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American Viticulture in the Time of Coronavirus

American Viticulture in the Time of Coronavirus

Kristy Wenz
Karma Vista’s Vineyards near Coloma, Michigan

Across the United States, daylight hours are increasing and temperatures are on the rise, natural with the gradual onset of spring. It’s a time of renewal and rebirth, the seasonal shift we all crave after the winter months; and for many plant species, including grape vines, this also brings the end of dormancy, a period of rest and lower metabolic activity. The vines are beginning to awaken, buds are starting to burst and the life cycle of a vine is about to kick back into full gear. However,, the vines are awakening to a very different world.

Coronavirus, or COVID-19 has become a global pandemic. In early 2020, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders began around the world. Businesses shuttered unless deemed “essential” and life as we knew it took a drastic and unimaginable turn. As it pertains to the wine industry, this has meant the shuttering of tasting rooms, the loss of distribution channels to restaurants and international markets, and like many industries, significant losses in revenue. But what about the vineyards? Mother Nature does not stop, cannot stop. 

As an agricultural industry, vineyards are deemed essential. The production side of the winery has also been categorized as essential and previous harvests are still in production. So, what does this mean for the growers and wineries across the country? How are they adapting to the socially, or rather, physically distant world? 

Finger Lakes, New York

John Wagner, co-owner of Wagner Vineyards on his Seneca Lake property

In New York, the statewide shelter-in-place order took effect on March 20, 2020. At this point, Wagner Vineyards on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes was in the final leg of pruning their vines, a process that began in November and continued through the vines’ dormancy. 

“Pruning is significant hand work, but it’s also naturally socially distant,” says John Wagner, co-owner of Wagner Vineyards. “Workers tend different rows and are spread across 215 acres. We have about ten days remaining and then we’ll begin tying the vines—our first real spring activity.”

Wagner, who’s been tending the vines on the eastern side of Seneca Lake for more than 40 years said it’s business as usual in the vineyard. The same team is still in place and will be necessary throughout the season. The only real difference to the work, Wagner noted, is seen at lunchtime and breaks. Rather than eating together or visiting, the vineyard team remains separated, and there’s no more carpooling to the vines, everyone arrives and leaves with their own transportation. Otherwise, everything is on schedule and expected to remain that way, because nature doesn’t wait.

“We’re pleased where things are now. We always prune the heartiest varieties first, including the hybrids,” says Wagner. “Then we work on the more sensitive Vitis vinifera in late winter, early spring. Each year we sample the wood, take cross-sections and look closely at the buds to determine the percentage of buds to leave, and this year there was very little winter kill with between 84 to 98 percent of buds remaining.”

A view of Seneca Lake from Wagner Vineyards

Throughout the Finger Lakes, vineyard teams are checking that posts are solid and wires are taut. For Wagner, this amounts to 60,000 posts with each Vitis vinifera vineyard having eight wires for every row. 

“We do our trellis work and post pounding in the fall, but many vineyards do this now. For us, we use the time to go through and recheck and secure if needed as we begin to tie the vines to the wires,” says Wagner. “And immediately after tying, as the ground begins to dry, we’ll then move through with the de-hiller and remove the soil built around the graft unions of the vinifera over the winter. These hills protect the most sensitive part of the vine from winter freeze; but must then be removed so the scion doesn’t form its own roots.”

Wagner said it’s the harvest season that may present new challenges. Wagner is estate bottled, but also serves as a grower for other local wineries. In fact, the Wagners sell fruit to about 30 additional wineries of varying sizes and production capacities. 

“With the disruption to the industry, it’s concerning to think that some usual buyers may not have the ability or need to make their usual grape purchases,” says Wagner. “For example, if a buyer that usually purchases 10 tons only takes two, we’ll have a lot of extra product to deal with and there’s nothing we can do to adjust the size of the crop. It’s going to be what it’s going to be, and our labor and costs began last fall.”

