COLUMBIA — Scott Schrader climbed into a 1974 Chisholm-Ryder grape harvester Wednesday morning before the sun came up. He started work at 3:30 a.m.
The harvester straddled a row of vines that stretches nearly two city blocks as a series of vibrating teeth combed through the vines, shaking loose the grapes, which fell onto a conveyor belt that lifted them into a chute and spat them into a bin sitting on a tractor driving alongside the harvester.
“It loses a few grapes, but it sure beats picking them by hand,” Schrader said.
Harvesting grapes is a race against the clock because the grapes must cool before they are crushed and processed in the earliest stages of wine-making. The cooler the temperatures when they are picked, the easier the next stages become.
“It’s a bit of a rat race,” Schrader said.
Scott’s parents, Dean and Thelma Schrader, moved to an old soybean farm outside Boonville 17 years ago, and with the help of Scott, turned the farm into a vineyard that covers more than 10 acres. They grow red Concord and Norton grapes.
Overall, grape harvests in Missouri vineyards are lower than past years after a summer of brutal heat and drought stressed or killed vines, shrunk grapes and diminished juice yields.
Mild winter and spring weather moved the harvest calendar forward, and a mid-April frost killed off many of the early buds. Vines pushed out secondary blooms that were subsequently ravaged by the drought. Thirsty deer, raccoons and turkeys nibbled on grapes throughout the hot summer, leaving many growers with less than the usual yield.
But a good wine loves stress, and some grape growers and winemakers are hopeful about this year’s vintages.
“The hot dry summer is good for the fruit. You don’t get as big of a yield, but the flavors are good,” Dean Schrader said.
Other growers and winemakers in Missouri are also seeing diminished crop yields as they take to the fields to harvest their crops.
Cory Bomgaars, the head winemaker for Les Bourgeois at Rocheport, has spent the summer visiting grape growers across the state. He believes the crop is down about 20 percent on average.
Les Bourgeois is buying the Concords that the Schraders picked last week.
'May in March'
In addition to being smaller than usual, this year’s harvest is significantly earlier than most years. The warm winter and spring weather moved the entire schedule forward, forcing grape growers to harvest as much as three or four weeks earlier than usual, said Michael Leonardelli with MU’s Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology.
“Up until April we had normal rainfall but got off on a strange track in March, which was the warmest March ever recorded,” Leonardelli said. “It's true we pretty much had May in March this year.”
Michael Rouse, head winemaker at Adam Puchta Winery near Hermann, said his harvest is as much as a month earlier than normal. “We finished harvesting the white grapes about three weeks earlier than last year,” Rouse said.
Besides moving the harvest forward in the year, an early calendar poses significant danger to grape growers. Since Missouri tends to see its last frost in mid-April, buds moved forward by warm weather are at risk of being harmed by a late cold snap, Leonardelli said.
In 2007, a cold front that lingered for multiple days wreaked havoc across the state, and the Schraders lost their entire crop, Dean Schrader said.
Although much less disastrous than the 2007 freeze, a cold mass covered the state the night of April 11 and into the next morning, Leondardelli said.
At least one vineyard lost its entire crop because of the frost.
“Our crop did not produce,” Theila Luetjen of Eichenberg Winery in Benton County said.
She said the vines pushed out a secondary bloom after the initial buds were killed off by the April frost, but by that point they could not hold up to the extreme heat and drought.
“Can’t do much about that late freeze,” Luetjen said.
At Bias Vineyards near Berger, owner Carol Grass said the dry conditions work to concentrate the sugars and flavors within the grapes.
“The sugar levels are intense," she said. "Without rain, the berries’ flavors are really concentrated. Rain gives the grapes more juice, but it dilutes the flavors,” she said.
“The reds are going to be exceptional this year,” Matt Kirby of Cooper’s Oak winery said. Cooper's Oak buys grapes from local growers, including the Schraders.
Kirby said that while the harvest is down he is able to find what he is looking for.
Michael Rouse, the winemaker at Adam Puchta, was still hedging about the overall quality of the grapes as early as last week but has since started to come around.
The quality is so much better than usual because there is so little rot, Rouse said. The heat and dry conditions essentially burn out the rot that often harms grape vines.
“We’ve got some really great stuff fermenting. I think it is going to be a good year in terms of wine quality,” Rouse said.
In a business with little certainty, one thing is certain: “This is a year we will be talking about for a long time,” Rouse said.
Missouri has 1,700 acres of grape-bearing land and more than 400 grape growers, though less than half of them are large enough to be considered commercial size, said Jim Anderson, the executive director of the Wine and Grape Board.
Anderson described the situational nature of winemaking, noting that each vineyard faces different circumstances but also pointing to the specific challenges of this season.
“It’s a unique year; it’s really a mixed bag out there,” he said.
Still on the vine
Missouri’s state grape, the red Norton, still hangs loosely from vines across the state. It is the last grape to reach ripeness and is usually harvested two to three weeks after other grapes.
Leonardelli said the recent string of cool nights and warm, sunny days is near ideal conditions for the last phase of the Norton's development.
Adam Puchta Winery is planning to buy the Schraders’ Nortons. Rouse said they measured the grapes at 23.8 degrees brix, which is a measurement of the sugars in the berry.
“That is fantastic for this time of year,” he said. “I expect that to go up a couple more brix. This is kind of unchartered territory.”
Scott Schrader said he believes the Nortons will be ready to pick in the next two weeks at the most.
"They are ready to go. The numbers look good across the board. I've never seen Nortons that were ready to go this early," he said.
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