Columnist, Food

Not long ago, winegrowers would look to the skies for harbingers of harvest, balancing the ripeness of grapes against the likelihood of rain to decide when to start picking. That balance is still important, but today’s vintner is as likely to be checking a weather app on his smartphone as reading the heavens.

“I am a weather junkie,” Rob Deford, owner of Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, told me in an e-mail. Deford follows three television channels as well as weather info on his computer. “The resources at my disposal are so amazing compared with how my father farmed, watching the sky and a barometer to make harvest decisions. The weather still eludes the forecasters’ predictions, but big fronts and tropical storms now are foreseen with enough lead time that we can make course corrections if necessary.”

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Harvest is underway, and local vintners are both excited and nervous. The mild winter and warm spring caused “bud break,” the start of the growing season, to happen two to four weeks earlier than usual throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The drought that afflicted much of the country was not a major factor here, as there was enough rain in May and June to coax the vines through the scorching July temperatures. August was mixed. The cooler-than-normal weather can help preserve acidity in the grapes, but the rain increases disease pressure and carries the risk that flavors will be diluted. That is the time when the hard work in the vineyards over the past few months — leaf pulling, canopy management, disease control and crop thinning — pays off with healthy, balanced vines maturing their grapes — if Mother Nature cooperates.

Tony Wolf, Virginia’s state viticulturist with Virginia Tech, saw high-quality fruit on a recent tour of vineyards in Albemarle County and the Shenandoah Valley. “As one grower reminded me, though, it looked just like this last year just before Hurricane Irene visited,” Wolf wrote in his August e-mail newsletter to growers.

That’s why vintners are worried. The early season, with most white varieties coming off the vine already, reminds them of the strong vintage in 2010, but they can’t forget last year, when Irene was followed by Tropical Storm Lee and a month-long stretch of rain that had growers thinking of arks instead of tractors.

“We hustled to get the vast majority of chardonnay and viognier in before Saturday’s rains,” Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards near Charlottesville, wrote in an Aug. 27 e-mail. The warm weather helped ripen the grapes early, she said, adding, “We will have to see how the reds come along after all of the rain we got on Saturday and with the impending weather.”

Michael Shaps was thinking of 2011 when he recently installed a tobacco barn at Virginia Wineworks, south of Charlottesville. Last year, Shaps borrowed an abandoned tobacco barn to dry out his sodden red grapes before pressing. “Now that we have one, it won’t rain for the rest of the season,” he quipped in an e-mail. Not that he would be disappointed if the sun shone throughout September.

This is a crucial period for red grapes. As I write this in late August, rain is falling steadily and there hasn’t been reliable sunshine for four days. Careful vintners have spent the entire season nursing their vines to the point where they shift from vegetative growth to focus their energy on ripening the grapes. They need sunshine for that.

Boordy’s Deford said 2011 taught him a lesson. To avoid the rains, he picked his white grapes earlier, at lower sugar and higher acidity levels than he had been targeting. But he liked the result. “For whites at least, this dials down the brinksmanship in the game of chicken with nature,” he said. So this year, he began harvesting his pinot grigio and chardonnay in the last week of August. His reds, however, will need another month on the vine.

“If we have a nice, warm, dry fall, we could be in for an excellent year,” he said. “You have to be an optimist in this business.”

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McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.