Sun kisses 2014 Finger Lakes grape harvest

Julie Sherwood Messenger-Post Media
A worker from Hazlitt’s Red Cat Cellars dumps a load of grapes into a crusher on Thursday morning. While a cold winter and wet summer affected grapes, early fall’s summer-like weather helped improve the crop.

The recent spell of warm, sunny weather came at just the right time for the Finger Lakes grape and wine industry, coming off a year of roller-coaster weather events that included flooding, hail, and frigid winter temperatures that dipped as low as minus 22 degrees in some areas.

Bud injury for the 2014 harvest in the region ranged from as high as 85 percent for some varieties to an overall injury rate for natives (those heartiest in the local climate) averaging 16 percent, according a Cornell Cooperative Extension/Finger Lakes Grape Program report.

The good news, said New York Wine and Grape Foundation President Jim Trezise, is that damage in the Finger Lakes appears “to be more like a one-year crop reduction than vine loss that is far more catastrophic.”

“Overall, the native grapes like Concord and Niagara, as well as most hybrid varieties, seemed to fare well, while the European (vinifera) grapes will be less plentiful than normal,” Trezise said in a recent update in a foundation publication, The Wine Press.

“The pace of harvest is slightly behind the average, and again the weather can change all that in a hurry,” added Trezise.

At Hazlitt’s Red Cat Cellars in Naples on Thursday, the team behind the major wine production facility basked in the sunny weather they said has brightened spirits — and operations — for a couple weeks now.

While Hazlitt fared well in producing and buying the amount of grapes it needs to keep its volume on par with a typical season and satisfy demand, this year’s weather delayed the start of harvest about two weeks.

“We were sweating bullets,” said Tim Benedict, vice president winemaking at Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards and Hazlitt’s Red Cat Cellars. “But then these 10 days of sun changed everything. It just shows how critical September is. We love Indian Summer.”

Autumn is prime time in the wine and grape industry. Before the last couple weeks of predominantly warm, sunny weather hit, grape growers and winemakers worried that they would see yet another strain on the crop.

“While weather patterns all year influence the vines and grapes, the fall is the most critical in terms of ultimately determining quality,” said Trezise.

“We didn’t get the sun we normally get in August to finish that ripening,” said Benedict. So while Labor Day usually kicks off the harvest season, the acid level in the grapes was still too high then to pick them at their best.

Then the sun came, and stayed. “Just what the doctor ordered,” said Benedict.

Production was in full swing Thursday and the facility that employees about 30 full-time people and several more during peak season is operating six days a week now.

As crate after crate filled with sweet, ripe grapes, was fork-lifted off flatbed trucks and carefully moved into Red Cat’s crushing area, Steve Cromwell, Red Cat’s production and supply manager, explained the demand for all the facility does. That includes shipping Concord bulk wine to the Midwest and producing and bottling wine for, or from, other wineries. On Thursday, Red Cat was bottling Malbec, a red wine from Argentina, which will be then shipped from the Naples facility to be sold across the East Coast.

“Business is growing tremendously,” Cromwell said.

Hazlitt grows its own grapes and also buys from about 20 different growers, said Cromwell. Despite this year’s weather, all the growers were able to supply what was needed, he said.

Benedict said the weather damage varied greatly by location. While grapes grown in Naples fared well, Hazlitt’s vineyards in Hector, Schuyler County, suffered some damage. Cabernet Franc “was a total loss” from a hail storm in early August, he said.

Benedict said the hardest hit vineyards in the region were between the northern parts of Cayuga and Seneca lakes.

Grapes from Simmons Vineyard in the Bluff Point area of Keuka Lake were being trucked into Red Cat on Thursday. Simmons owner Neil Simmons, who was at Red Cat, said he lost about 25 percent of some 40 acres of grapes comprised of Cabernet Franc, Riesling, and Concord.

Overall, though, his 459 acres of vineyard fared pretty well, he said.