Hermann’s thirsty deer have been treated to plenty of 2007 vintage Norton. These grapes, grown for wine production, were among the varieties hit twice this year — first by a late freeze and then by drought-fueled animal grazing.
A crop loss of 90 to 95 percent has led Tim Puchta, owner of Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann, to consider hedging his bets for next year. He will be installing an 8-foot tall deer fence around some of his vines in hopes of keeping critters away next year.
“They’re just trying to live,” Puchta said about the deer, raccoons, opossums, turkeys and squirrels that feasted on his Norton vines. When woodland streams and other sources of water dry up, animals turn to nuts, berries, blossoms — and this year, grapes — to stay hydrated.
“They ate whatever they could find,” Puchta said. “They ate grapes that were not even near ripe yet.”
Good reviews of the fencing came to Puchta from Edward Bode, who grows Vignole grapes at Collinetta Vineyard near Prairie Home.
“The deer have not been able to get through it, or over it or under it,” Bode said about his four-year-old fence.
Grape vines take three years after planting to begin bearing usable fruit. After seeing the damage deer did to his year-old vines in 2003, Bode knew he had to do something.
“We decided to beat the deer before they beat us,” he said.
Bode concedes that the fence won’t stop smaller critters, like opossums or raccoons, which will chew through the plastic. And few things — least of all a fence — will keep winged thieves away from grapes.
“The birds were very voracious and aggressive this year,” Bode said.
The plastic-woven deer fence, Puchta said, has had success in the West, protecting evergreen saplings from grazing elk. But the lightweight security comes with a hefty price tag: more than $1,000 per acre.
Puchta explains that grape-growing is a costly venture. Putting in an acre of vineyard costs from $10,000 to $12,000. So even though a deer fence seems like “a substantial cost,” Puchta said, just like any business investment, “You have to weigh what it’s going to cost you to put in and extrapolate what the payback is going to be over the years.”
Puchta hopes the fence will help cut down on the amount of grapes heisted by animals next year. Other methods that he’s tried before — from dogs to Dial soap — have not been a perfect solution.
The previous Puchta generations, who have tended the hillside overlooking Hermann since 1855, may have faced other hardships, but they didn’t have quite the same animal threat to contend with.
“When I was a kid, you couldn’t hunt deer,” Puchta said. “There for a long, long time, we didn’t have deer populations — or turkey — they had all been killed off.”
Some especially plagued vineyard owners, Puchta said, have been able to obtain special hunting licenses from the Department of Natural Resources to target the deer and turkey populations. But both he and Bode are hoping peaceful confinement — and a break from the drought — will provide for a more robust grape harvest in 2008.