Wineries: Put a cork in the rain

Wet weather imperils state’s grape crop

When he pops the cork on a bottle of Chardonnay, Victor Boutier hopes he can look back fondly on the year that preceded it.

But the Danielsville vintner isn’t sure he’ll be raising a stemmed glass to 2013. Boutier, who grows grapes in Madison County, said the rains need to stop to produce a good crop.

And stop now.

Deluges this year, said Boutier, have harmed his produce, hampered his schedule and may hurt his bottom line.

“I have never seen so much rain,” said Boutier, owner of Boutier Winery. “I have no idea what the quality of my grapes will be this year.”

Vineyard owners across the state share his concerns. The extremely wet weather means growers will be harvesting their grapes late this year. In a normal season, the harvest would begin in mid-August; most growers figure it may not commence this year until the end of the month.

And the harvest may not be a good one: Mid-summer days are crucial to grapes, which need hours of sunlight to promote the growth of sugar, crucial to fermentation. Fungus, harmful to grapes, thrives in consistently wet weather.

Grape growers know the consequences if the rain doesn’t stop. The weather already has wreaked havoc with fruit and vegetable farmers in Georgia and elsewhere across the Southeast. Watermelon farmers have reported smaller yields. Peaches aren’t as sweet as they should be.

Without a healthy dose of sun, the same fate awaits southern vineyards, said David Lockwood, a plant science professor at the University of Tennessee.

“If we continue to get a lot of rain, we’ll not have the quality we’d like for this to be a vintage year,” said Lockwood, who advises vintners in Tennessee and North Georgia.

If the rain doesn’t ease, said Mike Brown, who owns 12 Spies Vineyards in Rabun Gap, he’s ready to take an unusual step.

“I’ll go out of state,” said Brown, whose vineyard takes its name from 12 spies Moses sent to scout Canaan, the promised land. “I may buy grapes from North Carolina and New York.”

Wine-making is not new in Georgia — James Oglethorpe, Georgia’s founder and its first governor, planted wine grapes near the coast, with lackluster results — but only recently has it become an industry in its own right. More than 40 vineyards produce wine-making grapes, from the flatlands to the mountains.

Most vineyards are located are in North Georgia, where Vitis vinifera, grapes descended from European vines, thrive on cool mountain slopes. Tracts in warmer parts of the state produce Muscadines and other varieties native to the South.

The grapes create a wealth of wines: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese. The brands are sold in vineyards’ tasting rooms across the state, nation and world.

They create wealth, too. In 2011,the state Department of Agriculture reported that Georgia’s grapes were worth $8.3 million, and that doesn’t include wine sales and agritourism. In a 2005 study, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government estimated that the state’s wine industry has an economic impact of $585 million, a sum that includes the value of grapes, wine sales and agritourism.

Steve Gibson, general manager of Habersham Winery, believes this year could be profitable still.

“The season is by no means a lost cause,” said Gibson, sounding upbeat as the sun peeked on the vineyard in White County. “If we can catch a stretch of dry weather, it would help us a lot.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said rainfall through June had been 34 percent above normal in Georgia. The prospects for the next three months don’t look much better. The agency predicts above-average rainfall through October.

“It’s been a persistent pattern across the South,” said David Gottschalk, head of forecast operations for NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Silver Spring, Md. “A couple of years ago, you couldn’t buy any rainfall down there.”

The rain was welcomed earlier this year, said David Sanford, general manager of Crane Creek Vineyards & Winery in Young Harris. Last week, with rain pattering across Towns County, Sanford said wet weather had worn out its welcome.

“The more sun we get now, the better,” he said.

Doug Paul, co-owner of Three Sisters Vineyard & Winery in Dahlonega, struggled to find a bright spot in the gloomy days.

“It sure is pretty here,” said Paul, whose vineyard gets its name from nearby Three Sisters Mountain. “Everything is so green.”

Like other growers, said Paul, he’s on “pins and needles,” hoping the forecasters will be wrong.

Hoping, too, that he may yet toast this growing season.

“We’re very optimistic,” said Paul. “We have to be. We’re grape farmers.”