Wet weather takes toll on wine crop

Indiana’s corn and soybean crops have sustained $475 million in rain and flood damage this summer, according to Purdue University agriculture economists.

Indiana’s grape crop and vineyards haven’t escaped the soggy summer woes either.

The rains have hurt vineyards most in central Indiana, while southern vines have been spared.

“All the rain this year has made it especially difficult to control diseases,” said Bruce Bordelon, Purdue professor of horticulture and a specialist in commercial grape and wine production. He said many vineyards avoided disease problems thanks to a dry month of May.

“But, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of anthracnose (leaf spots and blotches) and black rot. Shocking to see it so bad,” Bordelon said. “In some cases, it is due to a poor spray program, but in others it is due to high disease pressure. We’ve had too many rains too close together to maintain adequate fungicide coverage.”

Purdue’s grape expert said many of the problems could still be overcome with the most critical weeks of verasion (grape ripening) still ahead.

Don Pampel, owner of Whyte Horse Winery near Monticello, owns one of those vineyards impacted by the downpours.

“The heavy rainfall has made some of our vineyards extremely wet and holding water in the rows for extended period of time,” he said. “This has caused stress on the vines and depleted some of the nutrients that they depend on, and we are having to spray nutrients where we have not had to in the past. The frequency of the rain has caused challenges to keep the vines protected from fungus that the rain spreads. We will not know the damage until it gets closer to harvest and then it is too late.”

A big challenge with the heavy rainfall is vineyard management. There is the obvious cost of additional spraying and loss of crop but fighting the rainfall’s effect increases labor cost. Bernie Parker, Vineyard Manager for Oliver Winery, said his crews have tried to stay ahead of the heavy rainfall by working the vines.

“Mildews have been a problem, but we have had a lot more mid-season growth that requires more manpower to manage,” Parker said. “We are shoot positioning and leaf pulling to open the canopy. This allows for good air flow which helps with drying the clusters and canopy, also reducing the mildew problems.”

Oliver’s Creekbend Vineyard, just north of Bloomington, is on gently rolling slopes allowing excess rainfall to run off preventing flooding. But Parker said the heavy rains cause a proliferation of weeds to be pulled.

Creekbend was one of many Indiana vineyards to take a hit in 2014 and 2013 from extremely cold winter and spring weather. But Bordelon noted new vines and retrained vines should be benefiting from the additional moisture. Parker agreed his re-trained vines were looking strong.

The rainfall’s impact lessens in the south. At Butler Vineyards, not far from Oliver, things are looking pretty good.

“If we get drier weather starting around the first of August we will have a good year,” Jim Butler said. “We have a large crop set on the vines. We have run a tight spray schedule, by that I mean timely sprays of the right materials to prevent the start of fungal infections.”

Butler said normal August weather should deliver a strong crop despite all of the early rains. Rains have been mostly normal in the Ohio River Valley region.

”In Southern Indiana we have been very lucky in missing all of the large rain events, and as a result we have remained very disease free,” said Ted Huber, Huber Orchard and Winery. “Vine growth has been very good, plus we continue to remain warmer and sunnier than other parts of the state.

“Therefore, many of our varieties are already in veraison and picking up sugars quickly. We estimate that our harvest will begin on August 15.”

Huber has the state’s largest vineyard with more than 20 varietals planted. Just down the road at Turtle Run Winery, owner Jim Pfeiffer said the rainfall had not caused any problems for his vines.

Bordelon said the heavy rain and resulting challenges means some central Indiana vineyards are likely to see a reduced harvest. A sunny and warm month of August could boost the crop as ripening gets underway.

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Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about wine every other week for more than 20 newspapers. Reach Howard at: hewitthoward@gmail.com