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Angela Chapman
July 16, 2020 | Angela Chapman

Rona Road Trip

Farming is not an easy job. Crops can be temperamental and require specific conditions. Some environmental conditions can be controlled, such as adding nutrients to the soil and watering when needed. When all the conditions are right, the crops are happy, healthy, and fruitful. When they are not, it can be disastrous. In October of last year there was an unexpected weather event in the High Plains of Texas that threw grape growing into chaos. Being in Burleson, this weather event did not make it to us and we did not know how to process the information our growers were reporting to us: projected massive losses. At the time, no one knew that the word massive was not a strong enough word to describe the devastation. Massacred Vines at Bingham Family Vineyards
Massacred Vines at Bingham Family Vineyards

So, what happened? And how could it have been that bad? Grape growing in Texas has many pitfalls. The most common are hailstorms, the Texas heat, and late freezes. All grape growers in Texas have experienced all three of these at one time or another, but what happened in the High Plains was more uncommon. It was an early freeze. A late freeze happens in March or April, usually after the vine has started to bud out.  When the freeze occurs, the unexpected cold will kill newly grown shoots and buds. In most cases the vine will survive, but there will be little to no crop that year.  But with an early freeze, the extreme temperature drop happens after harvest but before the vine becomes dormant. That should be fine, right? There are no grapes growing so it seems there should be nothing to worry about. That is what I thought, and I was very wrong.

To really understand what had happened, Roxanne, Gene, Jim, and I took a trip to the High Plains to meet with our growers and to see the vines for ourselves. Our growers are a hardy type of folk, they are farmers through and through, with generations of experience in their blood and grit under their fingernails. Imagine our shock when one seasoned grower said to us, “I’m depressed.” Again, we still could not fully understand, so out to the vineyards we headed. What we saw was row after row of damaged or dead vines. It was not merely massive, it was catastrophic.

Angela, Jim, Gene at Krick Hill Vineyard

The growers explained it to me like this:  when a vine goes dormant in the winter, all its sap moves to its roots. There it saves up its energy and waits out the worst of the winter until it bursts forth in the spring ready to make grapes. Back in October, the vines had not gone dormant yet, so there was till sap in the cordons and the trunk. The freeze happened so quickly and lasted just long enough that the sap froze inside the vines destroying the interior cellular structure. It gets worse.  If the vine was between 1 to 3 years old, it died.  If the vine was older, 10+ years, it also died.

But as devastating as this was to see, I was surprised to hear that many of our growers retained an extraordinary amount of hope, including the one who told us that he was depressed. You see, for the most part, those vines that were not too young or too old, survived! They are not in good shape, but an alive vine is something the growers can work with, though it is like starting over from scratch. To begin again, the growers must take a new shoot from the trunk, using the old dead trunk as a guide and bring it up to the trellis. This shoot will become the new trunk and from there new cordons can be trained. It will be a few years before those vines start producing grapes again, but it is still better than replanting everything. And, there is some even better news than that; some varietals were not affected as much as others. We did see acres of vines that looked happy and healthy even if they did not have any grapes on them.  
Gene & Roxanne at the Newsom Vineyards Rock'N Bed and Breakfast

Many of the growers looked at this event as a learning opportunity. I heard a lot of talk about different rootstocks for the vines that need to be replanted and an increase in planting the vines that weathered the freeze better. It is always hard to lose a crop, but as farmers they must continually look forward to the next year’s crop. I imagine if you only focus on the bad years it would be impossible to move forward.

We are thankful for our grower’s expertise, diligence, and hospitality as they guided us through their vineyards. Next time you open a bottle of wine, give a heartfelt, “Cheers” to the growers. Afterall, Jim and I believe that good wine is made in the vineyard. 


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