HAMMONDSPORT | Experts say this bitterly cold winter is shaping up to be the worst in two decades for Finger Lakes vineyards, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made a stop in Hammondsport on Monday to call for federal aid for grape growers.
Schumer, in a press conference hosted by Pleasant Valley Wine Company/Great Western Winery, says he is pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ready emergency assistance for growers in two ways.
The senator wants to use the Tree Assistance Program, included in the recently passed Farm Bill, to help owners of vineyards where damage to trunks and vines - inflicted by this winter's polar vortex and drastic temperature swings - will make it necessary to replant grapevines.
The Tree Assistance Program allows a 65 percent federal reimbursement of the cost of replanting grapevines, as well as 50 reimbursement of pruning and removal costs.
"That's pretty significant - and that's a grant, not a loan," Schumer said.
The extent of trunk and vine damage won't be fully known until this spring and early summer, when the grapevines begin growing - and the damaged plants begin to wilt.
But it's a significant loss, because it can take three to four years after planting for a grapevine to begin producing grapes, said Hans Walter-Peterson, a viticulture expert for Cornell Cooperative Extension who spoke at Monday's press conference.
Schumer is also calling for the USDA to be prepared to issue a disaster declaration this spring for growers whose vineyards have suffered severe bud damage.
If the damage is limited to the buds, the grapevines likely wouldn't have to be replanted and growers wouldn't be eligible for the Tree Assistance Program, but it could greatly impact this year's harvest.
A disaster declaration by the USDA would make growers eligible for low-interest emergency loans that they could use to buy juice to make up for crop losses and produce enough wine for their 2014 vintage, Schumer said.
Walter-Peterson said surveys done by Cornell Cooperative Extension showed bud damage ranging from 20 percent to well over 50 percent of the grapevines in Finger Lakes vineyards.
"It's a very localized kind of phenomenon in many ways, and it depends on the varieties, too," Walter-Peterson said. "There are growers in the Finger Lakes and around Keuka Lake who grow varieties that are based on American species that are better adapted to these conditions - Concord, Catawba, Niagara - that seem to have some damage, but it's not as bad."
"But when we get into some of the varieties that have a European background, the ones the Finger Lakes has really been receiving a lot of accolades for recently - like Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc - those aren't as well adapted to these cold conditions, so that's where we're starting to see more damage," he added.
Page 2 of 2 - Jim Trezise, president of the Canandaigua-based New York Wine and Grape Foundation, says its the worst winter for growers since 1994.
That year, growers in New York State lost 1,331 tons of wine grapes which equated to about $42 million in lost wine production, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension studies. Growers also had to replant about 358 acres of vineyards, according to the studies.
Because of the growth of the state's wine industry in recent years, the losses could be much greater this year than in 1994, Schumer said.
"This is not just the Finger Lakes - western New York, Hudson Valley and Long Island all have the same damage to our grapes," he said.