ST. JAMES — A combination of the Easter freeze and increased losses of fruit to birds has left Missouri’s wineries predicting a tiny harvest this year and big economic losses.
Vineyards across the state are reporting 85 percent to 100 percent losses of certain types of grapes, while the overall loss is estimated to be at about 60 percent.
Agricultural officials are still assessing the damage, but they say losses could total $2 million to $3 million.
Wine enthusiasts likely won’t see much difference because wineries said they’ll buy grapes from other states to make up the difference.
But that does little to assuage the economic bite.
Phyllis Meagher, owner of Meramec Valley Vineyard and founder of the Missouri Grape Growers Association, said she expects to harvest only eight or fewer tons of grapes this year, down from the 150 tons she harvested last year.
To try recouping some of her losses, Meagher has planted pumpkin vines in her vineyards and plans a pumpkin festival this fall, as opposed to the annual wine fest.
“This is the worst that we’ve seen,” said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Association. “This is really rare. I hope we don’t see it in another 50 to 100 years.”
Missouri wineries last year produced 958,000 gallons of wine, which was the 11th highest in the nation, albeit far behind California’s 713.5 million gallons.
Temperatures far above normal in March and April this year led many grape vines to come out of winter dormancy early, spreading leaves and buds for spring. But a cold front blew through in the days leading up to Easter, dropping temperatures to 20 degrees or lower and keeping them there, damaging fruit and even cracking open vines.
“There’s nothing you can do at that temperature,” Meagher said. “At 27 or 28 degrees, you might be able to make it through. But there’s nothing you can do at 20 degrees for three nights.”
Another problem is that birds went after many grapes that had survived because the temperatures also hurt wild berries and insects that form the diet of some species.
“The bird damage is so severe,” Meagher said. “It’s like locusts out of the Bible.”
Larry Green said birds reduced the 2½ tons of vignoles grapes at his Whispering Oaks Winery in Seymore to 250 pounds.
Similar damaged occurred at Sainte Genevieve Winery.
“The wildlife thinks we’re their grocery store,” said chief winemaker Elaine Hoffmeister.
How winemakers will deal with this year’s lean harvest is the next big question.
Tim Puchta, owner of Adam Puchta in Hermann, said he’s facing several lean years after losing almost all of his vignoles variety of grapes.
“I’m going to have to redo my business plan for the next three years,” Puchta said. “I don’t know what things are going to look like. How am I going to recoup prices?”
He said some wineries may increase the price of Missouri wine or begin charging for wine tastings.
Robert Mueller of Robller Winery in Hermann and MU viticulturist Keith Striegler said those moves would make Missouri wine uncompetitive with the flood of cheap wine from California and overseas. Anderson said growers also must be reasonable in charging for their grapes, despite some varieties being in high demand.
Winemakers still have wine from last year to sell and shouldn’t have trouble making wine if they buy grapes from other states. But federal law will require those products to be called “American wine,” not “Missouri wine.”
Meanwhile, growers will have to go through their vineyards and see which vines are still capable of producing grapes. Ones that aren’t can be replaced, but they won’t bear fruit for two or three years.
“It’s farming. It’s a business,” Puchta said. “You have to take it as it comes.”