Hail Batters Arizona Vineyards

Sonoita AVA wineries lose almost all of 2010 crop

by Jane Firstenfeld
Arizona vineyard storms
A row of denuded grapevines in the Canelo Hills vineyard, and the foliage they wore before the hailstorm.
Elgin, Ariz. -- A freak hailstorm stripped ripening grapes and foliage from winegrape vines in this high-elevation viticultural center south of Tucson last weekend. Growers in the affected area are struggling to salvage even a fraction of their 2010 vintage, already squeezed by an untimely freeze April 30.

Golf ball-sized pellets driven by 60mph winds shredded vines, impelled grapes and leaves into rivers of mud, and pocked vehicles and structures. Power was out for six or seven hours during and after the storm, which struck Sunday, Aug. 15, at 7:30 p.m. and lasted for more than an hour, witnesses said.

Kent Callaghan, whose 25 acres of grapevines compose the oldest living vineyard in the Sonoita AVA, assayed the damages and told Wines & Vines, “There’s nothing usable left. The spring frost had left us with less than half a crop already, and that was at least two weeks behind schedule. We expected to be picking until late October or even November.” Callaghan Vineyards normally produces about 2,000 cases annually. This year, Callaghan said, he’ll source Arizona grapes from Cochise County and try to produce about half that.

Callaghan commented on the challenging and changing climate in his region. “In the first 15 years here, we had hail only once. For the past six years in a row, we’ve had hail.” But none approached the destructive power of this storm. “Driven by the wind, it was brutal,” he said.

One-third salvaged
At Canelo Hills Vineyard, owners Joan and Tim Mueller hope to salvage some of the less damaged fruit. On Wednesday, they picked what remained of their Syrah, Tempranillo, Grenache and what was supposed to be their first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from their 6 planted acres. They had expected to begin harvest the first week of September, continuing until October for the Cabernet.

Arizona vineyard storms
Battered Grenache grapes at Canelo Hills: Some with less damage were harvested.
They managed to bring in about 2 tons of the 6 they’d expected, but Brix were low, about 18°-19° for the Grenache and 20°-20.5° for the earlier ripening Tempranillo.

Tim Mueller, who used to make wines in “always a challenge” New England, said he would try to make an austere, old-fashioned European-style rosé wine with the salvaged grapes.

Joan Mueller commented on her blog that there was no point leaving the damaged fruit on the vine for further ripening. “The problem is that they are badly bruised, and if we leave them on the vine longer, they are likely to rot. And anyway, they are not going to ripen any more without the foliage there to feed them. And, if we left them on long enough for new foliage to grow, that would zap the vines of all their remaining strength just when they need to start storing carbs for the winter, like bears do before hibernation.”

She told Wines & Vines she’s concerned about next year’s crop as well. “The vines themselves are damaged, pitted. I think this has to affect next year’s yield.” Because their vineyard is not yet fully bearing, the Muellers have been sourcing some fruit from growers in Wilcox, Ariz., and they will do so this year in order to produce their normal output of some 800 cases of Arizona wine. “There is a big push in the state to grow more and more fruit.”

Unfortunately, the state’s 44 wineries cannot yet command sufficient funding for higher education or viticultural extension, and Tim Mueller lamented that he and other growers have “no one to reach out to” when a crisis strikes.

Extensive crop loss
Arizona vineyard storms
Canelo Hills' first crop of Cabernet Sauvignon is strewn in the mud.
Kief Manning, CEO of Kief-Joshua Vineyard, said he lost at least 90% of his crop: everything except a 1.5-acre block of Mourvèdre in the center of his 14-acre vineyard. “We’re going through and dropping damaged fruit, and contemplating what we can salvage and blend.”

Manning had planned to start harvest by the end of August, but even the potentially sound Mourvèdre still measured only 15° Brix. “I’m guessing it’s not going to be worth picking,” he conceded. He’s already getting fruit delivered from Wilcox to augment his normal 2,000-case production.

As for the rest of the crop, “Everything got washed into the mud. At the end of the rows, you can see the berries in the mud.” Mold is already beginning to take hold on the vines, so, he said, “We’re going to go through, drop the fruit, eliminate the mold and start spraying and putting down organic nutrients, to get the vines as happy as can be” before the first freeze.

Normally that freeze arrives on this 4,500-5,000-foot plateau in early December, but, according to Kent Callaghan, the first freeze can come as early as October. For now, Manning and his colleagues are hoping that the cold won’t set in until later: “All the nutrients and leaves are several miles away. It’s a good thing this (hail) didn’t happen in October. We’ve got maybe two months and a half to get some more leaves.”

Neither he nor the Muellers had crop insurance, but Manning looked on the bright side, having already lost about 40% of his crop during the spring freeze. “I guess it’s better to have this happen in a year with a smaller crop. We lost less than we would have in a good year.”

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