2014 has been a challenging year for most grape growers in Michigan. The winter of 2013/2014 that produced the “polar vortex” damaged many vines within the state with basically no grower going unscathed.
Typically Lake Michigan does not freeze over which moderates coastal temperatures during the winter but for the first time since 1977 the lake was over 93% covered in ice which was a new record for total ice coverage. With most of the lake covered the warming effect of the lake was mitigated and there were several times that the air temp dropped below zero.
Spring was cool and wet which created its own issues for growers. While the cool spring kept the insects down we noticed an increase in fungus pressure. We take a minimalist approach to spraying fungicides and this ended up hurting us as several of our newly planted vines from the spring could have used more protection during the summer. We tend to use grow tubes on new plantings and this year those vines in tubes never really dried out and fungus took a heavy toll on some of them.
As summer rolled on it continued to be cool when compared to historical averages. We kept thinking that things would eventually warm up but as the weeks went by the growing degree day (heat) units fell farther behind the averages.
And because it was one of the cooler growing seasons in several years we struggled to get the sugar levels up to where we would like them to be. Even harvest, which last year for us was dry and warm (though early), was wet, cold and windy providing no last minute help in getting the grapes to the finish line. As a result everything we picked had a brix level of at most 21. Also nearly every cluster had a few bad berries that we needed to hand remove. In the end we estimate that about 20% of our potential harvest ended up being dropped under the vines and will end up as compost.
Even given how difficult this year has been, we have fruit and vines to evaluate. We consider ourselves lucky after hearing stories about grape growers around Traverse City and in the Southwest part of the state hoping to get at most 50% of a typical harvest, and in some cases no fruit at all.
At this point we are not really sure how or why but for the most part our vineyard did not suffer much damage. We had a handful of vines that the canes died, but were lucky enough that some new growth was started from the base of the trunks and we started training those back up to the fruiting wire. While our Gewurztraminer vines did fairly well (we did have a couple of canes die back), there was no fruit for this variety. We got very little last year from this variety so I doubt that it will be included in any future vineyard expansion.
I would like to think that heavy snow pack insulated our vines but there was nothing specific we did that can be pointed to as helping us that much. The end of last season didn’t even allow us time to hill up the vines.
The one positive aspect of a year like this is that you get to see which of your varieties are more marginal options for our growing conditions so you have a better vision for what varieties you want to expand with. Basically when the growing conditions are good every one of our varieties has the potential for success, but when it is a difficult growing season some of these don’t provide us with a high probability of success.