Harsh winter may be good for Virginia wine

By Matt Butner - bio | email

HANOVER, VA (WWBT) - Virginia's wine makers are dealing with a rare challenge this year - a cold, snowy winter. Grape growing is a delicate process that depends heavily on favorable weather, but the harsh winter isn't all bad news for grape growers.

The folks at James River Cellars in Hanover are getting a late start on some early-season grape vine maintenance.

"We started pruning these last week because the snow finally melted and we could get into the vineyard," said Mitzi Batterson, manager of the winery.

Right now, the vines are dormant, resembling twigs sticking up out of the ground. Winemakers want them to stay that way as long as possible. In that regard, the harsh winter has actually helped.

"One of the most damaging things for us is if the buds break too early, and we start to get these nice beautiful flowers," said Batterson, "and then a frost comes in and can actually kill all of these."

All of the snow that has fallen has given these vineyards a plentiful supply of moisture for the coming months. Ideally, Batterson says, the warm weather won't entice the grapes to start growing until late April or May. After that point, wine grapes can be damaged by too much rain before they are harvested in late summer. But Batterson points out that harvest season brings its own set of challenges.

"Of course the challenge in Virginia is that harvest season is also hurricane season," she said,  "so it's always a unique set of growing circumstances in Virginia."

Virginia's wine industry has grown in recent years in both numbers and national reputation. It has also held up well in a tough economy.

"It appears that beer, wine, and chocolate are fairly recession-proof," Batterson quipped.

Batterson says it's too early to tell whether this year's grapes will produce the next great Virginia wine.

"Until the grapes are in, the wine is made, and it's in the bottle, you never know what's going to happen with the growing season," Batterson said with a laugh.

The quality of the wine hinges in large part on the weather for the rest of the year.

James River Cellars is currently bottling wines from last year's grape harvest. This year's crop won't show up in your wine glass until at least next year.

Copyright 2010 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.