North Fork grapes are in high demand

Grapes ripening at Clovis Point vineyard in Jamesport. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Grapes ripening at Clovis Point vineyard in Jamesport. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

While Long Island’s grapes weathered a harsh winter just fine, the unusually erratic and wet winter months upstate New York experienced have led to extreme losses of grapes across that region, putting the local commodity in high demand, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“We have a really beautiful crop,” said Jamesport Vineyards owner Ron Goerler. “It stayed cold consistently here, so we lucked out. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the guys upstate.”

Viticulture experts from Cornell Cooperative Extension surveyed vineyards across the state and found that 15 grape varieties suffered at least 40 percent losses, particularly in the Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley regions, according to an announcement made last week.

A “combination of harsh winter temperatures, sustained cold, lack of snow cover, as well as alternating warmer and colder temperatures killed critical fruiting buds,” the release reads. Some vineyards also experienced trunk damage, requiring entire plants to be replaced.

That means the state’s surviving grapes will be in high demand, state Department of Agriculture and Markets commissioner Richard Ball said in a release.

Last Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an emergency order allowing vineyards where grapevines were severely damaged last winter to purchase up to 40 percent of their grapes from outside New York State in order to make wine.

But by using out-of-state grapes, winemakers risk losing the ability to label their product as a New York varietal, since state labeling laws require that at least 75 percent of the grapes used to make a bottle of wine be grown in New York.

Cornell’s Tim Martinson said Long Island didn’t experience the extremely low winter temperatures that led to injury in some Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Lake Erie vineyards.

“There were no crop losses due to winter injury in Long Island vineyards,” he said.

Jason Damianos, an owner and chief winemaker at Pindar VineyardsDuck Walk Vineyards and Jason’s Vineyard, often sells extra grapes. He said: “The Finger Lakes purchase a lot of red grapes on a yearly basis [and] this year is no exception.”

“It has been a very cool, dry summer with hardly any days over 90 degrees and the disease pressure has not been as it was in previous years,” he continued. “There is a lot of fruit on the vines so we are hopeful that this fall, these weather conditions will continue so we can enjoy an abundant late harvest.”

Goerler noted that he, too, has already received inquiries from northern growers hoping to buy some of his Jamesport grapes despite the fact that his crop has not yet been harvested.

Steve Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, said there has always been a demand for Long Island varietals, so the number of extra grapes needed may not be available this year.

“Even local growers are buying each other’s grapes,” he said. “That’s why they do this special provision, so at least the wineries can fill the shelves.” Scott Osborn, president of Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes town of Penn Yan, said his vineyard experienced as much as 75 percent bud damage over the winter.

“There are only so many grapes out there in our region and, right now, there are more buyers than there are grapes,” he said. Bate said Long Island has the luxury of being situated on the water, which helps maintain moderate temperatures year-round.

“We have pretty good protection from extremes,” he said.

But growing on the water doesn’t always offer protection, said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

He explained that the same executive order just issued by Gov. Cuomo was also made in 2005.

At that time, it assisted Long Island growers who experienced major losses following eight straight days of rainfall — more than 17.2 inches — at the beginning of the red grape harvesting season that October.

It was estimated that about 60 percent of the East End’s red grape harvest was lost that year, according to a 2005 release from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) outlining the damage.

“Some of the wineries did have to go out and purchase grapes,” Gergela said. “It’s not something new that wineries supplement their own [grapes] with buying some.”

He noted, however, that “usually, around here, the [growers] want to be pretty pure and use what’s local.”

In order label themselves a North Fork wine — a term known as appellation designation — winemakers must use at least 85 percent of fruit from the North Fork, according to labeling standards, Goerler said. Since the Finger Lakes has its own appellation standards, winemakers who don’t have enough local grapes should at least be able to use the New York State label on their bottles.

That is, if they can find the grapes.