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By August 29, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Grape Shortage Exacerbated as Growing Demand Collides with Bad Weather and Pests in the Mid-Atlantic

By Paul Vigna

Kevin Atticks

Kevin Atticks, the longtime executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, has seen a rapid growth of wineries in his state and others around it the last 10 years.

It’s a business model that continues to outpace vineyards, which cover 800 acres across Maryland with another 100 new acres not yet producing.

“We need more fruit — lots of it,” Atticks says, on the eve of another East Coast harvest. “MWA will spend the fall/winter encouraging new plantings of commercial vineyards in an effort to increase supply by the time the new law takes effect in 2022, requiring that 51% of wines produced by [farm] wineries must use Maryland-grown fruit.”

Depending on who you ask, the shortage of grapes is real, worse in the mid-Atlantic but an issue elsewhere. This summer, with record-setting rainfalls across parts of the area, will only exacerbate the situation, as will any damage caused by the Spotted Lanternfly, which has prompted quarantines in 13 Pennsylvania and several New Jersey counties.

Atticks says the data shows an estimated 45-50% of wine volume being made from out-of-state grapes. “Remove fruit wines, meads and wines crafted from varieties that aren’t grown in Maryland, and we’re likely only 15-20% short,” he says. “However, just because there’s an acre of grapes doesn’t mean it’s quality fruit or planted with varieties in demand.”

“From 2007 to 2012, Pennsylvania was sourcing from 13,600 acres”, says Shannon Powers of the state’s Department of Agriculture. Over the next four years, that number for grape and juice production decreased. “Any growth”, she says, “hasn’t been in acres planted but in tons harvested and price.”

Brian Dickerson

Brian Dickerson

Brian Dickerson, a Pennsylvania grower oversees forty of his own acres and manages another fifty in the mid-Atlantic. “There are some wineries who probably don’t care where they get their fruit from”, he says, “but there are those who do care, who want to get local, or at least regional. They want to make East Coast wines and not Chilean wines or California wines. [For some], the shortage is real. It is definitely a real thing.”

Typical of the trend along the East Coast, New Jersey’s winery numbers have doubled over the past decade, approaching seventy. John Cifelli, Unionville Vineyards’ GM, estimates there are around 1,650 acres bearing fruit in the state. He says “vinifera is where the shortage is,” and as New Jersey wine continues to grow in quality and popularity, he doesn’t see the shortage decreasing.

“There is a lot of American vinifera wine being produced in New Jersey, and there are several New Jersey wineries that dedicate whole lines of production to out-of-state vinifera grapes. Until commercial growers make the investment to feed grapes to the wine industry, each winery is, for the most part, forced to grow its own. There are about twenty-five growers who aren’t also wineries. We need more,” Cifelli says.

John Cifelli

Anecdotally, it sounds like Virginia went thought its own shortage during its rapid growth spurt of the past decade. Dickerson says he recalls sitting in a classroom at the Eastern Winery Expo a few years ago and listening to someone from the Virginia winegrowers projecting a shortage of 1,000 acres of vinifera grapes by 2020. “Whether that has held up over the years, I don’t know, but I know after going to Europe with some of the winemakers a couple years ago from Virginia, all of them were telling me how short they are and that they can’t find quality fruit.”

According to Annette Boyd, of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, the state now is seeing “consistent growth in the number of acres of vineyards, which is positive. The state has about 200 new acres being planted annually and expects more than 500 non-bearing acres to come into production soon.” Those acres, like a majority across the East Coast, provided higher yields in 2017 because of higher temperatures and little rainfall. Virginia’s commercial grape report says yields per acre were 23 percent higher than 2016 and 14 percent higher than 2015, considered a normal year. 

Matthieu Finot

Matthieu Finot

One winery keeping ahead of production is King Family outside Charlottesville, the 2018 Governor Cup winner. Winemaker Matthieu Finot says that they are managing fifty acres now and plan to plant five additional acres over each of the next five years. “Still”, he adds, “there is a large demand for grapes in Virginia, but it seems to be better than two or three years ago, where it was difficult to find some fruit.”

Adds Lee Hartman, winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley: “For a number of years there was a grape shortage in the state [real or imagined], and it seemed every grape in the state was spoken for.” Now, he adds, “I’ve not seen this much availability for fruit since my first vintage about a decade ago.”

It’s too early to tell how much effect this summer’s much-above-average rainfall in the mid-Atlantic will have on 2018 vintage yields and quality. It was the wettest July ever in many areas of Pennsylvania, and that compounded the issues caused by the Spotted Lanternfly, which has wiped out a few vineyards and set into motion a state and federal Department of Agriculture initiative to get it under control.

Brad Knapp is the owner of Pinnacle Ridge, near Kutztown, the epicenter of the pest. “Locally the grape supply available for sale is very limited,” he says. “Most of the wineries either grow their own fruit or are using juice [at least the Lehigh Valley wineries]. Additionally, the Spotted Lanternfly is causing problems both with vineyard health and the ability to move fruit from location to location.”

Steve Bahn, winemaker at York County’s Logan’s View Winery and someone with deep roots in the state’s industry, was even more explicit about the potential impact. “The economic implications from grower on up the food chain to the wine drinker are stupendous,” he says. “Over the next few years, it could completely change or destroy a lot of Pennsylvania agriculture, in addition to just the vineyards and wine trade.”

In some cases, the end result is higher prices for the fruit. In others, it’s settling for what people can find. Dickerson says he remembers former Viticulture Extension Educator Mark Chien telling him there was always a home for good fruit. “That has held true over all these years, but I’ve even seen a home for bad fruit out there,” he says. “My waiting list is growing on fruit and – unfortunately I can’t supply any more comers at this time. So it’s a real thing. How do you rectify it? Obviously, plant more acres of grapes, but the economics are pretty risky.”

In New Jersey, Cifelli says, the legislature has advanced a couple bills that would create low interest loans and offer tax breaks for vineyard and winery development. “It’s a good start,” he says, “but needs to be strictly vineyard-focused in my opinion.”

Rob Deford

Rob Deford would like to see Maryland go a step further. The longtime owner of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, which dates back to 1945, sees his state’s problem being fixed by establishing a robust commercial grape-growing foundation. “For prospective commercial growers, the cost of raising grapes is high and profitability is elusive, particularly given the risks of weather, disease, bad nursery stock, labor shortage, and the marketplace,” says Deford, who has forty-eight acres under vine with plans to increase that total. “Mitigating some of these risks through research and education and helping communicate best practices through extension programs is essential. A capital assistance program to defray some of the start-up cost of a vineyard would be a positive step [too].”

In the end, how much does it matter? Do customers care? Deford says that while many consumers are primarily interested in price and flavor, “our industry is naturally evolving in the direction of producing more wines with a Maryland appellation, if not 100% Maryland content. This is because the interest in the source of our food remains strong, as does the desire for products with personality.”

Atticks concurs. “We hear a lot of grumbles from restaurants and wine shops when a wine produced in Maryland either doesn’t bear an appellation or is designated “American” [meaning grapes are from out of state, typically not from a contiguous state],” he says.

Cifelli notes that more consumers than ever are visiting wineries across New Jersey to learn what the state’s industry can grow and make, including from the Philadelphia and New York City metro areas. “We have more access to the serious wine drinker than any other wine region on the planet,” he says. “These are the people that come to tasting rooms to buy cases, not just to pass an afternoon. Absolutely, they care. It’s essential to them.”

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