Drought could produce good wine in Midwest

JIM SUHR
The Associated Press
Modified: August 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm •  Published: August 26, 2012

photo - In this Aug. 15, 2012 photo, Chardonel grapes show the shrivelling effects of the Midwest's drought in the six-acre vineyard at OakGlenn Winery near Hermann, Mo. While the lingering dryness and heat through much of the U.S. proved ruinous for many other crops, vintners say grapes held their own, producing sweeter fruit with more concentrated flavor that could give wine enthusiasts something to cheer. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)
In this Aug. 15, 2012 photo, Chardonel grapes show the shrivelling effects of the Midwest's drought in the six-acre vineyard at OakGlenn Winery near Hermann, Mo. While the lingering dryness and heat through much of the U.S. proved ruinous for many other crops, vintners say grapes held their own, producing sweeter fruit with more concentrated flavor that could give wine enthusiasts something to cheer. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)

Vineyard owners in Ohio said they believe this year's drought is just a taste of what's to come with prospects that the climate generally is becoming warmer and dryer.

Debevc, who owns Debonne Vineyards in Madison, Ohio, said he planted some varieties two years ago that need warm weather, even though they weren't recommended for the area at the time. He said more permanent changes down the road could include harvesting earlier in the year and setting up drip irrigations systems to supplement rain in dry years.

"I think there is a trend I've seen in my lifetime. I've seen more storms than when I was younger," Debevc said. "I think we will adapt. For us in the vineyard industry, it's a good thing. A little more heat, a little more dryness. Personally, it would allow us to have much more mature fruits, certainly in the reds."

Duke Bixler, who owns Breitenbach Winery in Amish country near Dover, Ohio, also planted a variety two years ago that wasn't suggested by the industry for his part of Ohio.

"They're doing very well," he said.

Like Debevc, he's watching the weather and thinking about the future. Hot, dry conditions help red wines, he said, but they're not so good for the fruit and berry wines Breitenbach and many other Midwestern wineries offer.

"Certainly, here in Ohio, and northern Ohio, and the Midwest, I think our heat days are increasing, our sun days are increasing," Bixler said. "I think it is a permanent thing."

At the Stone Hill Winery he manages in Hermann, Jon Held worries the drought "might be the new normal," leaving him mulling investing perhaps $1,500 an acre for more irrigation as a hedge. But at least for this year in the winery's 190-acre vineyard, he said, "it's going to be an OK quality season, and you may actually have stellar quality on some varieties," notably among reds.

In Michigan, where Great Lakes breezes and hilly terrain nurture a rapidly growing wine industry, grapes seem to be one of the few success stories in a disastrous year for most fruit crops. An early hot spell followed by April freezes ruined most of Michigan's tart cherries, apples and other orchard fruits.

But grapevines emerged from dormancy and sprouted buds after the cold snap ended, and the dry summer protected the vines from diseases that run rampant when it's too rainy.

"I say it reluctantly, and knock on wood, but it's been a great year so far," said Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal winery on Traverse City's Old Mission Peninsula.

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Associated Press writers John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., and Barbara Rodriguez in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.