It sure been a cold, cold winter
My feet been draggin’ ‘cross the ground
And the fields has all been brown and fallow
And the springtime take a long way around
“Winter” The Rolling Stones
The early June weekend started out with normal vineyard chores. We decided on Friday morning that we had enough growth to start tucking vines into the guide wires of the trellising. Jed started at one end with the table grapes where some of the vines were already reaching the top wire. I started at the other end where the growth was more modest. I had my work belt on so I was taking the added step of tying up loose cordon vines wherever I saw them. At the end of the day I reported to Jed that I had seen some dead vines that I had not seen before. He had seen some too. Dead vines is never a good thing, and we had just finished planting 30 replacement vines the previous month.
We returned to the project again on Saturday morning, and at our noon break we both remarked that we were seeing more and more vines with leaves that were wilted. There was no pattern to what we were seeing. Some vines were totally dead. Other vines had leaves that were dying on the cordon vines, but there were healthy new shoots coming up from the bottom. Even weirder were the vines where one of the trunks would be dead or dying and the other trunk was perfectly healthy. What was going on? Even since the day before more vines were showing signs of wilting.
Me: Did you spray too much of something?
Jed: I’ve just been spraying hydrogen peroxide and I don’t think you can spray too much of that on the vines.
Me: Could it be a disease?
Jed: What disease would do this? Harm part of the same plant but not all of it? I think it must be frost damage.
Me: It’s not frost damage. I know what that looks like from Steve Brown’s vineyard when he lost a lot of buds.
Jed: We need to take some cuttings and look things up.
Our online detective work turned up two disease possibilities: one was called Eutypa dieback and the other had various names around the world, including Esca or Black Measles. Both were fungal diseases that were probably present in the canes when they were planted, but that don’t show up until the plant reaches maturity. Neither has a cure other than to yank out the diseased growth and burn it, and plant new stock.
We stopped our research in a funk, and headed off for the diversion of a Lucinda Williams concert.
The next morning we consulted with our fellow vineyard owner Bob Cassady. By now the count of wilting vines was heading north of 200. Bob was puzzled. He agreed that it was looking like it might be one of the fungal diseases but urged us not to yank out any vines until we had consulted with some experts from the state agricultural extension. He put in a call to Dan Ward at Rutgers. Jed and I headed out to BBQ in Philly determined to forget our worries. I, of course, worried out loud about the grapevines to everyone I talked to. It was hard to fall asleep that night. We had just started construction on the winery, and now we may not have a vineyard if this disease keeps spreading to other grapes. Finally, we reminded each other that this was supposed to be an adventure, and that meant taking the bad with the good.
Monday morning we hear that Dan can stop by to look at the vines early in the afternoon. I head back out to the vineyard to keep tucking up vines, determined not to think about the impending doom.
Finally Dan arrives, along with Gary Pavlis who is with NJ Ag Extension program, in charge of helping new growers get started. We have not talked to Gary since he first advised us three years earlier on starting a vineyard. I lead the two of them out to the vineyard, babbling about Eutypa, and worrying about the set-back of having to yank out a third of our vineyard. I point out one of the vines where one trunk is dead and the other one is fine; then another where both trunks are dead but healthy shoots are pushing up from the bottom.
Dan says, “We’re seeing a lot of this in NJ vineyards this spring. This is classic winter die back, but we haven’t seen this in NJ vineyards for over 20 years.”
Me: So this isn’t a fungus, and I don’t have to rip out vines?
Dan: No, if anything just be patient. You won’t really know until July how many vines will make it.
Dan goes on to explain the difference between winter die back and spring frost damage. I am relieved to know that we are not alone, and that I don’t have to worry about more vines getting infected. But it’s discouraging to hear that we could still lose more vines, now perhaps as much as half the vineyard. Still, it’s a relief to know that this was plain old mother Nature, and not some doofus thing Jed and I screwed up.
The two guys go on to give tips on how to treat the vineyard over the summer to help as many vines as possible recover. We talk which kind of grow tubes work best in this situation, and what kind of irrigation plan will best help the needy plants whose vascular systems were damaged by the freezing winter temperatures. Dan adds a few suggestions about mowing, and I am finally relaxing when they leave.
Our vineyard has taken yet another hit. But it still has plenty of healthy plants, many of which have blossoms. So yes we will have a crop this year. And maybe the smaller size will be a better next step in this adventure.