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Wine grape harvest may be at all-time low this year

Peter Payette
Mark Johnson at Chanteau Chantal shows the inside of a dead bud on a grapevine. It should be green but was killed by extreme winter cold.

It’s harvest time for wine grapes. But after one of the worst growing seasons in northern Michigan, there aren’t many grapes to make into wine.

Duke Elsner, the small fruit educator for Michigan State University extension, says, "It’s really the worst season we’ve ever seen since the mid-70’s when they started growing wine grapes in northern Michigan."

He says the extreme cold winter wiped out about 50 percent of the grape buds. Then roughly 50 percent of remaining buds were damaged in a late spring frost in May.

Brian Ulbrich, owner of Left Foot Charley, says he was lucky and dodged a lot of the cold weather damage that hit other vineyards. He says his vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula were looking pretty good this summer.

"We were feeling a little bit kind of quietly smug about what we had out there,” Ulbrich says. “I guess just to make sure we got down to earth, the hail came through and hit that portion the hardest."

The winemaker for Black Star Farm, Lee Lutz, says some of his vineyards looked pretty bad after August hailstorm.

"It looked like someone went into the vineyard with a shotgun and blew the vines to smithereens," says Lutz. Black Star Farm is looking at only 10 to 15 percent of a normal crop this year.

Businesses like Black Star Farm and Left Foot Charley are coming up with solutions to cope with two consecutive bad harvests. Ulbrich says Left Foot Charley had expanded their market to New York and Chicago, but with fewer grapes, they’ve decided to keep most of their Michigan wine at home until the next good growing season.

Some winemakers are tapping into any remaining reserves they have from a great 2013 season. They’re also purchasing grapes from other states like Washington and New York in order to keep producing wine for the next tourist season.