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Pennsylvania Vineyard Terroir Threatened

PennDot's plans for I-78 could affect micro-climate of Bergeist Vineyard

by Linda Jones McKee
bergeist vineyard dean scott petit verdot
Dean Scott of Bergeist Vineyard near Allentown, Pa., added 250 Petit Verdot vines during spring 2012. Scott worries that changes planned for Interstate 78 could adversely affect growing conditions at his vineyard.
Allentown, Pa.—If plans proposed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are implemented, the size of Bergeist Vineyard will be cut by approximately one-third sometime during the next few years. The construction expansion of I-78 west of Allentown, Pa., calls for changes in elevation that will probably affect airflow on owner Dean Scott’s property in such a way that his vines will be exposed to early and late frosts that currently are not a problem. In other words, Scott’s unique terroir will be changed dramatically.

While many vineyards are not located on sites that provide the best environment for producing quality grapes, Scott’s 3-acre vineyard (with another 2 acres available to plant) has several positive attributes. To the west, there are no obstructions or trees for three-fourths of a mile, which exposes the vineyard to a constant westerly wind that helps keep it dry and free of tree-inhabiting pests.

Interstate 78, which runs east-west between New York City and Harrisburg, Pa., passes through a 60-foot deep ravine just north of the vineyard. On cool spring nights, early morning temperatures can drop into the low 30ºs, creating frost in the area that damages young vines and early buds. The effect of the ravine cut by the highway, with its concrete and east-west flow of traffic, is to push the cool air east and west, down and away from the vineyard, not allowing the cooler air to climb out of the ravine and into the vineyard.

The vineyard itself slopes to the south, and south of the vineyard there is a significant elevation drop that also encourages the cool air to flow away from the vineyard before it can settle and form frost. In the past 10 years, Scott has not had any frost damage, while vineyards within a few miles have had frost problems.

Scott takes other measures to increase airflow: His vine rows run north-south and are trained on a VSP trellis with the fruiting wires at 40 inches and the top catch wire over 80 inches high. The higher fruiting wire increases airflow under the canopy (although increasing the work of hedging). He cuts the ground cover as low as possible between rows as well as the area south of the vineyard. During the early spring, he cuts all vegetation away from the vines so that the surrounding rocky soil can absorb as much heat as possible during the day to keep the vine roots warm. The rocky soils also give the vineyard good drainage.

The combination of these factors is a micro-climate that allows for the production of high-quality fruit—even in seasons that are challenging due to frost damage and too much moisture. Most of the Bergeist Vineyard was planted in 2007. In the three seasons that Scott has harvested wine grapes, he has averaged more than 3 tons per acre, in spite of hurricanes and excessive rain in September.

Scott’s primary cultivars are Riesling, Chambourcin and Pinot Grigio. His grapes are sold to Brad Knapp, who owns nearby Pinnacle Ridge Winery. A small amount including the hybrid variety Noiret goes to Tom Calvaresi at Calvaresi Winery in Bernville, Pa.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) is still in the planning stage for the “improvements” along I-78, but the threat to Bergeist Vineyard is very real. “I’m hoping it (the elevation and road changes) won’t happen, but it’s hard to convince PennDot that growing grapes involves more than being a corn farmer,” Scott told Wines & Vines. “Without this unique micro-climate, my harvest would just be average in quality. I plan to keep my vineyard small, and I’m more interested in quality grapes than in quantity.”

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