Nestled on a hillside in northern Virginia, Breaux Vineyards' 105 acres of vines are looking good this year, according to General Manager Chris Blosser.
While California still makes the vast majority of American wine, all 50 states produce it. Virginians have been growing grapes for some 400 years, starting in the Jamestown settlement, and the wine business has surged in the state over the last decade. Soil and climate conditions in Loudoun County, where this family-owned vineyard is located, make it one of Virginia's top wine-producing regions.
The drought plaguing much of the country has hurt corn and soy crops, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating that 2012-2013 corn yields would hit the lowest level since 1995-1996. But the drier than normal growing season can be good for grapes.
See where the drought is affecting crops
"As a general rule, all grapes like it dry," Blosser explained during a tour of the estate one August morning. "They really thrive on having their leaves dry, not having the molds and mildews and funguses take root on the leaves."
Dry weather allows for a greater concentration of sugars in the grapes, enhancing the flavor. Too much rain has the opposite effect, diluting the flavor. Breaux grows 18 different kinds of grapes - including Viognier and Syrah, which thrive in warm, dry climates. Much like in the long, hot summers of 2007 and 2010, the growing season for the grapes began early this year and Breaux expects to begin harvesting some of them in the next few weeks. Blosser is hoping the dry weather continues.
Is the drought hitting your area? Let us know how you're coping
"Around harvest time we like to have as little water as possible," said Blosser. "We'd be OK with, pretty much, if we get through October without another drop of rain."
Vintners in parts of the country hit hardest by the hot, dry weather - July was the hottest month since the government began keeping track - stand to reap even greater benefits than the vintners in Virginia when it comes to flavor.
They also face greater risk, however, said Jennifer Montgomery, director of grassroots and political affairs at Wine America, a trade group with some 800 members in 48 states.
Extreme weather: Get ready for more
"Particularly in the Midwest, the hardest hit areas in terms of the drought, there are folks that are thinking that the grapes are going to be a better quality this year because the berries are smaller and the sugar is more concentrated," she said. "This is an extended event that we haven't gone through before so this is sort of uncharted territory. So we're not quite sure where the line is of where the short-term benefits are and where the long-term risks or long-term damage may show up."
Montgomery said the weather has pushed harvest time forward by several weeks in many states.
The downside to long periods of extremely dry weather is smaller harvests and potential damage to young vines, which are expensive to plant and take years to reach maturity.
"Generally speaking, to put an acre of vines in the ground is going to run $10,000, $15,000 per acre and you're not going to receive a return on your investment or profits you can use until three, five, seven years in," explained Montgomery. "It makes it a little different than other crops. It takes a lot of money, a long-term commitment and it's a pretty complicated business."
She said many vineyards - outside the more traditional wine-producing regions - don't have crop insurance, which could make it more difficult for them to replace damaged vines, should something go horribly wrong.
Blosser has seen no evidence of heat stress on the vines at Breaux. Their vines face more threat from deer, bears and birds - animals kept at bay by netting, machines that produce artificial sounds and other strategies - than they do from the weather.
"If things keep going the way they have been, you know, we're looking at a really nice harvest," he said. "If we continue with this dry weather, you're going to end up with less water inside that berry, so in terms of the wine output, you're going to have less quantity, higher quality."
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It's good to see the VA wine industry getting a bit of publicity, despite the terrible ramifications this drought poses to Mid-West farmers. As a Loudon citizen, I've been watching this industry for a long time, and it's really remarkable how far VA wines have progressed in diversity, complexity, and quality in the past decade. Even the experts agree. In fact, Wine Enthusiast ranked Virginia among the top ten wine travel destinations in the world back in January 2012 – one of only three regions indigenous to the US (the other two residing in California).
To Pohatan: While not my personal favorite in terms of wine selection, Breaux is well-regarded as one of the largest, most picturesque, and most respected wineries in the state. Greased palms or not, Breaux is still a very good embassador for the industry, so I don't fault them whatsoever for throwing their hat in the ring.
To those lamenting the impact this drought is having on the rest of our agricutural industry, I agree. I'll be the first to fly a flag for VA wines, but I find this article somewhat in poor taste due to its marginalization of the folks suffering through the worst drought we've witnessed in over half a century.
VA Wines = good.
CNN = bad form...
The folks complaining about rich/vs poor in regard to wine...There is very little from stopping anyone growing their own grapes and making their own wine...stuff it. I am poor and I grow a majority of my own food on my city lot. Rethink.
Carolyn brings up a great point, grow your own stuff. I have many fruit trees (which don't mind a little drought either), large garden, etc. all grown with minimal chemical inputs (yes, in VA). EVERYTHING I grow is riped on the vine or tree, which creates flavors never obtained by store-bought food, which are doused with chemicals to get the perfect finish society expects. You can grow enormous quantiies of tasty food right on your own land if you're willing to do a little sweating. ONce you get it going, however, it pretty much runs itself – nature takes care of its own and observing the micacle of all the biodiverisity provides entertainment.
Farmers and livestock owners are losing their livellihood. Meat and veggies will only leap up in price at your local grocer...I believe I'll rethink this wine thing...
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Why are you spewing your propaganda in totally the wrong place you idiot. This is about wine.
Farmers and livestock owners are losing their livelihood. There's no telling how high meat and and vegetables will go at you local grocery...with this attitude...I may rethnk wine drinking...
who needs corn when you can have nice wine, cheers
Must be nice to be so rich you find perks while the rest of the nation is withering.
@ImpishLisa – how does an article that describes that different parts of agriculture are effected by the weather differently have anything to do with being rich or poor? are you stereotyping all wine-drinkers, or writers who write about grape-growing and wine-making, are rich? if so, you're sadly mistaken.
close your eyes and you can see the real world.
The poor will do what they've always done, fast, pray and take communion.
I read that the rest of California is hoping Jesus comes back soon and changes all the wine to water...
how to know god isn't real: his evil drought isn't quite evil enough until you read that a drought makes it harder for poor people to eat but gives the rich better wine ;)
Zetas love grapes in between a hards day work in the cartel..
Please correct: Loudon County is in VA not CA! Thanks
The author also needs to correct the spelling – it's Loudoun. BTW, it's not quite fair for the author to use Loudoun in comparison to the severe drought in other parts of the US, as Loudoun is in an area that usually gets adequte rainfall.
Reblogged this on Teacher Arturo's Blog and commented:
Interesting article. I guess one's loss is another one's gain.
Of all the vineyards within the D.C. area why, just why was this one picked? How much did they pay for this mini advert? Going into Northern Virginia and choosing this vineyard to praise Virginia's grapes and wines is like going to Paris and fawning over the Royale with Cheese.
Just tell us what vineyard you own rather than "whining" about it. The article indicated that wine growers received a blessing when other crop farmers where experiencing a curse.
Great Job CNN.
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