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In rare good news, drought has Missouri winemakers anticipating best vintage in decades

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10, 2012 - The sun was still rising over the vineyard rows as Mount Pleasant manager Doug Charles began the first grape harvest of the 2012 season early Wednesday morning. Using an automated picking machine and collection truck, Charles and his crew plodded row by row, collecting Villagio and Champagne grapes at about one mile an hour.

If that seems slow, it is not, said Mount Pleasant president Chuck Dressel. The automated picking machine can harvest a single vine row in about the time it would take 40 hand pickers. And in this yearly ritual race against the sun, speed is important. For the best quality, grapes must be harvest before temperatures get too hot and the chemistry in the fruit begins to shift against winemakers.

This year, the stakes of that race are higher than ever, Dressel said. With unusually warm spring temperatures and a drought-ridden summer, Mount Pleasant and other wineries across Missouri wine country are looking at the earliest — and perhaps best — harvest in recent memory. It is a rare piece of good news for the agricultural sector that has suffered huge loses to this summer's record-breaking heat and drought. But, if grapes are not picked quickly, Dressel said, some of those benefits could be fumbled away.

"There's no rule book or guidebook to follow. This is by far the strangest year we've ever had," Dressel said, adding "These are great things for us."

Dressel is not alone in his optimism. Vintners and wine experts in Missouri are predicting the forthcoming 2012 vintage will be the best in memory. Even as vines and roots suffer on some plants, wine grapes thrive in drought conditions, dropping water content but hanging on to flavor-processing sugars and other chemicals. In this unprecedented drought, vintners are hoping for an unprecedented product.

"The wines coming out of this vintage, they're going to be great," said Nick Pehle, vineyard manager at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. "There's going to be a lot of flavor."

"This is one of the best grape crops we've ever seen. We love drought conditions like we're seeing," Dressel said in an interview before the harvest.

Heat taxes plants, helps fruit

Unlike other crop plants, grape vines like dry heat. A nice moderate late-summer drought enhances grape and flavor quality, according to Anthony Peccoux, the head of the University of Missouri's viticulture program. If vines are mature enough to cope with the unfavorable growing conditions, the fruiting conditions can thrive.

"The interesting story with grape — usually, moderate drought conditions improve the quality," Peccoux said. Lower water content caused by dry conditions means flavor compounds are more concentrated in the grapes. Though the harvest may be smaller by weight and volume, the quality more than makes up for it.

"It's going to be a really concentrated berry and a real concentrated flavor," Pehle said, waxing optimistic. "The wine is going to be great."

Mizzou's Peccoux does not necessarily agree — at least not in all cases. Drought can be good for winemakers, but in some cases conditions this extreme can do more harm than good. According to the National Weather Service, the first seven months of 2012 have been the hottest ever recorded in St. Louis. That weather takes its toll on roots and vines, if vintners cannot lend a hand. It can also halt physiological processes the plant needs to live and grow, including photosynthesis. When drought starts early in the season, the plant has little built up defense, Peccoux said.

"This summer, it's crazy. It's too much now, about the heat and drought. It's not a very good time for the grape and the quality," Peccoux said.

With the right resources, vintners can help their crop through the bad weather. Pehle said that he is concerned about some of his plants, particularly young ones under five years of age. Those vines may drop fruit and leaves, he said, and will deserve critical attention in the coming months, but as a whole, the vineyard is doing well.

"We've been fixing the problem by watering them," Pehle said. "The biggest thing we've been doing this summer is scrambling around and putting in drip irrigation."

All of Mount Pleasant's vineyards are irrigated, according to Dressel. Though the system is not needed in a normal year, it has helped save this year's crop. What's more, the dry weather has helped keep disease and mold threats down, off-setting some of the additional cost of irrigating.

Still, with the water table as low as it is, Both Pehle and Dressel are expecting some long-term damage to younger plants.

"The big thing that we have to do now, is begin almost immediately after harvest to begin to saturate our fields with irrigation to relax the plants, so they can gently ease into the winter dormancy," Dressel said.

In St. Genevieve, Hank Johnson of Chaumette Winery said he has had a slightly different problem. All of Chaumette's fields are irrigated, and the plants are holding up just fine against the drought and heat, he said, but much of the crop was hit with April frost. Because of the early warm weather, vines were already in the flowering stage laying the way for grape clusters when the frost killed off part of that growth.

"We've seen things in those damaged blocks that we've never seen before. We saw lateral shoots that developed clusters, we saw latent buds come to life after being buried in the bark for two or three years," Johnson said. "And so we will have a crop in those areas. The size I don't know, but we think the quality will be just fine if not better."

Feeling the crunch; waiting for windfall

Relative to row farmers dealing with the prospect of crop loss, the economic impact on the wine industry in Missouri will be minimal, but winemakers said it will still be felt, particularly by the tourism side of the industry.

The Missouri wine industry has experienced significant expansion in recent years, and with it wine-related tourism. According to a report published in 2010, the number of fruit-bearing acres doubled in Missouri between 1999 and 2009. Production increased 1,600 tons during the same period, bringing the total utilized tonnage of Missouri vineyards to 4,400. That means more wine to sell, more restaurants to serve it, and more food to go alongside. For wine producers it also means the potential to make more money.

For an industry that had $1.2 billion in total revenue — direct and indirect — in 2009, $175 million came from tourism. When temperatures rise above 95 or 100 degrees as they often have this summer, Dressel and Pehle said tourism drops sharply as people stay indoors.

"It did affect our business when it was this hot. A lot of the crowds went away for a little while," Dressel said. "We're more concerned now as the weather starts to get cooler that we'll see the people come back."

"A part of our dining room is outside. A big part of our business is spent on outdoor dining in the summer, but when it's a hundred degrees, fewer people want to sit outside," Johnson said, making for a very slow July.

Winemakers hope tourism will return this fall with the onset of winemaking, which begins almost immediately after harvest. Mount Pleasant is planning to harvest 153 tons of its own grapes this year — plus the harvest from 150 acres owned by outside growers — which should translate to about 10,000 cases of wine. Stone Hill, the largest producer in Missouri, has about 200 acres to harvest.

The type of grape dictates how it is treated and when it is harvested, so release dates will be staggered, winemakers said. Dressel expects his earliest 2012 vintages to be available for purchase in early March, about a month ahead of schedule. At Stone Hill, where Pehle said harvest is not far off, 2012 vintages could be ready by late April or May. Chaumette, which harvests just 30 acres, and waits longer to harvest than most surrounding wineries, will likely produce its first of the vintage a bit later still.

Winemaking is an old tradition in Missouri. Though the state may not boast producing regions as famous as Sonoma or Napa that make California wines so recognizable, it is one of the most important in the history of the profession in the United States.

In the late 19th century, Stone Hill was the nation's second largest wine producer and the center of the German wine-making culture in Missouri. In the years before Prohibition, the state counted about 100 wineries, mostly of French or German origin. Prohibition and the opening of the west all but killed wine-making here. It was not until Stone Hill's reopening in 1965 that Missouri experienced a viticultural renaissance — one that paved the way for more than 95 wineries in 2009. Nationally, Missouri ranked 8th in total wine production in 2009, with 1.2 million gallons.