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'Catastrophic' winter puts Western Pennsylvania winemakers in sour mood

| Thursday, April 3, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Vintner Roger Soforic spends the afternoon racking wine out of the barrels at Stone Villa Wine Cellars in Mt. Pleasant Twp. on April 1, 2014. The process helps to clarify the wine. According to Randall Paul, owner of the winery, the harsh winter has damaged this years grape crop. The extent of the damage cannot be determined until late in the spring, however, he anticipates grape shortages from many of the grape producers on the East Coast.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Roberto Smiraglio, manager of the Narcisi Winery in West Deer, checks the condition of the grape vines which he found growing well on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Roberto Smiraglio, manager of the Narcisi Winery in West Deer, among the cases of wine awaiting shipment on Thursday, April 3, 2014.

Winemaker Bob Mazza doesn't mince words about how this winter's deep freeze affected his grape harvest.

“It's been pretty catastrophic for the more tender European varieties,” said Mazza, president and owner of Mazza Vineyards near Erie, about the grapes producing popular wines including Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay.

“Damage could be as high as 90 percent,” Mazza said. The family-owned winery has operated for more than 40 years, helped by cool Great Lakes breezes and sandy soil that usually mean perfect conditions for growing grapes.

Winter's toll on Mazza's wine-rich region is so bad that the Department of Agriculture designated it a disaster area, making low-interest loans available to grape growers in Erie, Mc-Kean and Warren counties, said Bill Werhy, director of the department's Farm Service Agency.

Winemakers throughout the state are assessing the damage from the harsh weather.

Most are worried. Some are hopeful.

All agree that frigid temperatures cast a shadow of uncertainty over Pennsylvania's 230 wine-grape growers and 114 licensed wineries. In typical years, they produce a combined 387,000 cases and pump $2.35 billion into the state's economy.

With few Pennsylvania vintners growing all of the grapes they use, the fallout from crop damage could be far-reaching, said Randy Paul, owner of Stone Villa Wine Cellars in Mt. Pleasant Township, near Kecksburg.

Many Pennsylvania wineries rely on grapes grown in the northeastern part of the state, and some buy outside the state's borders.

“We're looking to (growers) in Ohio and New York, and they're saying they're worse off than we are,” Paul said. “You work ... to build your business up and then you can't get grapes, or the prices double.”

New York growers reported their crops are decimated, leading federal officials to declare a disaster in 19 New York counties. Though the full extent of damage to New York's $4.8 billion wine and grape industry hasn't been calculated, some experts estimate it will take several years to recover.

New York is third, behind California and Washington, in wine-grape production. Oregon is fourth and Pennsylvania is fifth.

A series of polar vortexes brought heavy snow and some of the coldest temperatures in recent memory to Pennsylvania this winter, and warm-ups between those harsh freezes damaged grape buds, experts said.

“The warm spells got sap up into the vines, and then it froze when it dropped down to 15-below-zero,” Paul said.

Mazza said his French hybrid grapes, used to make Chambourcin and other varieties, fared better than others. He contends 30 percent to 50 percent of the French hybrids are damaged.

Native American varieties, used to make Concords and Niagaras, “are pretty hardy and experienced only about 10 percent to 20 percent damage,” Mazza said.

Vintner Tony Narcisi of Narcisi Winery in Gibsonia plans to visit some of his suppliers in the northern part of the state to see the damage firsthand. The winery grows only about 1 percent of the grapes it uses.

“We know there is going to be some damage,” Narcisi said. “Everyone is expecting to have lower yields.”

The toll on grape crops may not be as severe in the southwestern part of the state, experts said.

“In the coldest areas, there could be some damage,” said Mark L. Chien, a viticulture, or grape-growing, educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension. “So far, the grapevine wood in the southeast and southcentral areas of the state look very healthy, so we are optimistic about the crop.”

Still, vintners such as Susan Lynn, a partner at Greendance, the Winery at Sandhill, are waiting and hoping.

“Unlike other people who are hoping for a quick spring warm-up, we're still hoping for cold,” she said. “We're looking for a slow, steady warm-up.”

The winery, with about seven to eight acres of grapes, is two miles north of Mt. Pleasant.

Greenhouse Winery President Greg Hazuza is hoping for the best this season at his Rillton operation. He buys grapes from a supplier in Erie.

“I am holding my breath,” Hazuza said. His supplier “has concerns that some of the hybrids have never been tested in this much cold.”

It's critical this year that secondary grape buds survive, Mazza said.

“Otherwise, you have to replant, and that's a four-year turnaround,” he said.

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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