.
Swedenburg, whose vineyard was among those most severely affected by the split-trunk damage, estimates she lost half of her Riesling crop, 90 percent of her cabernet sauvignon and about 20 percent of her chardonnay. Her pinot noir and merlot, however, were unaffected.
In varying degrees, Piedmont, Linden, Oasis, Breaux, Willowcroft, Swedenburg, Naked Mountain, Hidden Brook and Lost Creek wineries all reported split-trunk damage. In many cases, the damage affected cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling vines. Law also reported damage to some of his sauvignon blanc and Vidal vines.
"What we probably had was a 'perfect storm' confluence," said Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech. "There were a lot of problems relating to the moisture level, but also the vines had a depressed level of carbohydrates, which are normally derived from the sun. These are the energy compounds necessary for vines to acclimate to the cold. So the vines weren't in good condition going into the winter."
Jason Murray, commercial horticulturalist for the Loudoun County Extension Office, said both the soil and the vines were saturated.
"The vines didn't shut down and harden off on a normal schedule," Murray said. "The result was that they were susceptible to damage."
Not all vineyards, however, suffered damage. Doug Fabbioli, a winemaker at Windham Winery in Hillsboro, and Rick Wynn, an assistant winemaker at Pearmund Cellars Winery in Broad Run, said they found no split trunks among their vines. Andres Basso, a winemaker at Tarara Winery in Leesburg, also said he had no split-trunk damage but noted that the wet, humid weather was causing such disease problems as downy mildew and what he called "a severe attack of fungus."
Although some of the more severely affected vineyards will produce less wine for the 2004 harvest, other owners such as Bob Harper of Naked Mountain Vineyard in Markham are actually forecasting a better harvest than in 2003. Law called the 2003 growing season "a miserable season for grapes."
According to the Commercial Grape Report for 2003 from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the combined harvest in Loudoun and Fauquier counties was 1,116 tons in 2002 compared with 572 tons in 2003. Murray said he expected the 2004 numbers to be closer to those in 2002 than in 2003.
Nevertheless, it is the loss of quality, not quantity, that vineyard owners lament. Many of the vines that died were among the oldest producing vines in Virginia -- some were more than 20 years old -- which hurts an industry that began a resurgence in the 1970s.
In cases where the split trunks didn't irreparably damage the vines, many vineyard owners are working to salvage the new, non-fruiting canes, which they hope will bear fruit once again. "They're not completely dead," Swedenburg said. "We're glad to have them coming out. But it means three years with no production."
Despite the losses, such owners as Swedenburg, Law and Tareq Salahi of Oasis Winery in Hume, which suffered heavy losses to old cabernet and chardonnay vines, said their prices would not be affected.
"I've got a cellar full of great wine, and now I'm glad I've got my inventory," Law said. "2001 and 2002 were great years."
"The price is determined by quality, not quantity," Swedenburg added. Salahi agreed. "It will not affect our price," he said. "But people who love our cab and chardonnay may want to come out to the winery sooner rather than later. We might sell out those labels faster."
Across the board, vineyard owners and winemakers were philosophical about the wet weather. "It's agriculture, it's grape growing, it's Virginia," Law said.
"With so much water, some of my vines are growing like fruit trees," Basso said. "I want to concentrate the growth in the fruit, not the vines. It's a beautiful challenge for anybody, but it's a challenge."
"The only thing to do in a situation like this," Salahi said, "is to sit back and have a glass of wine."