George Whitmill and Kat Crockett trim vines in their vineyard in Elgin in preparation for the 2022 growing season. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Changes in weather have impacted vineyards and wine throughout the world, creating an element of uncertainty and an abundance of challenges, but also superior wines.  “Wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate, and this is much of what makes wine so exquisite. But it also means wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate change,” says Elizabeth M. Wolkovich, associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. 

As you travel east on Elgin Rd. for three miles on a gradual, downward slope you will encounter Autumn Sage, Deep Sky, KG Vines (my vineyard), Callaghan’s, Pronghorn, and Flying Leap, all sharing similar micro-climates. These are but a few of the many vineyards in the area. Elgin-Sonoita has been designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) because of its unique geographic and climate features that distinguish it from surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. French, Italian, and Spanish varietals are common in this area and often produce award-winning wines.

Elgin wine grape growers can produce terrific fruit, but not without an abundance of resiliency, know-how, courage, and coping skills because of the challenging micro-climate and changing weather patterns. Hailstorm micro-bursts just before the harvest in 2020 is a great example of how nature can wreak havoc in a few short miles.

The storm moved swiftly from east to west in a straight line with strong winds, hail gusting sideways, and ominous dark clouds rolling above. Days later when a second hailstorm slammed, we knew this would not be a very good year for grapes in Elgin. Broke Ide, a new winemaker just north of Lower Elgin Road commented, “Hail is no joke!  It not only pierces the skin of the berries, but it also shreds the canopy.”

Both Autumn Sage and Deep Sky luckily escaped hail damage. KG Vines lost about 3.6 tons of fruit, Callaghan’s was basically shredded, Pronghorn was trashed, and Mark Beres of Flying Leap said he was able to harvest only enough grapes ahead of the second storm to make two small barrels of “2020 Monsoon Brandy.” He pointed out that distilled spirits are far less profitable than wine sales. 

The drama for the season wasn’t over just yet. In October 2020, a polar vortex caused sustained freezing temperatures in the teens to creep into the area before the vines became dormant, but the damage from this weather event was not to become evident until the spring of 2021.

In March and April 2021, the vines in the area wake up and buds begin to swell, turn a bit pink and then burst in small, tender leaves, but something was terribly wrong. There were so few live buds. It was a cool spring, and we were hoping it was just a delay, but we came to find out that a great many of the buds were killed in last October’s freeze. No buds equals no fruit. The season was already off to a bad start and as time passed, evidence of the damage was jaw-dropping.  

The cool spring turned quickly to a heat wave and the few buds that survived had just developed pea-sized grapes, with the canopy lagging. The extreme heat caused the vines to shut down and without the cover of fully developed leaves many of the small grapes got sunburned. This made the fruit shrivel and dry, reducing the already limited harvest. 

Then the rains came. Growth picked up, the canopies grew in some cases like a jungle, and the grass and weeds flourished causing bugs to move in and thrive. Skeletonizers, a black, yellow, and blue striped caterpillar which matures into a blue-black moth, rapidly devoured grape leaves leaving only the veins behind. One week before harvesting an acre of promising white grapes, KG Vines developed an infestation of fruit flies that love buzzing under the canopy. They deposited a bacterium that totally wiped out the crop. If only we had picked those a few days earlier! Two less dramatic hailstorms also came in with the rains.

Finally, harvest time rolled around. Overall, Autumn Sage and Deep Sky enjoyed a pretty good yield at higher ground. The rest of us did not. During the 2020 early deep freeze, the cold air mass dropped to ground level and meandered down Elgin Road, freezing out buds in its path with the worst destruction occurring at the lower vineyards. KG Vines lost over 12 tons of grapes, leaving our customers struggling to source additional fruit. Callaghan’s and Pronghorn fared even worse and began ripping out whole rows of dead and dying vines. 

Flying Leap had absolutely no fruit to harvest in contrast to their normal seven to 12 tons. Reflecting on a not-so-good year in Elgin, Beres commented, “Thankfully, we have a geographically diversified vineyard portfolio. The small vineyard at our winery estate is expensive to maintain, and inconsistent yields make it anything but commercially viable, but we also have vineyards in Willcox which provided a record harvest. I believe that Sonoita and Elgin are less than ideal places to grow wine grapes. Yields are much lower than Willcox. At 5,000 feet, the risk is high, the weather is variable and at times extreme, and vines suffer from freezing.” He added that with many years of oak aging and bottle conditioning, the minerality of the wines made here can produce some very interesting and, in some cases, extraordinary wines.

Todd Bostock of Pronghorn Vineyard optimistically pointed out that he prefers to talk about the positive side of things and to find the silver lining. “We started planting in 2004 and I would like to think we have learned a little bit from our experience growing there,” he said. “The bright side is the opportunity to start redeveloping the vineyard and apply some of the things we learned.” Bostock is planning to replant 15 acres this coming year to complement their sparkling wine, reduce the spacing of the rows and vines, move to submerged irrigation lines, and modify strategies for the next planting. Callaghan’s will also stagger their replanting, and KG Vines has 600 of 1,800 replacement plants on order, including a new varietal, for planting this spring.  

According to Kent Callaghan, “Our AVA is a great place to grow if you want to produce distinctive, concentrated wines, but it does not come without difficulty. All four of our wines served at the White House were estate Sonoita AVA wines. We have certainly been forced to reevaluate our vineyard in light of the damage from 2020, but we are absolutely committed to growing in the Sonoita AVA.”

When my husband, George, and I decided to plant our 10-acre vineyard, we focused on having something to do outdoors every day, enjoying the beautiful panoramic views, making enough to pay our county taxes, driving John Deere tractors, and getting our hands in the dirt. We have learned over the years that any type of farming is always risky, but we were both surprised about all the variables that impact grape growing and the amount of research and hard work it takes to overcome the many, many challenges.  

New vineyards are popping up in regions that have never grown grapes, new or different varietals are being grafted or grown in warmer regions. Growers are moving to higher altitudes and deploying new canopy, trellising, and spacing strategies to mitigate sunburn and intense heat. Growers in Elgin are also modifying strategies to align with changing climate. Wine has been around for over 8,000 years and grape growers and wine makers will apply their resiliency, know-how and courage to guarantee our wine cellars will not run dry.