Ruth Saunders of Silver Creek Orchards in Nelson County was named “Grower of the Year” at the annual Virginia Vineyards Association meeting at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville on Friday, Feb. 24th.
In accepting remarks, Ms. Saunders gave credit to her husband John who is her business partner, and to the help she has received from the researchers at Virginia Tech and other members of the VVA. “We’re always looking for suggestions on how we can improve our fruit for our winery clients,” she said.
The Silver Creek grapes have contributed to a number of gold medal wines in the Virginia Governor’s Cup competition, and this year their viognier grapes were a component of Horton Vineyards’ gold medal-winning viognier.
The Saunders grow 75 acres of winegrapes and are one of the largest independent grape growers in Virginia. Their largest proportion is planted to chardonnay, and others include viognier, petit manseng and traminette for white grapes, and merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and chambourcin for red grapes. “We’re always trying to plant a little more each year,” says Saunders.
A Big Turnout in a Weird Warm February
Turnout for the meeting was reportedly (and visibly) strong. Normally the annual VVA meeting is early in February; this year it was at the end of the month during a weird spell of weather more typical for Palm Beach than Charlottesville in February with temperatures in the mid-’70s and cherry trees blooming.
The freakish and long spell of warm weather had many attendees concerned about a possible repeat of 2016, when two frosts in early April damage early-budding varieties, especially chardonnay which was reportedly down 25% statewide. “If the temperatures gradually fall back into the typical range, we can hopefully avoid frost damage,” said Tom Kelly, past VVA president.
Media Relations officer Bob Garsson confirmed that the weather was a major concern for VVA members, especially with the diminished crop from 2016 exacerbating an existing grape shortage.
Grape Supply, Labor Other Industry Concerns
Kelly and others agree that growing the grape supply is a top concern, to keep wineries from going out of state to get their grapes, but also keeping viticulture profitable for Virginia growers. On the plus side, the wine and grape industry in Virginia has grown 22% in the last five years and is now a $1.37 billion industry for Virginia. On the down side, the 338 Virginia vineyards are not able to supply the demand for the 267 wineries now operating, and years like 2016 with a 25% loss of the state’s top volume wine grape puts financial pressure on vineyards, and economic pressure on wineries to source fruit elsewhere.
A tight grape supply is matched by a tight labor supply and was consistently mentioned as a major industry concern. One industry veteran pointed out that this was the case before the election of Donald Trump with his talk of alien deportations, but now that has exacerbated the situation.
There is talk of how growers can mechanize vineyard labor. “I think a lot of vineyard managers would say labor is a growing problem – it’s harder and harder to get the help you need at key junctures, like harvest, and most vineyards in Virginia are too small to be able to mechanize many functions,” says Garsson.
A Good Technical Program
The seminar program for the tw0-day conference had a wide range of topics with a big emphasis on research by viticulturists from universities, as well as morning focus on organic and low-input viticulture by commercial growers Karl Hampsch of Loving Cup Vineyards and Ed Boyce of Black Ankle Vineyards (of Maryland).
The most impressive advancement of technology applied to vineyards was the re-vamping of Virginia Tech’s geospatial mapping for vineyard site suitability. Peter Sforza, the co-director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology at Tech, explained that the Center had developed a number of additional layers for evaluating any specific piece of land in Virginia for viticultural suitability, and now include such fine details as cation exchange, which can all be layered to evaluate a site in wide-ranging detail, and can also be applied county-wide.
Users can also influence a score by such things as their own tolerance for risk; if it is higher, they can “raise” the score of a site by accounting for that in particular, getting highly customized scores.
Sforza says he is launching an “app” for doing this; meanwhile the website with the tool for site evaluation is at www.cgit.vt.edu/vineyards.
Kelly says that “as a spray geek” he was quite impressed with “Retention and Erosion of Foliar Pesticides Under Repeated Wetting Conditions” presented by Annemieck Schilder of Michigan State University.
Industry exhibitors, all vineyard supply or services providers like Wine & Vine Care, Payette Winemaking Consulting, Arton wineglasses and Spec Trellising sponsored a festive wine reception Friday evening. Saturday afternoon featured three wine tasting sessions from the Winemaker’s Research Exchange on different vineyard treatments vs. control samples.