Even after a mild winter, Michigan residents are delighted to welcome the unseasonably warm, early spring weather. In mid-Michigan, the snow is gone, the grass is beginning to green, and just this week worms burst from the ground, wetted with rainwater all over city sidewalks.
I reach out to gently touch my lilac shrub, and run a finger over a budding branch. I remember what a warm March and an April freeze did to our state’s cherry and apple producers in 2012. The majority of Michigan orchards lost all or nearly all of their buds to the frost, and many lost their entire crop for the season.
The wine and grape industry endured a damaging late frost in 2014, and other recent climate challenges, including a vine-decimating hail in 2015.
Needless to say, Michigan’s weather has not been kind to agriculture the last few years. Business certainly suffered for many Michigan farmers, growers, and wineries. Some producers brought in fruit from other states to bolster production or relied on their own surplus from previous years.
Right now, the daytime temperatures wax and wane between 50 and 60 degrees, and the nights rest just above freezing. Iris and daffodil shoots are a hand tall, and the crocuses have been blooming all week. The birds ignore my feeder, and the green onions I planted last fall have regained the strength to continue growing. By all observable accounts, spring is here.
I asked Taylor Simpson at Good Harbor Vineyards if the weather was making her nervous. “Spring makes every farmer nervous every year,” she says. “There is always a chance of frost between April and May, and the damage to the vines just depends on how hard the frost is and how far along the buds are. There is nothing you can do about the weather, so you just go out there, start pruning, and do what you can to get a start on the season.”
Simpson’s family has been farming on the Leelanau Peninsula for generations. Her grandfather grew pears for Gerber in the 1950s. Her parents tended many acres of cherries and apples. In the 1970s, her father studied enology and viticulture at the University of California Davis and returned to Michigan to plant the vines that would become Good Harbor Vineyards.
In 2014, the extreme cold was cause for concern at Good Harbor Vineyards, though a heavy snow helped to protect the vines. Still, they only produced 40 percent of a regular crop. 2015 was another challenging year, with a late frost claiming more of their fruit.
Like many Michigan growers, Good Harbor Vineyards is taking measures to protect their business. They have begun creating ciders from their orchards, and manage hundreds of acres of additional growth.
“Each growing site on the peninsula is effected differently by the weather, so site selection is important,” Simpson says. “By expanding our production, we hope to rely on the good years to get us through the bad ones.”
Though it devastated apples and cherries, 2012 was a terrific year for Michigan grapes. Grape vines bud later than fruit trees, so they avoided the damaging frost. The hot summer that followed allowed for full ripening of the fruit, and resulted in exceptional wine. Thankfully, many growers were able to rely on these harvests from 2012 and 2013 and carry them through the next two years.
Michigan’s unique landscape allows for the growth of a variety of grapes and production of world-class wines. The climate of this region is both a blessing and a curse, and extreme weather conditions are keeping Michigan winemakers on their toes.
“Our vines have rested for two years now,” Simpson says. “If the weather cooperates, our vines should enjoy a very productive season.”
Jenelle Jagmin is a promotion specialist for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. Founded in 1985, the council was established within the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. For more information, and plan your trip to Michigan wine country, visit michiganwines.com.