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Grape expectations

Missouri winemakers have reason to be hopeful about this year’s harvest
Tuesday, July 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008
Much of the damage from the April freeze occurred on the cordons, the horizontal branches that grow along trellises. Workers have been busy training new vines. Cory Bomgaars, of Les Bourgeois Vineyard, said the freeze “gave us an opportunity to do renewal techniques we may not have done otherwise.”

ROCHEPORT— As July turns into August, those involved in the winemaking business are still thinking about April.

Winemakers and wine experts across the state are still assessing the damage from the Easter weekend freeze that killed much of Missouri’s grape crop. And for some, the news has been good.

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What was initially estimated to be an 80 percent crop loss is now estimated to be as low as 60 percent in some locations, according to Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

“We lost pretty much all primary buds,” he said. “But a lot of vines have secondary buds.”

Hybrid grapes, which are crosses between European grape varieties and wild American grapes, have the ability to bear fruit on secondary buds that some other, nonhybrid types do not. But no one knew how damaged any secondary or tertiary buds would be, MU viticulturist Keith Striegler said, adding that assessing damage was not the easiest thing to do, especially because they could not yet see any of the secondary shoots.

Striegler was part of a team that went out to visit and assess sites during the two weeks immediately after the freeze. Anderson and Striegler said the losses have been worse in the southern part of the state.

“We’re trying to take as much advantage of the situation as possible,” said Cory Bomgaars, head winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport.

At Les Bourgeois, they have been forced to go back and retrain older plants and that will help with those plants’ longevity, he said. The freeze also killed plants that were in bad health to begin with, which Bomgaars said was also helpful, in a way.

Although for some vineyards there has been a positive side to the freeze, many are still looking at higher costs from importing more grapes from out of state. They’ll also have to print new labels that mark their wine as “American” and not “Missouri” because of the higher percentage of out-of-state grapes those wines will contain.

Tim Puchta, owner of Adam Puchta & Son Wine Co. in Hermann, said they were looking at higher costs from redoing artwork on labels, but he was not sure how high those costs would run.

Bomgaars said they weren’t expecting that much more in added costs from having to relabel, but they have had to increase their labor force to sucker the plants multiple times.

Suckering a plant involves removing all of the new, extra shoots on its trunk, so only the two vines growing off the top of the trunk remain and will bear fruit.

Bomgaars said this year they have had to selectively sucker all of their plants, because so many of the mature vines died in the freeze that it was necessary to determine if any of the new shoots could be trained to replace them. Typically, suckering is done only once a year, and not selectively. “It took twice as long,” he said.

For consumers, any changes with Missouri wine might not be noticeable right away.

“We have wine in the barrel from last year and two years ago, so in a sense we start to see backlash next year and the year after,” Anderson said.

Striegler said any negative effects in this area would depend on the size of the crop in 2008. But he said that as of right now, there is no indication there will be a short crop next year.

This year’s harvest begins soon: The grape harvest in Missouri typically starts around Aug. 10, with grapes that are used in some of the white wines.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Anderson said, citing seasonal concerns with rain and hail.

Puchta agreed. The extreme heat of July and August and the cold of the upcoming winter could bring out latent damage in the vines, he said.

“We’re in a wait-and-see period,” he said. “We’re just trying to get the vines as healthy as we can.”

Anderson said that although the situation looks better now, they will have a much better idea of what the real losses are in the fall, after the harvest is over. “We won’t be happy until the end of October when we get it all in the tanks,” he said.

Striegler and his colleagues will also be keeping an eye on this year’s crop after the harvest.

“We will be collecting information on different varieties and how they were impacted, and seeing how fruitful they are from secondary and tertiary buds,” Striegler said. He hopes this information will help grape growers in the future.

“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “One you hope you don’t have very much in your career, but one you hope you can learn from.”

A portion of this report first aired Monday during “News At 10” on KMIZ/Channel 17 ABC, Columbia.


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