As for the winery side, Wagner notes the winemaking was set in motion last fall and those plans will proceed accordingly. The cellar team continues to work, but in separate rooms and performing separate jobs. Work that can be completed at home, is done at home and any meetings are held virtually or in very separated conditions. The Wagner team also continues to employ the winery’s tasting room staff with various construction projects.

“We’ve had several improvement projects in the pipeline for the tasting room and different public spaces within the winery,” Wagner said, “but those projects get set aside as they are difficult to do with our usual guests.”

With the tasting room and restaurant closed to the public, the Wagners are using the time to tackle some of those projects and are utilizing the staff they can, to carry them out. 

“It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we’re doing what we can to make the most of it, and we’ll welcome our guests back to an improved space on the other side of this.”

Leelanau Peninsula and Southwest Michigan

Creighton and McKenzie Gallagher owners of Rove Estate in Leelanau County, Michigan

Moving west across the States to Michigan, both Rove Estate on the Leelanau Peninsula of northern Michigan and Karma Vista Vineyards in southwest Michigan near the town of Coloma, have also begun their spring vineyard work under new conditions. For Michigan, their shelter-in-place order began on March 24, 2020. 

“We were still under snow when the shelter-in-place order was set into motion,” says McKenzie Gallagher, owner and proprietor of Rove Estate. “Fortunately, we had already completed our winter pruning and our vineyard workers are usually assigned to the nine different grape varieties, so it’s naturally socially distant.”

Rove Estate, near Traverse City, Michigan, is run by fifth-generation cherry farmers who planted their first vines in 2012. Currently managing 17 acres of Vitis vinifera, the Gallagher’s plan is to manage another 10 to 12 additional acres with the hopes of planting five more this spring. 

“We’ve posted for our farm labor this year and there’s definitely an increased interest in the work, which is good as we will still need teams for both the orchards and vineyards,” said Gallagher, “However, on the flipside, this is also when we typically post for our summer tasting room staff, but with the uncertainty surrounding the course of the disease and how long social distancing will remain in effect, we’re having to put that on hold.”

Rove Estate also had to temporarily lay-off the full-time tasting room staff with the closure of the public-facing part of the winery. They are, however, providing hourly work to the team as they can for package deliveries and curbside pick-ups as they wait for additional resources to unfold. And business in the cellar is progressing as usual, with teams working in separate spaces, and with an increased amount of sanitation in place.

“As a small, family business we’re always thinking ahead,” adds Gallagher. “We will make the best use of the resources we have and of those that come in; we’ll be as creative as we can. Nothing is off the table.”

The 6th, 7th and 8th generations of the Herman farm family. Joe, Keith and Jackson. The winery’s Grand Sun Syrah was picked on the day Jackson was born in 2016.

In southwest Michigan, the Hermans at Karma Vista Vineyards are managing 140 acres of vineyards, of which 50 acres are planted with both Vitis vinifera and hybrid grapes for wine, the remainder being Concord and Niagara for juice producers. A family operation, the Hermans’ wine grapes are grown for their estate-bottled wines as well as for sale to local wineries.

“As the vines are just coming out of dormancy, we’re only using a small crew of six to 10 people,” says owner Joe Herman. “As in most farm work, it’s a relatively solitary job and our staff is divided by vineyard block and row.”

 Herman doesn’t anticipate a disruption to the vineyard team or the work to be done. He anticipates increasing his team with leaf pulling, canopy management, and harvest as he would in any given year. As for this year, he said the biggest hurdles for Michigan wineries are already nearly past.

“Winter is always the biggest hurdle in Michigan, but this past year was one of the mildest we’ve seen in a long time,” Herman says. “The second hurdle is spring and the risk of frost, but we’re nearly there and so far, so good.”

Paso Robles, California

Janis Denner, owner/proprietor of Pelletiere

On the western side of the nation in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles, California, some buds have already burst with others pushing closer by the day. The statewide shelter-in-place order for California was one of the earliest, enacted on March 19, 2020, however, the wineries were ordered to close to the public even earlier, on March 15, 2020. 

