Drought puts local winery owners in good spirits

Yield might be down, but flavor is up, as stressed grapes are best grapesLOCAL DESTINATIONS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently declared the entire state of Ohio a drought disaster area, paving the way for farmers to apply for low-interest federal loans. But there’s one sector of the agricultural community that’s not taking a beating due to the weather: wineries.

We talked to several winery owners who said 2012 could turn out to be an exceptionally good year for wine, flavor-wise. The reason basically boils down to this: The more stressed the vines, the better the wines.

The dry weather means the grapes are smaller because the rain hasn’t puffed them up. But they’re also sweeter and more flavorful because “the flavors and sugars are more concentrated,” said Bob Distler, winemaker at Meier’s Wine Cellars in Silverton.

You’ve heard wine appreciators talk about how “2007 was a good year” or that sort of lingo? It’s primarily the weather that makes some years’ wines better than others.

Kenny Joe Schuchter, president of Valley Vineyards in Morrow, is normally grumpy at this time of the year, what with the 3:30 a.m. wakeup time and the 12-hour workdays during the harvest season. But this year, he’s “very, very pleased” because he know the wines are going to be so good, said his son Joe Schuchter, marketing director.

Valley Vineyards grows 34 varieties of grapes on 86 acres. And after three generations of winemaking, the Schuchters have learned that “grapes produce better-quality juice if the vines struggle,” Joe Schuchter said.

“Grapes really can do without water,” Distler said. “In fact, the more moisture there is, the worse it is for grapes” because of mold and mildew.

The reason California is such a famous wine region, he said, is the dry weather. It basically doesn’t rain from April to October, which isn’t too far from what Ohio’s weather has looked like this summer.

“In normal years, we get too much rain here,” said Jim Brandeberry, owner of Brandeberry Winery in Enon. “We get so much leafy material and wood that I spend my whole summer pruning” in typical years. This year, the vines haven’t grown as much, which has meant less pruning. He hasn’t had to spray for mold and mildew since June, either, whereas he’d spray until September during a typical year.

Distler also noted that harvest time has arrived earlier than usual this year. In fact, “I can’t remember it ever being this early.”

And that can be a boon, too. The later the harvest extends, the more likely there will be a frost. Two or three frosts, Distler said, can shut down the grapevines and tamper with sugar production in the fruit.

The downside this summer is that drought makes for lower yield.

“The yield will be down, so the grapes won’t be as big, and there won’t be as many,” Brandeberry said.

And that means grape prices will be higher. That can cut into profits a bit for wineries like Meier’s and Brandeberry, which buy most or all of the grapes they use. Meier’s buys all its grapes from growers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Brandeberry grows one acre of grapes that yields roughly 450 gallons of wine per year; the rest of his grapes he buys from Ohio, New York and occasionally California.

As Distler sums it up, “The quality is good, but the pricing will be higher.”

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