May 13, 2013
Virginia's wine industry brings in nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars each year to the Commonwealth's economy. So when the potential for frost threatens the area, it is no surprise vineyards are on edge.
"With your flower beds at home, you can toss a sheet over them, but when you have 30 acres of grapes, there's not a whole lot you can do," said Matthew Brown of King Family Vineyards.
When central Virginia flirts with frost, the men at King Family Vineyards in Crozet go to extreme measures to protect their plants, and with good reason. One frost can be fatal to their fruit set.
"At the end of the day, we are farmers, so the weather is a big part of what we do," said Brown. "Having these low temperatures can certainly cause you to lose a percentage or your complete vintage, in which case that really hurts the business."
To prevent that, the vineyard does some preparing. Sensors are placed in the field to detect a freeze. They cut the grass short to allow air to move. And, while some vineyards use stationary wind machines to help control the temperature, the Kings have two helicopters on standby.
"What the blades of the helicopter are doing is pushing the warm air down and displacing the cold air and then making sure the air right around our fruit zone is staying above that 31-point-something degree area where, if it were to go below that, we might lose the harvest for the whole year," said Brown.
This is the second time this season the vineyard has had its pilots and helicopters on call. About three weeks ago, the vineyard had a helicopter hover over the main 15 acres of vines.
"It was about 28 degrees, but with the helicopters pushing that inversion zone down, we kept the fruit zone above 32 degrees fahrenheit and saved everything," said James King.
They made it out of that cold spot unharmed, but the further it gets into the growing season the more destructive the chill can be.
"Right now we're a little more susceptible because we have a little more leaf out. You have a foot of leaf out. All those cells are exposed," said Stuart King. "Whereas a month ago, we only had little buds out."
They may be at Mother Nature's mercy, but the grape growers say they have come to expect the inconsistency.
"We always say, if you want to make wine and sleep well at night, you do it in Napa where they have very consistent vintage years," said Brown. "But if you want to make good wine and never know what's going to happen next and sort of fly by the seat of your pants sometimes, you do it in Virginia."