Sustainable Wine: A New York FingerLake's State of Mind By Kyle Bishop and Monica Ripp

A Look Into the Life of Finger Lake Wineries.

By: Kyle Bishop

After a long, hard day at work, many New York residents like to unwind and relax with a glass of wine. Their choice of wine may soon have to change, however, as vineyards across the nation cope with the increasing effects of climate change.

Wineries in the Finger Lakes region of New York have been particularly affected by extreme temperature fluctuations, resulting in many wineries becoming more conscious of the environment and more adept at adapting their methods.

While New York deals with its share of changes, wineries across the world are being affected as well. France, considered by many to be the epitome of wine production, is undergoing higher temperatures that cause budding on stems to occur earlier and, consequently, longer harvesting seasons than in the past. While this might seem beneficial, growers have noticed a decrease in the quality of the wine when the weather was too dry and hot. A study performed in 2012 by a research group from the University of Texas warned vineyard owners that there might be a need to move their growing fields to higher elevations to combat warmer temperatures.

Locally, the changes have already had a severe effect on the production of wine. Massive temperature fluctuations can cause early budding of crops or, if the temperatures drop below zero, crop death or even a ruined harvest. This change has prodded vineyards to look into more sustainable methods for their vineyards, as well as the best growing methods for adapting to the changes in the region.

Thirsty Owl Vineyards. One of over 100 wine producers in the region that has begun the transformation into a more sustainable vineyard. Solar panels and wind turbines have been installed.
They still deal with massive temperature fluctuations and weather phenomena, however. Two days prior to these pictures, taken April 9, 2017, snow and below freezing temperatures were recorded in the area; on this day, the temperature was a beautiful 70 degrees. Water pools in the areas between the vines that can cause rot if left long enough among the vine roots, according to the vineyard.
Even with the changing weather, new stems are growing on the vines, with budding and leaf development expected after Mother’s Day in May. Farmers will prune the crop in early winter to make way for growth. During the winter months, alfalfa and the cut debris are used to keep the frost from affecting the soil.

Despite attempts to make Thirsty Owl "green," pesticides are still used to prevent insects from devastating the crops. According to the winery, converting to an organic orchard is too difficult, though sustainable practices are a stepping stone to becoming more conscious about environmental effects. For now, grapes such as Chancellor French Grapes, shown here, are used to combat the cold. Old and well-tried in the region, these types of white wine grapes are hardy in cold temperature and can handle extreme temperature fluctuations.

Other wineries have also begun working on sustainable methods. Wagner Vineyards is the oldest vineyard on Seneca Lake, boasting over 250 acres of crops. Recently they have installed a 250 kilowatt-hour solar farm for their buildings, the largest solar farm in the region.
The solar farm powers nearly all the vineyard’s activities, from basic lighting in their store to the Ginny Lee Café, a beautiful restaurant on the property. To them, it was thought of as a logical choice. With their reliance on the sun for grape harvest, adding solar panels to further harvest energy was just more of what they do.
The massive wine distillation tanks from Wagner Vineyards are all run with the power from the solar array on the roof and in the nearby fields. Their primary wine source, Riesling, is sitting in these tankards, but wine of all types is made here. Riesling, a hardy wine meant for cold climates, is well used among the growers in the area, but that may not be the case for long.

Where will the wine flow?

By: Monica Ripp

Nestled along the west side of Cayuga Lake stands Sheldrake Point Winery, named state winery of the year in 2009 and 2010, and one of only two New York wineries to win a place on Wine & Spirits 2015 top 100 wineries list.

As an estate winery Sheldrake uses only grapes from their own vineyards. The winery produces 7000 cases of wine a year, including a dessert Riesling named “World’s Best” at the 2014 Canberra International Riesling Competition.

Once a summer getaway destination in the 1800s, the winery sits on a 44-acre lake front property, and boasts a climate especially suited to nurturing the European native or Vinifera grape varieties cultivated there.

