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Crop Report: Northeast Ohio Wine Makers Check In On This Year's Batch

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Just minutes before taking my call, Art Pietrzyk was out in the vineyard harvesting sauvignon blanc grapes. His St. Joseph Vineyard sits in the pastoral Grand River Valley in Madison, Ohio, and Pietrzyk was more than a little thankful for the clear blue skies and short-sleeve weather.

"This is exactly the kind of weather you wish for and fight for all season long," he says. "The real quality of the wine isn't determined until the grapes start to ripen, and that's what's happening right now."

Northeast Ohio wine growers currently are in the midst of the 2013 wine harvest, and from the looks of things, it's shaping up to be a good year. Depending on the grape and grower, the fruit has already been picked or will be harvested over the next few weeks. While weather has more than a little to do with how that fruit turns out, how a grower reacts to the weather is equally important.

"We control our own destiny," Pietrzyk explains. "In this business, you can't afford to have a bad year, so I have to make every year as good as I possibly can."

Threat of an early or late frost, too much rain, not enough sun and heat—these are just a few of the big concerns that wine growers deal with on an annual basis. How one responds to those issues determines whether or not he'll end up with good (or great) wine.

"We had a lot of rain this year—seven and half inches over normal," reports Markko Vineyard's Arnie Esterer, who is considered a pioneer among local growers. "Grapes don't like wet feet, and they don't like a lot of water. That's why the best grapes are always grown on hills, where the water can run off." Esterer grows reisling, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet on 16 gently sloping acres in Conneaut, Ohio.

But thanks to that abundance of rain—and plenty of sunshine—Esterer's grapes grew and are ripening nicely, he reports. "We're gonna be fine. We're gonna make a lot of nice wines."

Another way to deal with excess moisture is by practicing good canopy management—the systematic training, trimming and pruning of the vines.

"You have to manage the canopy," adds Pietrzyk, who tends 30 acres of vines. "Good drainage is important, but also good air drainage. The rain causes a lot more growth, so you have to do a lot more thinning of the leaves. If you don't open up the canopy, it won't dry out and you can have fungus problems, the bane of grape growing."

St. Joseph grows about 16 different varietals, but the winery is best known for its award-winning pinot noir. It's considered an early red variety that already has been harvested by most local growers.

Good canopy management can also speed the ripening of fruit in years with less than optimal sun and heat, says Tony Debevc of Debonne Vineyards, which claims the title of "largest vineyard in the state" at 170 aces. This year alone, Debonne will harvest about 1,000 tons of its own fruit.

"Canopy management opens up the fruit zone to allow it to get more sun," Debevc explains. "We're trying to capture all the sun we can."

Debevc says that 2013 is shaping up to be "an above average year," with good looking white wine varietals like reisling, chardonnay and pinot grigio leading the way. "We always have good whites because they like our cold climate nights; we have that German-Alsatian climate."

To compensate for a cooler season like 2013, which had almost zero 90-degree days, growers allow the grapes to hang a little longer on the vine to fully ripen, explains Nick Ferrante, who oversees 50 acres of vines at Ferrante Winery in Harpersfield.  

"Some early varieties are already harvested and fermenting," he reports. "Others we let hang as long as possible. This weather is helpful, but we need a lot more like it."

Esterer says he's in the same boat. "The cabernet still needs a couple of weeks; we'll wait till the end of October. If its stays warm and sunny like this, they'll be great."

While many of the big guys harvest their fruit mechanically using heavy machinery, over at St. Joseph, Pietrzyk prefers the old fashioned way of hand-harvesting.

"We prefer to use people over the big picking machines because they provide the last step in a long quality control program," he says. Doing it by hand allows the picker to weed out rotten fruit, fungus-riddled grapes and MOG, an industry acronym for "materials other than grapes."

Of course, we won't truly know the quality of the 2013 vintage until these wines are released, which is six to 12 months for most whites and 18 to 24 months for most reds.

"Every year is different, every year makes different wine," says Esterer. "We never know for sure until the wines finish. You have to be patient in wine making."

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