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“When you look up, there’s so much that’s not normal right now,” said Janis Pelletiere, owner of Pelletiere Estates, a 12-acre vineyard and estate winery. “But in the vineyards, well, it’s about the only place that is normal. It’s agriculture and it must be maintained. It goes on business as usual. It runs on its own schedule and it’s always working, which means so are we.”

At Pelletiere, seven different grape varieties are planted, and pruning for them began mid-February. In this warm climate, the grape development cycle begins earlier than in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Pelletiere specializes in Italian grape varieties and saw budbreak on the Nebbiolo grapes in January this year with the other buds currently pushing break.

“Here we fear late spring frosts the most,” says Pelletiere who had just completed mowing between rows to eliminate the risk of frost formation in the taller grass. “We’ll be watching the weather closely now through May as the buds burst and blooms take hold, but so far so good. The only real difference is that when we walk the vineyards, the team walks different rows as we discuss the progress.”

Paso Robles wineries typically have spring release parties and send shipments for wine club members. According to Pelletiere, the shelter-in-place order came at the end of the spring fulfillment, which both cleared space in cellars for the new wines to be bottled, as well as inadvertently prepared them for an increase in wine shipments. 

“We have always used a large fulfillment center to handle our wine shipments,” says Pelletiere. “Earlier this year, that center closed for reasons unrelated to the pandemic and we had to scramble to fulfill our spring club release from the winery. At the time we didn’t realize this was working to our benefit, but now that the tasting room is closed, we’re shipping orders to our customers directly. And fortunately, we have the materials and know-how to do it on-site.”

Pelletiere also noted her wine production team will also move to one bottling session for the spring, instead of the usual two. 

“We usually bottle our new spring releases on separate days, but to save both on cost and on having to bring the bottling truck on-site twice, we’re planning to complete the bottling in one run this year,” says Pelletiere. “We’re a small business and we’re learning and adapting as necessary because the one thing that won’t adapt is the grapes. The vineyard calls the shots and won’t be stopping for a shelter-in-place order.”

Message to Consumers

Rove Estate patio during “normal” times

Many wineries from coast-to-coast are small to mid-size, family or privately-run operations that depend on tasting room traffic. Others depend on the distribution and sale of their wines in restaurants or local shops and they are also deeply impacted. While many states have deemed liquor stores as essential businesses and enabled the direct-to-consumer sales of alcohol by restaurants, the financial toll on wineries and their employees will be substantial—and the vines won’t stop. So how can wine consumers help?

“Whether it’s buying wine online for local pick-up or cross-country shipping, or participating in virtual tastings on social media, stay engaged with us.” says Wagner. “While we can’t offer personal tastings, we’re still on-hand to walk you through the wines and make recommendations. And those personal connections are helpful to us all and are especially helpful to morale.”

Gallagher agrees, “There’s a ripple effect from every purchase. It doesn’t matter if it’s one bottle or a case, every purchase matters and direct support of the craft beverage industry right now helps many small family businesses and their teams.” 

As for Herman, he knows that things will eventually return to normal and when they do, he hopes to see consumers back at the wineries and restocking their cellars. Until then, he suggested checking the websites of favorite local wineries for shipping offers and online sales. 

“And it’s not all about purchasing right now,” says Pelletiere, recognizing that everyone is feeling the economic impact across the world. “Writing Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews, or posting pictures from past visits on social media accounts also helps immeasurably. In fact, it’s been fun to see the Paso Robles wine community posting about each other’s wines on personal and business accounts. It helps to keep up spirits and generate word-of-mouth marketing at the same time.”

“Say hi to us on social media, where many wineries are increasing our presence,” adds Gallagher. “It offers a sense of positive relief and closeness of community; our shared humanity is everything right now.”