Winemakers allowed to import grapes after crippling weather

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:06 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Keep an eye on the labels on wine made in Missouri over the next couple of years. More and more of those labels might read “American” rather than “Missouri.”

A heat wave in late March followed by a brutal cold snap in early April wiped out about 95 percent of this year’s Missouri grape crop, said Keith Striegler, an MU viticulturist who compiled a report on the damage for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

The shortage of Missouri grapes means most winemakers will be importing grapes from other states to stay in business, said Tim Puchta, chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board and owner of Adam Puchta & Son Wine Co. in Hermann.

In a normal year, state regulations allow Missouri winemakers to import an amount of grapes or juice equal to only 15 percent of their previous year’s local crop.

But state regulators can allow winemakers to import more grapes or juice when the

Missouri crop is damaged.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it will allow Missouri winemakers to import up to 95 percent of the grapes and juices used in making their wines.

Federal regulations define whether wines are labeled “Missouri” or “American.” The law requires that 75 percent of the grapes or juice in a bottle of wine labeled “Missouri” come from Missouri.

But no matter what the label may read, Puchta said, the wines still represent the work of Missouri businesses.

“It’s still made in Missouri,” Puchta said. “It’s not like we made it somewhere else and brought it in. We just had to use somebody else’s fruit.”

Puchta said it’s not unusual for Missouri winemakers to label some of their wines containing imported grapes “American,” especially wines made with only one type of grape.

“I’ve been doing that for years,” he said. “I’ve been making Vignoles that is 50-50 or 60-40, and it doesn’t say ‘Missouri.’ It says ‘American.’”

Puchta said some 2007 wines might be hard to find at Missouri wineries in the coming months and years.

“Vignoles is going to be in incredibly short supply,” he said, as will most wines made from French hybrid grapes.

“They all got whacked pretty hard,” Puchta said. “There isn’t anything that we’ve got growing in the state that isn’t going to be short this year. You’re liable to see no vintages on Norton at all, unless you happen to see a vineyard that for some reason lucked out.”

Cory Bomgaars, vice president of wine operations at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport, said many of his Chardonel vines were damaged and will bear little fruit this year. The vines will need to be re-trained next year, which could mean yet another shortage.

Although state law would allow him to do so, Bomgaars said he might not import Chardonel grapes. He said that the resulting Chardonel wine would be different from his current product and that he wants to avoid releasing a different wine under the Les Bourgeois label.

“We knew (Chardonel) was a riskier variety. I’m having my doubts that we’ll be able to make any of it,” Bomgaars said. “It’s one of our most sought after wines.”

Wine enthusiasts will see the impact of this year’s crop losses on white wines first, Striegler said. He said that most red wines age for about two years before being sold and that the impact on those wines probably won’t be seen until 2009.

Puchta said finding and importing grapes to replace those lost to this year’s freeze might be tough. Fuel costs are high, Puchta said, and many Missouri grape types are special to Missouri and other states also hit hard by the April cold snap.

“Missouri is very fortunate in that we have this great regional identity based on our wine,” Puchta said. “This is going to have a severe economic impact on everybody. If you’re able to find grapes, it’s going to cost you a lot to bring them in.”

According to the state Agriculture Department, there are about 70 wineries in Missouri. The state has more than 1,200 acres of grapes under cultivation and produces more than 700,000 gallons of wine a year.

With many vineyards working only to maintain their vines rather than grow a crop this year, Striegler said it might be difficult to retain many of the workers who would otherwise be tending and harvesting this year’s grape crop.

“Most people are going to be farming for the 2008 crop. They’ll be doing a reduced number of activities in the vineyard,” Striegler said. “You don’t want to lose your trained people, but, on the other hand, it’s pretty hard to pay them when you don’t have any money coming in. Unlike those of us who get a monthly paycheck, or one every two weeks, a grower gets a check once a year.”

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