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Cooler spring results in more fruit, headaches for winemakers

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 | 5:20 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A year after a freak spring freeze nearly derailed the Missouri wine industry, the grape gods have been kind to vineyard owners such as Sarah Schmidt — perhaps too kind.

A cool, wet spring and summer produced enough grapes to fill the storage tanks at Schmidt's Baltimore Bend Vineyards with juice, fulfill all of her contracts to supply fruit to other wineries and still leave grapes hanging in her 7-acre vineyard.

"We had an outstanding crop this year," said Schmidt, who operates in Waverly, about 60 miles east of Kansas City. "We even had more grapes than we could sell, which is not a great place to be for a grape grower. The quality was very good, and we had an abundant crop."

Last year, a warm March and April followed by subfreezing temperatures during the Easter weekend claimed about half the 30 tons of fruit Schmidt's vineyards produce, she estimated, wiping out about three-fourths of her white varietals and a quarter of her reds.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri vineyards produced only 2,500 tons of grapes in 2007, a 40 percent drop from the previous year despite the state gaining an extra 100 acres of production capacity.

That left the state's more than 80 wineries scrambling for fruit to make their products. Many vintners, such as Tim Puchta, owner of Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann, had to go as far as New York to buy grapes.

"Ninety-five percent of my growers got hammered. That allowed us to bring in as much as we could from out of state last year," said Puchta, who is chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. "The freeze pretty much changed my business plan for the next five years."

Missouri wineries produced around 900,000 gallons of wine last year, ranking it 11th in the nation and far behind California's 566 million gallons. But the industry is an important economic engine for communities in the wine-producing region, generating an estimated $700 million in taxes, tourism, salaries and other benefits.

This year's crop is much larger, but Puchta said wine enthusiasts shouldn't expect much of a price break when the vintages begin hitting shelves next year.

"It's going to be a little difficult with the economy the way it is," Puchta said, noting that the price of grapes hasn't changed and wineries are paying more for bottles, corks and fuel. "Our cost of production was still what it was and has been for the last few years."

But the wines coming out of this year's crop could be better than average because the abundance of fruit allows producers to be more selective, said Cory Bomgaars, owner of Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport.

"On a short year, you have to take your best wines and some of your things that aren't your highest grade and mix them," Bomgaars said. "Now we can make a good product and a reserve product this year."

Bomgaars estimates he went 40 percent over his previous maximum harvest this year, compared with being 60 percent under a year ago.

"It was a pretty intense harvest because it was very heavy and pretty drawn out because it was a cool harvest as well," he said, noting he completed his harvest a month later than normal.

Experts said while the weather contributed to a good harvest, the freeze itself played a part as the vines in some cases came back stronger and more vigorous.

"It may have done something physiologically to the plants that gave them a jump-start this year," Puchta said. "The full outcome of what happened last year and this year may not be known for a year or so."

The cooler, wet weather has caused some headaches for vineyard owners who had to work harder to prevent mold and fungus and some of the fruit has come in with less sugar content and higher acidity, requiring careful analysis in the wine cellar, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Wine and Grape Board.

"This year it's a little more challenging because of the rainfall and cloudier weather, the grapes are coming in at different levels," Anderson said. "So you're really earning your money this year being a winemaker."

Anderson added that Missouri wineries also have had to struggle with a decline in visits from consumers, who were chased away by rainy weather and high gas prices. But with prices coming down, he said a turnaround could be near.

"We're working harder for the off-season," he said. "It would be nice to see a milder winter so people will be more likely to spend on wine."

 


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