Hill Country vineyards not yet devastated by recent floods

Contributed by Phil West. Pedernales Cellars' Kuhlken Vineyards require dry sunny days for the grapes to ripen at the optimal level, so if these rainy days extend deep into summer, the winery's David Kuhlken will be worried about the result.

Photo by Julie Kuhlken. Hill Country vineyards, including Pedernales Cellars’ Kuhlken Vineyards, require dry sunny days for the grapes to ripen at the optimal level, so if these rainy days extend deep into summer, winemakers are worried about the result.

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

Grapes, later on in the growing season, 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 Hays County’s Wimberley and San Marcos, have brought a higher-than-normal amount of rain to the area’s vineyards, the extra moisture isn’t detrimental to the grapes — yet. 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 resulting from them makes the grape vines 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. And fungi growth can lead to grape rot.

While he and the rest of the Pedernales Cellars team in Fredericksburg have been diligent about keeping away the pests, 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 saw 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 as a consequence — but he can’t say for sure if the grapes that do remain will be as good quality 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 7 other vineyards, none of which suffered hail damage in the April storm, the loss of the winery’s estate fruit means they won’t be able to have as many estate vintages this year as they had hoped — wines that come exclusively from the winery’s own vineyards and are thus pretty 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, the High Plains is producing a good grape harvest this year, he said. The High Plains, in the northwestern part of the state, is a big provider of fruit for many Hill Country wineries, not all of whom have their own vineyards like Pedernales Cellars or Pilot Knob or, if they do, still rely on other sources to make all the wine they want.

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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