Walking up the path to the tasting room, visitors can see rows of grape vines, inviting country-style buildings, a large green barn, and maybe a black cat mewing a skittish hello. It’s clear from the engaging and welcoming atmosphere, the wide selection of wines, the lake side views, and the friendly staff that the owners hope to restore the former relaxation and vigor that “summering at Sheldrake” once provided.

Ask any of the workers in the tasting room what makes the property so well suited to the finicky vinifera grape, and they will explain what they refer to as the “Sheldrake Effect.” The location of the vineyard on Cayuga Lake, the depth of the lake close to shore, as well as the interplay of Lake Ontario with Cayuga Lake create a climate that lengthens the growing season by nearly two weeks.

But with the rapid progression of global warming the length and timing of the growing season changes. Mike Wiemann, the manager of the beautifully-tended vineyards, is arguably one of the people most affected by climate change at Sheldrake Point.

Wiemann started his foray into grape cultivation, known as viticulture, during his studies at Cornell University and began working at Sheldrake Point Winery 18 years ago. He has an air of professionalism and vibrant personality, which mix well with the work he does.

“I like the challenge that growing good grapes to make good wine provides,” Wiemann said, adding, “rather than just, say, growing corn for production.”

Chief among the challenges, Wiemann said, is the cultivation of Vinifera grapes. They are sensitive to temperature change and diseases caused by excessive wetness or other weather extremes. So when the effects of climate change are added to the mix an already uphill struggle approaches a herculean trial.

Wiemann said that the unpredictability of when the vines will begin to bud – called bud break- is one of the main effects of climate change on viticulture. This used to consistently happen after May 1, he said, but, now it happens weeks or even months earlier with no consistent pattern except that,

“The bud break is coming on more frequently early.” He said.

This shift in timing means that the schedule for the vineyard is thrown out of whack and that practices usually performed at specific stages in vine development may happen later and add extra stress and time to the work.

Another risk to the quality of the grapes is the unpredictability of the weather: Storms are more frequent and intense and winters have been late and unusually warm. Snowfall in late spring time after the vines have “woken up,” means vital work cannot be done because it is too cold to tend them. And Increased duration and frequency of rain, Wiemann said, means that, “Leaf removal to expose the clusters was more of an option before, now-a-days it seems to be a necessity.”

The most frustrating effect, though, is the emergence of dry, drought-filled summers like the summer of 2016. There is little that can be done to help a grape vine during a drought, Wiemann said, except to hope that the underground water reserves will be enough to maintain the grapes.

He longs for the days when weather was consistent and predictable over longer stretches of time, when Vinifera could thrive and the main effect that the Finger Lakes climate had on the grapes was to provide cool, acidity-boosting nights. And when contemplating the next generation of wine in the region, Wiemann said, it’s hard to say what kind of grapes will thrive. An increased number of dry hot summers could shift the varieties the region is known for from white grapes, like the Riesling, to red grapes that are more suited to arid conditions. But for now, under Wiemann’s astute care, white wine is here to stay and more champion vintages are on the way.

Thankfully for the wineries, the "Finger Lake effect" that results from a 100-foot elevation above the water causes yeast formation to take longer on the vines. With a climate similar to Germany, the area has been perfect for white wine production, but these massive changes in weather may be forcing production more towards red wines capable of handling the warmer and wetter weather. Solar panel production, weather tracking and use of wind power is helping the area prepare for coming changes, while reducing their effect on the land they hold dear. Those changes could result in a drop of white wine from the region, but for now...

Enjoying a cold glass of Riesling on a beautiful spring day in upstate New York could not be more enjoyable!

All background images were used from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation media resources section of their website. Pictures otherwise were taken by Kyle Bishop. Video was taken by Kyle Bishop and edited by Monica Ripp. The Story on Sheldrake Winery was written by Monica Ripp.

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Kyle Bishop

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