Ohio Grape Growers Recovering From Tough Winter

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This winter was a deadly one for vinifera vines, the kind that creates popular wines including Riesling, Shiraz, and chardonnay.

It wasn’t just the brutally cold January, it was the precipitous drop in temperatures that came after an unusually warm December.

Donniella Winchell of the Ohio Wine Producers Association said frost damage caused other vines to become vulnerable to what’s called crown gall.  The bacterial disease causes bulbous growths to sprout, that eventually kill the vine in one to three years.

Winchell said the economic damage is hard to swallow.

“Probably 5-6 million dollars’ worth of loss just in the tri-county area east of Cleveland,” Winchell said. “A similar, not quite as devastating, loss but still significant in the Avon and Sandusky areas, and in the islands.  They are probably at 70 to 80 percent crop loss, and probably 30-50 percent vine loss.

Winchell does sound one note of optimism.

“The advantage out of this, is we’ll surely be planting varieties that are more winter hardy in the long term,” Winchell said.

And Winchell thinks there’s reason for growers to be optimistic, too. The 2014 Farm Bill has what’s called the Tree Assistance Program.  It entitles growers to collect financial assistance if they’ve lost 15 percent or more of their vines from natural disaster.

Producers can receive up to $125,000 to replace ruined vines.  Winchell said the USDA funding fills her with hope.

“We will, as an industry, replant,” Winchell said. “We will, as an industry, survive.  It’s been a lifeline for us.”

There’s something else that provides hope.  Last year, and the year before, were strong years for grapes in the region.  So there are reserves that can help carry wineries through the next two or three years.

By that time, Donniella Winchell predicts most of northeast Ohio’s vineyards will have been restored. And producing wine worthy grapes once more.