In February, as a polar vortex pummeled Texas with unseasonably freezing temperatures for 10 days, Julie Kuhlken of Stonewall’s Pedernales Cellars was simply trying to survive 24 hours at a time.
“Honestly, what was going through my head was whether I would have water and electricity from day to day,” says Kuhlken. “Both the winery and vineyard were without both throughout the entire 10 days, so they were a lost cause. Once the storm passed, it was a question of assessing damage.”
The winery well house, though drained, sustained significant damage to the water system. Miraculously, though, the vineyard was mostly spared. Their vineyard manager, Evan McKibben, frequently tended to the grapes, even during the storm.
“That made a huge difference,” Kuhlken says. “My other concern was the winery cats.”
They managed to wrangle one cat indoors before the storm hit Stonewall the Thursday before Valentine’s Day, but the male cat “would not let himself be caught,” says Kuhlken. She was relieved to find him still alive under a nearby building after the storm passed.
It’s been a challenging year for winemakers in Texas’ Hill Country. In 2020, an early fall freeze had produced “a very compromised vintage,” says Kuhlken. Pedernales Cellars had only cultivated 40% of the crop it had hoped to have at the start of the growing season.
While it’s too soon to determine how the freeze will or will not affect this year’s harvest, Kuhlken is hopeful.
“We are more optimistic than one would expect,” she says. “At this point, the vines look amazingly resilient.”
Resiliency is nonnegotiable as a Texas winemaker. Varying microclimates, soils and topography can make grape growing especially challenging. Spring freezes and hail storms are added stresses that can plague the region and keep winemakers up at night. Still, many grape varieties do well in the heat of the Texas Hill Country, including Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Amarela, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Albariño.
Kuhlken’s parents, Larry and Jeanine Kuhlken, planted their first vineyard near Fredericksburg in the early 1990s. In 2005, Larry and Jeanine’s children, Julie and her brother David, crafted plans for what would become Pedernales Cellars, a boutique winery focused on small-lot wines.
Together, they’ve learned to adapt as extreme weather conditions become more common.
“We learned a lot from our parents’ experience,” Kuhlken says. “In the Texas Hill Country, site specifics make a huge difference because there are so many microclimates.”
Kuhlken’s parents planted rows that ran parallel to the slope of the hill all the way to the bottom, which meant that year after year, the bottom of every row would get torched by settling cold during a spring freeze event. So, the Kuhlken kids planted perpendicular to the hill slope and didn’t plant to the bottom. That way, the coldest weather is always below the last row of vines.
“Variety selection also helps,” Kuhlken says. “We planted warm-weather varieties that do well in our climate, and planted Mourvèdre—a late bud breaker—at the bottom of the hill, so it was most likely to be dormant during a late-spring freeze. Against hail, we now deploy hail netting regularly since hail is not uncommon during the spring.”
In Fredericksburg, Joe Becker of Becker Vineyards says that after the February freeze, he and his team were most concerned about the older vines and potential trunk splitting.
“However, most of the vines were covered in a layer of ice, which provided some degree of insulation for the vines,” Becker says. “The good news is we have gotten reports from our growers in west Texas and the Hill Country that the vines have been doing well. My father and I inspected some vines on our estate and they seem to be in good shape.”
In previous years, some growers the Beckers work with have employed creative measures to combat extreme weather. One used wind turbines to flush out cold air. Another used propane-powered hot-air blowers to warm grapes.
In May 2013, when there was a late freeze in Texas and snow at the Beckers’ Fredericksburg winery, they too got creative.
“At that time, we used a helicopter to circulate the air in our Sauvignon Blanc vineyard,” Becker says. “Weather is the greatest challenge in Texas. One has to have a sense of humor to deal with its unpredictability. In response to bottling or harvest demands, our winemaker, Jon Leahy, uses the sarcastic phrase, ‘I’ll give mother nature a call and get back with you.’”