Farm Wineries Doing a Rain Dance

Aug 02, 2016

Almost every month, I sit at my desk pondering “what do people want to read about?” We’ve got the usual promotions, events, concert series, and anniversary celebrations as per usual. But I always wonder what y’all really want to read about. I feel like I am often discussing the weather, but as the reporters continue to call the office wanting to set up interviews concerning the current water, or-lack-thereof, conditions, the decision was fairly obvious this month.

On July 15th, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a drought watch for the entire state of New York. Houses have signs in their front yards donning “We Need Water” and the majestic Taughannock Falls is nothing more than a Taughannock Trickle right now. Grassy hillsides are khaki colored and some trees have even begun dropping leaves already. Everywhere you look, there are signs of water shortage. Some signs though, are much smaller – like smaller than usual grapes.

I wrote a couple months ago about the “Valentine’s Day Massacre”, in which temperatures dipped to as low as -18 degrees overnight across Seneca and Cayuga lakes, causing some unwelcome damage. The shock to the vines resulted in approximately 60% bud loss in portions of Knapp Winery’s vineyards. For the non-farmer, weather on February 14th has long been forgotten. In the vineyards, however, work has been a challenge ever since.

As if the random cold snap wasn’t enough, it seems as if Mother Nature has decided to throw us another curve ball. Some Cayuga Lake wineries are reporting less than a half inch of cumulative precipitation this season, which is hardly enough to cultivate plump fruit for harvest.  The drought coupled with the cold snap from February has set us behind.

I spoke with co-owner Chris Weaver of Toro Run Winery to see how his vineyards are holding up. I was fairly concerned about theirs in particular, since they have some of the newest vines on the lake, meaning they have a shallower root system in their young age. Weaver confirmed that the youthful vines are more vulnerable, but then added that their vineyards are all clay, which retains water better than soil.

Weaver and his crew are spending the better portion of their time tending to their Riesling and Chardonnay vines. After the cold snap followed by the drought, which is occurring mid-way through their growth, the fruit hasn’t had a chance to develop into full clusters yet. They are not yet mature and are less resilient to threats like disease and extreme weather. Many Finger Lakes vineyards are facing various issues. At Toro Run in particular, they’re battling powdery mildew, a crop disease that is common in moist humid conditions. It’s more common on less mature grapes. Rather than using a harmful fungicide, Toro Run will cut away the Riesling and Chardonnay that has been hit with powdery mildew, approximately ¼ of the current fruit.

Some varietals, mostly reds like Toro Run’s Pinot Noir, are weathering the drought exceptionally. It requires less water and Weaver says their Pinot will likely be the best it has ever been.

We are hoping for rain, but on the bright side, if we end up with less grape clusters on the vines, we’ll likely end up with better quality fruit. It is still early yet, to know if the current lack of water will be detrimental to this season’s crop, but if we continue to do our rain dances, we could change the tide. The later in the growing season we see water deprivation, the more effect it has on the vines. If we end up with a rainy August to October, we could be out of the woods. Well, knock on wood!

On the bright side, it seems as if the lack of water has made for some thirsty guests! A majority of the wineries are reporting an increase in visitation this summer. Also, without the threat of rain in the forecast, many of the evening concert series and weekend events have taken place without a hitch.

In summary, keep doing those rain dances, we need more wet stuff!

Cassandra Harrington is the executive director of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. To learn more, visit