Arnie Esterer considered giving up. He and his 45-year-old vineyard had survived the winters of 1994 and 2003, but now the vines were ravaged, reduced to blackened, bare stumps following the record-low temperatures that struck the eastern United States in early 2014. There clearly would be no crop this year, and the vines themselves were lifeless.
Until late April. That’s when shoots began to emerge from the ground, giving hope that the vineyard could be revived. So Esterer, the first vintner to plant European vinifera grape varieties along the Lake Erie shore in northeastern Ohio, began training those shoots up the trellis wires in hopes of growing new trunks and cordons that might bear a crop in 2015. Having planted the vineyard near Conneaut, Ohio, in 1968 as a young man and built a cult reputation for his Markko Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling, Esterer found himself starting over — at age 82.
This year’s severe winter was devastating to wine grape growers, affecting much of the eastern half of the country. “Once every 10 years” is a common refrain of vintners describing the likelihood of such harsh seasons and their effects on viticulture. It echoes a decades-long debate over whether eastern U.S. vineyards should be planted with European varieties or native American or French-American hybrids. The vinifera advocates have won that debate, but they pay the price in years like this one. Native grapes, such as Concord, and hybrids like chambourcin and vidal blanc, survived this winter in fair shape.
Esterer was a disciple of Konstantin Frank, the Russian immigrant who championed the vinifera varieties for the Finger Lakes in New York and other areas along the East Coast throughout the ’60s and into the early ’80s. Frank gave him advice and sold him his initial vines. Today, Esterer makes a stunning cabernet sauvignon in a region where other vintners are still quick to say, “You can’t ripen cabernet here.” His chardonnay, aged for three years before release, is savory and rich, as though the vines managed to transmit a message from deep within the Earth.
A soft-spoken man who is not shy about peppering his discourse with a few profanities, Esterer sports white hair and a beard that resemble Gen. Robert E. Lee’s. Esterer’s winery is essentially a backwoods cabin where he offers guests a tasting at a rough-hewn table that promotes conversation more than sales. To get inside recently, I had to pass inspection by two sheepdogs, one of whom goosed me to check my bona fides.
Esterer produced a notebook full of spreadsheets with data about every one of his vines.
“I know exactly how many were killed,” he said. The toll: Out of 10,000 vines, more than 3,000 will never grow another grape. Nearly one-third of his life’s work, destroyed.
A harsh winter can harm a vineyard in two ways: by killing the buds that form the previous year and carry this year’s crop, and, more seriously, by freezing the sap and shattering the vine from within. The extent of damage from the past winter is still uncertain. In northwest Michigan, growers on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay (the latter froze in late February) are expecting to harvest a 2014 crop only 30 percent the size of a normal vintage. Yet these areas have apparently escaped major vine kill, thanks to heavy snow cover that protected the vine roots and the sensitive area where the American rootstock is grafted to the European grape vine.
Winter damage in Virginia was worse than initial assessments indicated, according to Virginia Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf. The true extent of damage may not be known for years. Johannes Reinhardt, owner-winemaker of Kemmeter Wines in New York’s Finger Lakes region, remembers the harsh 1985 winter in Germany’s Franken region. “Three years later, when we had the next heavy crop, vines damaged that winter simply collapsed,” he said. Damaged vines may be susceptible to crown gall as well, a disease that can eat away at a vine’s nervous system.
Few U.S. wine-growing regions were hit harder than northeastern Ohio, along Lake Erie and the Grand River Valley northeast of Cleveland. After a mild December, temperatures plunged from 42 degrees to minus-19 over a period of 36 hours in early January, and stayed there for several hours. There was no snow cover to protect the vines. Subsequent cold spells magnified the damage.
“As late as mid-April, we feared an entire growing wine region had been destroyed,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “Now there’s at least hope for the future.”
Restoring vineyards with the shoots emerging from the roots will not be easy, nor inexpensive.
“I’m spending five times as much in labor costs to retrain these vines than if I had planted from scratch,” laments Art Pietrzyk, owner of St. Joseph winery in the Grand River Valley.
At Markko Vineyard, Esterer says he has enough inventory from two productive vintages in 2012 and 2013 to sustain him through a cropless 2014 while he restores his vineyard. “I’m retired. I have nothing else to do,” he says.
Yet he knows the damage could have been avoided, or at least lessened, if he had followed the advice of his old mentor, Konstantin Frank.
“We didn’t mound up enough,” he says, referring to the practice of piling dirt around the vine trunk to protect the sensitive graft union from winter’s wrath. “I didn’t follow Dr. Frank’s rules. After 40 years, I got lazy. I’m the only one to blame.”