The scene seemed normal for a mid-Missouri vineyard in early April: John Ferrier tooled along on a small red tractor, mowing the grass between rows of grape vines. Abnormal were the smell of a wood fire drifting from Ferrier’s chimney and the brown and shriveled buds on his vines, nascent grapes killed by overnight temperatures in the low 20s.
Ferrier, who owns Summit Lake Winery in Callaway County and raises about 6.5 acres of grapes near Centertown, estimates he’ll lose all of this year’s grapes to the freezes from Thursday and Friday nights.
Other grape growers around mid-Missouri face the same predicament.
Although growers say it’s too early to be completely certain of the damage, most estimate losses of between 40 and 100 percent of their crops.
Growers place the blame on two weeks of warm weather in late March that caused vines to produce tender buds and also on the recent cold snap.
Larry Stauffer, owner of Native Stone Winery west of Jefferson City, said this year’s vintage will likely be one-half to one-quarter the size of a normal year’s vintage.
“I’ve been growing grapes for 10 years,” Stauffer said. “We’ve never had anything like this before.”
Tim Puchta, the owner of Adam Puchta and Son Wine Co. in Hermann and chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, said a late freeze in 1996 cost him 75 percent of his grapes. That freeze, however, spared many growers in warmer parts of the state.
“What we’re seeing here is much more statewide,” Puchta said. “This is pretty significant damage to the industry.”
Puchta said most growers he spoke with this week are estimating losses of around 80 percent of their crops.
Cory Bomgaars, vice president of wine operations at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, said the grapes’ survival depends on several factors. Vines that have yet to bud are the most likely to withstand the cold, he said.
Some vines in the 30 acres that Bomgaars oversees may lose anywhere from 40 to 100 percent of their yield. Yet other types of vines may be unaffected.
Bomgaars said Les Bourgeois Vineyards’ wide variety of plants will likely help the vineyard weather the crisis.
He said the winery may have to drop some wines that depend on grapes hard hit by the freeze and concentrate instead on wines made from grapes that survived.
With Saturday night’s temperatures forecast in the upper teens, wine makers are braced for more losses. State regulators will be out later this week to assess the damage.
But growers still feel helpless.
“When it’s this bad, there’s nothing you can do,” Bomgaars said. “It’s already done. If there were something I could do about it, I’d be tossing and turning all night. But it’s up to Mother Nature now.”