In the early hours of May 18th, temperatures across the northeast plummeted below freezing—breaking all records and putting New York State crops at risk. New York is the third-largest wine producing region in the U.S., and the damage is still being assessed. Still, many are already calling it the worst freeze the state has seen in decades.
The freeze came after an April that saw record highs, with four consecutive days over 80°F. The heat forced delicate new buds from the vines’ winter slumber, leaving vintners hopeful for a fruit-filled summer.
But across the Northeast, winegrowers, as well as farmers of other crops like apples, recently woke to a heartbreaking scene.
Colleen Hardy, co-founder of Living Roots Wine, posted images on Instagram from her family’s Shale Creek vineyard on Keuka Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The photos shared visuals of brown, drooping vine leaves and shriveled buds.
“A few weeks back, we posted about keeping our fingers crossed for warm weather and frost-free nights,” she captioned the photo. “Last night our fears came true. Coupled with our unseasonably warm April and early bud break, last night’s frigid temps wreaked havoc on crops throughout New York. Because of this, affected vineyards, like our family’s, will have little to no fruit this year.”
We asked winemakers across New York to assess their situation and share what they can do moving forward to protect their delicate crops.
A Surprising Season
Despite being a cold-climate region, similar crop-destroying frost events are historically very rare. This is because bud break generally occurs too late in the season for frost to be a concern.
“The Finger Lakes have never needed frost protection in the past,” says Paul Brock, winemaker and co-owner of Silver Thread Winery on the east side of New York’s Seneca Lake. “This is new for us. Nobody I have talked with has ever seen anything like this—going back to the 1970s and earlier.”
Kelby Russell, Red Newt Cellars’ longtime winemaker, approximates he lost around half of the grapes from his recently purchased Lahoma Vineyard on Seneca Lake’s west side. “This sort of frost event is still a notable rarity for us,” he says. “This isn’t Burgundy or Bordeaux or parts of Germany yet, where spring frost is an almost every year concern.”
But winegrowers admit that climate chaos will likely make frost events more commonplace.
“I don’t know what climate change has in store for us, but it’s definitely getting more extreme,” says Matthew Spaccarelli, who makes wine for both his family’s Benmarl Winery and his own label, Fjord, in the Hudson River region. “I’m a Hudson Valley native and this is the first time that I can remember not having to shovel snow during the winter. Last summer, we went over eight weeks without a drop of rain. In 2021, we saw 14 inches of precipitation in the first two weeks of harvest.”
Damage Across the State
The Finger Lakes region, which produces the lion’s share of New York State’s wines, with over 9,000 acres under vine, sustained the most widespread damage from the frosts.
Bully Hill Vineyards, located on the south side of Keuka Lake, grows mainly indigenous and French-American hybrid varieties on its own estate. They source grapes from around the region. Stephen Taylor, the winery’s wholesale manager and son of the founder, says that, while indigenous and hybrid varieties are more adapted to the region’s cold weather, in the case of last week’s frost event, they fared as badly as their vinifera counterparts.
“A huge factor is that we had unusually warm springs, so everything was growing pretty quickly. It made everything more vulnerable,” he says. “One of the advantages of hybrids is that they are produced so that they don’t bloom as quickly. But if it’s so warm, and everything starts blooming, it kind of opens everyone up to that.”
Ultimately, the location of the vineyards determined the extent of damage more than the grape species or variety.
“In terms of the sites affected, it really depended on a number of factors; the topography of the land, wherever there were low spots where cold air could collect caused more damage. On our steeper slopes closer to the lake, there was less damage,” explains Meagan Frank, vice president of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, located on Keuka Lake.
The Hudson River wine region also experienced temperatures that hovered just below freezing, despite its location 240 miles southeast of the Finger Lakes.
“Bud break was the earliest I have seen it in my 18 years of growing grapes,” says Spaccarelli, whose wineries are located near Marlboro, on the west side of the Hudson River. Spaccarelli estimates losing 5 to 10% of Benmarl’s crop and 10 to 20% of Fjord’s to the frost event, but, he says, “time will tell”.
“We really don’t expect to know the full extent of the damage for a week or two at least,” says Kyle Anne Pallischeck, the executive director of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. “Most are hoping the secondary buds were spared—and we’ll see. Maybe a little fruit there, but more importantly not losing vines completely is the hope.”
“The Hudson Valley is such a diverse landscape, that I think this episode is not a grower-by-grower, or even block-by-block situation, but rather a row-by-row or even panel-by-panel situation,” adds Spaccarelli.
Proximity to the water, whether it be the Hudson River or one of the Finger Lakes, seemed to play a part, with vineyards closer to water less impacted, thanks to increased airflow.
Long Island, New York’s southernmost wine-growing region, seems to have been saved from most of the frost damage precisely because of the ocean’s influence.
“We are incredibly lucky here on Long Island to be moderated by the Long Island Sound and Great Peconic Bay,” says Gabriella Macari, director of operations at her family’s estate, Macari Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. “Our site, in particular, is extremely close to the Long Island Sound, the body of water actually borders the edge of our farm.”
Temperatures were recorded as low as 33°F on Long Island, but stayed just warm enough to have protected most vineyards. Macari says they are in planning meetings now to discuss selling some of their fruit to wineries upstate.
Preparing for a New Normal
Because of its infrequency, many New York wineries aren’t well equipped to handle frost. Some wineries ran tractors through the vineyards and few used wind turbines, to increase airflow. Many others burned hay for heat or mowed the grass short in the vineyard to help keep the cold air away from the fruiting wire.
“We do not have fan machines or sprinklers because, in 65 years of growing these grapes, we have not had severe spring frost issues,” says Frank.
Many winegrowers say that after last week’s freeze, they’ll be investing in frost prevention like wind machines and smudge pots, a device that burns oil to help prevent frost on plants.
“I sort of feel foolish,” says Dave Pittard, owner of Buttonwood Grove and Six Eighty Cellars, both on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes. “I grew up on an apple farm. When my wife and I bought Buttonwood about 10 years ago, my cousin, who’s still an apple farmer, said to me, ‘Do yourself a favor, just start buying smudge pots. Buy a few every year. One year you’re gonna need them.’ And he was right.”
Pittard lost 75 to 90% of his Chardonnay crop on Buttonwood’s southernmost vineyard.
Frost prevention equipment, however, doesn’t come cheap, and small-to-medium-sized producers will especially feel the pinch.
“They’re a significant expense, so if and when we’re able to afford something like that, we’d be crazy not to,” Pittard says.
Ultimately, the 2023 vintage is bound to be a small one. Yet, New York’s winegrowers must carry on farming—without knowing the true extent of their loss until the harvest comes in the fall.