Heavy rains make Hill Country wineries cautious about grape harvest

4:33 p.m Friday, May 29, 2015 Local

For many involved in Texas’ wine community, it’s a question that so far doesn’t have an answer: How will all this rain affect the quality of the grapes being grown in the Hill Country and the High Plains regions of the state?

Later in the growing season, grapes require “nice, dry, warm summer days to ripen,” Pedernales Cellars’ winemaker David Kuhlken said. So even though the floods that recently devastated areas in the Hill Country, including Wimberley and San Marcos in Hays County, have brought a higher than normal amount of rain to the area’s vineyards, the extra moisture isn’t detrimental to the grapes — yet. But if this rainy weather continues into the later summer months, he said, the grapes won’t be able to ripen in time.

There’s still another problem that arises from these rainy days, however. The humidity makes the grapevines susceptible to mildew and other fungi that can grow on the skins of the grapes if left unchecked by winemakers’ careful watching and spraying, Kuhlken said. Fungi growth can lead to grape rot.

While Kuhlken and the rest of the Pedernales Cellars team in Fredericksburg have been diligent about keeping away the pests, he said he’s noticed after driving around other vineyards in the area that “some are having a harder time than others.”

It’s a problem that Pilot Knob Vineyard, northwest of Georgetown, has already been dealing with, try as owner Craig Pinkley might to fend off the fungi from his fruit. His winery has one estate vineyard, used to make a Cabernet and a Tempranillo, that he originally felt was being “turbo-charged” by all the rain earlier this year. Now, the rain is proving a hindrance.

“There’s no way to combat what comes in with so many excessive days of rain,” he said, citing mold and rot issues. “You try to stay on top of your spray regimen, but it’s hard to make your way through a soggy field. And, of course, the spray can wash off in the rain, too.”

Pinkley is predicting lower yields of the grapes — but he can’t say for sure if the grapes that do remain will be as good in as past harvests. “Hopefully it doesn’t affect quality; I don’t think it will,” he said.

Kuhlken can’t say for sure, either. “Things are very difficult for the vineyards, but it’s a little early to say what the impact will be,” he said.

For Pedernales Cellars in particular, an April hailstorm caused the most trouble, decimating about 60 percent of the young grapes on the vines in the winery’s Kuhlken Vineyards. Although Pedernales sources grapes from seven other vineyards, none of which suffered hail damage in the April storm, the loss of the winery’s estate fruit means it won’t be able to have as many estate vintages this year as hoped — wines that come exclusively from the winery’s own vineyards and are thus special bottles.

Still, Kuhlken is optimistic. He remembers 2007, when “it rained and didn’t stop” all the way through harvest season, hampering the crop. As long as the rain lets up later this year, this harvest won’t be so bad, he said.

That’s the crucial time for growers, High Plains grape producer Neal Newsom of Newsom Vineyards said. With 150 acres devoted to growing grapes for a dozen Texas wineries, a venture he’s had in some form since the 1980s, he knows what weather conditions can do to the fruit.

“The only thing that would affect the crop in this part of the world is a lot of rain at harvest,” he said, although “if it became a biblical flood for the next four months, we’d have really bad issues.”

Thankfully, High Plains is producing a good grape harvest this year, he said. High Plains, in the northwestern part of the state, is a big provider of fruit for many Hill Country wineries.

Like Kuhlken, Pilot Knob’s Pinkley is in good spirits. “What we do is farming, so we have some kind of natural peril each year,” he said. “It’s either a freeze or a drought or, this year, too much rain. You have to learn how to roll with it, or you’re going to go batty worrying about what could happen.”

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