You Can’t Always Blame Nature For a Disappointing Harvest

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

I’ve been exploring the relationship of winemakers and nature for a number of years. The accelerated development of new technology and techniques in the growing, cultivation and processing of wine grapes has imbued a sense of invincibility on man’s growing dominance over nature. That is, of course, until nature wields her powerful hand and strikes a vineyard with a sometimes subtle, sometimes bold calamity.

It may be slow and debilitating weather patterns such as drought, prolonged rain spells or excessive heat. Or it may be sudden, such as hailstorms, lightning or frost.

As much as these seemingly random weather phenomena are disheartening to stalwart winemakers, the vicious acts perpetrated by those intent on disrupting the orderly realm of winemaking and distribution are equally upsetting. I’ve reported on incidents of destruction of wine by disgruntled employees, dissident local winemakers and their ilk.

But last week, I read of an egregious act suffered by a winery in Virginia. And this time it wasn’t nature.

Wineries along the East Coast have always struggled to produce fine wine. The vagaries of weather mentioned above seem particularly daunting to those intent on eliciting the best of the unique land and climate that influence their vineyards.

From Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump, nature’s dominance has been daunting in their attempts to produce fine wine in Virginia. Recently, a number of wineries from Maryland, south to Virginia, the Carolinas and even Georgia have been able to coexist with nature and are producing the best wines to come from these states.

The 2018 growing season in Virginia has been promising. A number of the 250-plus wineries are in the throes of harvesting their crops. This is the most exciting, albeit tenuous, time of year in the growing cycle of a vineyard. The nurturing of the vineyards during the months-long season comes down to a key decision: when is the ideal day to harvest the grape crop. The goal is to pick the grapes at the precise moment of full ripeness. Too soon and the ultimate wine may be bitter or thin. Too late and the wine may be too high in alcohol with an off-putting fruit juice characteristic.

Such was the case at the small family-run Firefly Hills Vineyards near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Begun 12 years ago, the vineyard is owned, tended and harvested by the Dunkenberger family. Each year David Dunkenberger, his wife Allison, their daughters, his father and several friends, at the precise moment of grape ripeness, head to the vineyards. The harvest typically requires eight people working 12 hours over several days to pick the 2.5 tons of grapes from 2,500 grapevines.

Last Sunday, the decision was made to begin the harvesting early Tuesday morning. Allison checked the vineyard one more time on Monday in preparation of harvest day.

But the harvest never happened.

When David came to the vineyard on Tuesday morning, he was shocked. The grapevines were bare. During the night thieves had picked and carted off the entire crop of ripe grapes. No vines were destroyed or damaged. The bird netting covering the vines had been moved for picking the grapes and then put back in place.

“I can handle losing a crop to Mother Nature, but to come in and take my crop in the middle of the night and steal what we’ve worked for for eight months, that’s disheartening,” David said.

In the span of one night, Firefly Hill’s entire crop disappeared. For the equivalent of 150 to 200 cases of wine lost, Allison estimated the value to be close to $50,000. The Dunkenbergers have been forced to close the winery and are waiting anxiously for the next cycle of grape growing to begin in the spring. In the future, dealing with the vagaries of nature will be much more palatable.

The thieves had to be familiar with the winery and its operations. The local sheriff has asked that anyone with information contact him. My uninformed starting point for him: seek out former employees or someone with a known grudge. Stay tuned for updates.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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