Drought hits vineyards hard

Wineries deal with reduced grape production

Jill Schramm/MDN Alan Verbitsky with Sawyer Crossing Vineyards and Winery checks the grapes on a portion of his vineyard near Minot that had some production this year.

For the first time, Pointe of View Winery at Burlington called off its annual Grape Harvest Festival this year.

Wineries and vineyards in western North Dakota struggled with drought, and some parts of the state were dealt a blow with a late spring frost in 2021, said Rod Ballinger, Fargo, president of the Winery Association of North Dakota. Many vines died or failed to produce.

“The ones that did survive, the berries themselves are smaller than normal and less clusters,” Ballinger said.

At Pointe of View, the drought devastated the grape crop, said owner Jeff Peterson. His vineyard produced about 100 pounds of grapes, compared to a typical 2,500 to 5,000 pounds.

The loss of the grapes is a small part of the disaster for the state’s oldest winery, established in 2002.

“The real loss is not having the wine to sell because we normally sell out of that product every year. That’s a pretty big hit for us,” Peterson said.

Although there won’t be much wine from the winery’s grape vineyard, Pointe of View still will be making and selling its other wine.

“We will make do,” Peterson said.

Heat and drought also set back the grape crop at Sawyer Crossing Vineyard and Winery, which has operations near Sawyer and Minot.

“It started out real early in the spring. During the time that plants were flowering, we had that extremely high heat,” said owner Alan Verbitsky. “That high heat burned the flowers up on the grapevine. You wither the flowers, you are not going to produce grapes.

“Of course, having no rain, the plants don’t have the moisture to produce the foliage,” he added. “Plants went completely dormant.”

In some cases, vines or portions of vines died.

“It would not be unreasonable if we lost half of the vines in the vineyard,” Verbitsky said.

Verbitsky said there may be plants whose growth can be restarted from the remaining root, restoring production in two or three years. If vines need to be replanted, production from those new plants wouldn’t occur for three to five years.

Verbitsky said his vineyard included two drought-resistant varieties. One did fairly well, producing a partial crop. To produce the usual quantity of wine, though, he would have to acquire grapes elsewhere.

According to Ballinger, eastern North Dakota vineyards that fared better due to good subsoil moisture, and even those across the border in Minnesota, have already committed their grapes. Finding another supply in the region would be difficult, he said.

Given the situation, Verbitsky has switched his attention to developing fruit-flavored meads, or honey wine. However, he noted even his honeybees struggled with production this year.

Rodney Hogan, Buffalo, president of the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association, agreed that vineyards in the eastern part of the state that managed to escape the early spring frost fared better.

“We have the best crop ever,” Hogan said of his Red Trail Vineyards. “I can’t believe how big a crop that we have coming on.”

He attributed the difficulties of western growers to not only drought but a previous winter that started out mild before turning viciously cold. Even with his vineyards, winterkill on the buds was significant, prompting him to scale back in pruning buds in the spring, he said.

North Central Research Extension Center, which has been experimenting with a vineyard, has a drip line irrigation system that saved many of the plants. Unfortunately, there were too many other factors that many of the vines could not overcome, said Chris Amundson, ag research technician.

“Winter was really hard on everything. And then we had some herbicide damage, and we had those high temperatures all summer. So even with irrigation, they still really had a tough year,” she said.

Amundson said the lack of snow cover and dry soil allowed the winter cold to go deeper into the ground. Without insulation from underground moisture or snow, some plants didn’t survive.

The herbicide damage came from drift from weed spraying at the center at the time the vineyards were flowering.

“I hate to see that kind of damage, but we learned something, too,” Amundson said. “Once we’ve had this happen, now I know which ones are more susceptible. We had some that actually died, and we had some that died all the way back to the ground. Anybody that puts in these vines, if we were to market any of them, if we were to patent any of them, they’re probably going to experience herbicide drift at some point. If we have some that are really that sensitive to it, we know maybe that’s not the vine that we should be looking at.

“The ones that did survive and are coming back, some plants had no damage at all. So I’ve got those marked and maybe those are ones we should take a closer look at because they’re more resistant to that sort of damage,” she said.

The center has about 3,000 different, experimental vines.

Amundson said each vine’s fruit is processed separately in small batches to test for wine quality. Many of the plants that should have had enough fruit for a test batch did not produce adequate grapes this year.

“We’ll still get data from the fruit, but we won’t be able to get any of that data that we would have gotten from making those wines and testing those,” she said.

Going into this winter, the research center plans to keep the vines pruned and in as good a condition as possible to reduce the stress they have had all year.

Peterson said the long-term impact on Pointe of View will depend on weather conditions going forward.

“We are kind of concerned if we don’t get more fall rain, snow and spring rains, I may have some plant damage, too. I am just hoping that doesn’t happen,” he said.


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