Weather forecasts like the one we're seeing for this weekend always put a cold shiver down my spine. Yeah, it's going to be frigid but my chill comes from another time and place...The European varieties that we grow are somewhat sensitive to cold temperatures - which is why the North Fork of Long Island is so conducive to growing them successfully. The water buffers that surround us usually keep winter temperatures above 0 F. The further below zero the temperature drops, the greater the chance for grapevine buds to be damaged. And the thing is, there isn't a hell of a lot anyone can do about it. I literally watched this happen to an entire vineyard - twice. It was during my tenure at The Bridgehampton Winery (now defunct) at the time, only the second winery on Long Island to begin making and selling wine. It was my first full-time gig in the wine business and I was in charge of both the vineyard and the cellar. I was right out of college and very excited to have such a fantastic opportunity - but little did I know what I was getting into.
My first summer was spent trying to completely renovate what was a much neglected 35 acre vineyard - most of it laying on the ground and unsprayed when I arrived on June 1st. 1983. After a long hot summer of lifting the vineyard off the ground, tying it to the trellis and attempting to control rampant disease and insects, we had a small successful first harvest, and all was looking up heading into my first winter.
It was right about this time of year when the cold snap came through. Never in my life did I think killing temperatures were an issue on Long Island. After all, the Island was the promised land for growing European vinifera varieties in the northeast. Site selection was already in place - we were on Long Island and not in Upstate New York. My "minimum-maximum" thermometer on my windowsill read 0 degrees F at midnight when I went to bed; when I walked out into the vines the next morning I knew something was wrong. My fears were confirmed when I received an early morning call from my old friend Dave Mudd in Southold, who told me he had heard of -12 F temperatures in Bridgehampton. I didn't want to believe this at first as my house thermometer did not go that low, but I soon realized that the house was slightly higher in elevation than the vineyard. My education in vineyard site selection had begun. As I gathered samples of cuttings to bring inside, I was visited by my mentor Hermann Wiemer. As the two of us sliced buds with a razor blade, we began to see what amounted to a 100% bud kill. "Worse than what I saw in Germany after the war'" Hermann said. That didn't exactly make me feel any better.
They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and in this case it was true. I became a dedicated student of Long Island terroir and site selection and an expert in understanding weather patterns and temperature radiation inversions. From speaking with some old farmers in the area I found out that the vineyard site was on a notoriously bad piece of ground - "cold ground" the locals called it. And it had the dubious distinction back in the late 19th century of being the only place on L.I. that had a frost every single month of the year. How lucky was I?
Me being the young and optimistic vintner that I was would not be daunted and I was determined to make the vineyard a success. After rebuilding the vineyard from the ground up, we had a few good years and harvested a couple of crops - until Mother Nature eventually caught up to us again about 5 years later. This time my ground-level vineyard mounted weather station told me the complete tale - and still there was nothing I could do but look up to the sky and wonder why. The Bridgehampton site became a case in point for what happens when you plant vines on low ground. Hopefully others learned from this costly mistake. Luckily for Bedell, our vineyard is on a great site and has consistently survived various cold spells over the past 30 years - and the coldest spot right behind the winery is planted in classic cold-hardy varieties - Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. No worries - but just like rain makes some people feel old knee injuries, these frigid temperatures still bring back memories of those desolate and helpless nights of vineyard destruction.
Growing grapes is not an easy task. Many folks today seem to take it for granted. But what I learned back then taught me never to do that. And just as the old real estate saying goes - the most important aspect of a successful vineyard is defined by one word -
location, location, location....