While many people complained about the summer’s sweltering heat, vintners were not among them. Not only did the warm, dry summer help curb the impact of disease on wine grapes, it also worked to improve the quality and complexity of the wines produced from the grapes, said Linda Jones, executive director at the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.
As a result, wine enthusiasts are already beginning to ask questions about how the 2012 vintage will stack up, Jones said.
“Because wine is a shelf-stable product, people interested in wine will be curious,” she said. “People are already interested in this vintage. They want to see what happened with the weather.”
While many fruit growers suffered catastrophic crop losses this year, West Michigan’s wine industry is looking toward a spectacular 2012 vintage due to the bizarre weather conditions in March and during the summer.
While the tree fruit growers may be having their worst year since 1945, wineries should actually have a bumper crop for the 2012 vintage, Jones said.
“We expect an excellent year for wines, especially reds and richer whites,” said Jones.
The reasons wine grapes were not as affected by the heat wave and subsequent freeze are part biology and part good farming techniques. Aaron Harr, sales executive at Fenn Valley Vineyards Inc., says the biological defenses wine grapes have are related to the way the budding cycles of wine grapes differ from other fruit, especially tree fruit.
“Tree fruit, like cherries and apples, have only one bud cycle,” said Harr. “Grapes tend to bud out later and have secondary and tertiary bud cycles.”
When the heat wave hit West Michigan in March, virtually all the tree fruit buds came out of dormancy while wine grapes remained relatively dormant, so wine grapes dodged the worst of the subsequent freeze later in the spring, he said. The grapes that were hit by frost did not greatly affect the crop yield.
Vintners plan for these types of years by leaving more buds on the vines so that, in the event of poor spring weather conditions, they will still have enough yield to maintain production, Harr said.
“This year, maybe 80 to 90 percent of the grape buds were burned, but grape farmers always leave twice as many buds on the vine as are needed,” he said. “The secondary buds produce about 50-percent of the yield of the primary buds.”
Additionally, the hot and dry weather tamped down the incidence of disease in the crop this year, giving an added boost to the crop yield, sources said. Surface crops such as corn, which lack a strong root system, didn’t fare as well.
“Grapevines have a very established root system that goes down maybe eight to ten feet, so in drought conditions they could thrive and get water that surface crops like grains are unable to reach,” Harr said. “With the early spring and hot summer, we got a three-week head start on the harvest this year and wound up with a bumper crop.”
The wine makers’ strong year played into the overall marketing plan of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, Jones said. The council has been trying to generate national and international interest in Michigan wines by promoting the region through its four American Viticultural Areas: Leelanau Peninsula, Old Mission Peninsula, Fennville and Lake Michigan Shore. These AVA distinctions allow vintners to market their products with the added weight of regional recognition.
The council also has tapped into the Pure Michigan marketing campaign through developing and airing commercials in state and in regions immediately around Michigan, including in Grand Rapids, Toledo, South Bend and Fort Wayne. The goal is less to get national distribution for the wineries and more to increase wine tourism in the region and develop loyal Michigan wine enthusiasts.
“Our main theme is drawing people to the wineries. We want to build loyalties to wine from this area so people keep coming back,” Jones said. “Our marketing materials guide people more toward agritourism.”
The council also accomplishes this through the promotion of the state’s four wine trails. These trails act as local associations of wineries that promote their region by holding regular, publicized events as well as running vineyard tours and operating tasting rooms for walk-in customers.
“The hardest part is getting people to know that you’re there,” Harr said. “Then once you have them in there, you can get their contact information and send them regular newsletters and updates on the vineyard.”
Fenn Valley’s Harr said the company sends out a quarterly newsletter to around 10,000 people, and it also self-promotes through email newsletters and social media. When asked if this aggressive marketing stance is geared toward competing with prominent American growing areas like Napa, Calif., Harr flatly said no.
“You really don’t market against regions like that. With the conditions we have, what we grow is much more like old world wines, with higher acidity, so we’re marketing against European wines,” Harr said. “We have a four-season growing cycle, which means that the vines go into a period of dormancy every winter. Over on the West Coast, they have a three-season growing cycle. They still have a period of dormancy, but it’s not like over here and in Europe.”
Oenophiles will have to wait to find out the results of 2012’s unusual weather, but Harr is confident the wines will perform well.
“Once we draw them into the fold with the tasting room...we can hopefully market the wine on the merits of the wine itself,” Harr said.