FRONT ROYAL – In 2017, Jeff White had one of his best years in the wine-growing business. The following year was the worst he’s ever seen.
For the owner of the Front Royal winery, drier conditions are always better than wet ones, because high levels of water dilute the acidity and sugars of grapes.
That meant that the conditions in 2017, which saw slightly less rain than the average year, “was the best year I’ve ever seen in all the vintages,” White said.
And it meant that 2018 was the worst. Last year, White explained, he did not make any red wines, ending the year with two white wines and one rose. (White grapes are somewhat more forgiving than reds, White said.)
And even then, White has decided not to wholesale a Sauvignon Blanc that he normally sells wholesale.
“We have a reputation for this Sauvignon Blanc, and I don’t want it to be on a shelf or on a wine list...and somebody buy it thinking that this is what we can do when we can do better,” White said. “But I can sell it here because we can talk about it and we can at least pour it for somebody first before they pay the money.”
White is not alone in feeling the impact of high levels of rain last year. According to data from the National Climatic Data Center, Shenandoah County had more precipitation between March 1, 2018, and February 28, 2019, than in any comparable period in at least 22 years and probably longer. (The Shenandoah County data, which comes in the form of daily precipitation summaries, has some missing values between 1986 and 1996.)
The picture is similar in Warren County, although Warren County’s data has more missing values than Shenandoah County’s does.
Those high rain levels led the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors to request that Shenandoah County be declared an agriculture disaster area. According to an action item summary for the board’s meeting on Tuesday, livestock deaths have been higher than in previous years, while agricultural yields have been lower than normal.
“Livestock producers have faced extreme hardships,” the action item summary states. “[The high amount of rain] has resulted in excessive damage to pastures, excessive death loss in livestock and additional feed costs.”
For White, they meant a year of battling nonstop with the weather.
In addition to causing grapes to become less sweet and less acidic, excessive water levels can cause mildew to form on the leaves. Eventually, the grapes can crack and split.
“The skins can’t expand forever,” White said.
In order to stave off the water, White and other growers place their vineyards on hills, causing much of the excess rain to pour down, out of the way of the vines.
In order to combat the mildew, White will use sprays. But while he usually stops using the sprays around two months before harvest, he did not do that last year.
And in spite of his efforts to limit the impact of the high rain levels, the rain still left an enormous impact on White.
“Last year’s rains were the worst I’ve ever seen in 25 years of being in the industry,” White said. “There was no let-up. So by the time we got to harvest, the flavors were virtually nonexistent.”