SIKESTON -- This year's grape harvest is proving to be a bountiful one for Missouri wineries, leaving some wineries looking for extra storage space.
Winemaker Jerry Smith said River Ridge Winery in Commerce is having its best year ever since the first grapes were planted in 1981 and the winery opened in 1994.
"The quality (of grapes) was superb, and production was up 20 percent," Smith said.
This harvest follows one of the worst years in Missouri grape production history, when many vineyards lost entire crops due to the Easter freeze of 2007. Smith said River Ridge lost more than 75 percent of the crop in 2007.
By contrast, the 2008 harvest is hitting the jackpot throughout the state.
"It is an excellent harvest -- 20 to 25 percent more than anticipated in many instances," said Keith Striegler, director of the University of Missouri Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology, in a news release.
Missouri vineyards were in a good position to have an exceptional crop in 2008, Striegler said.
"All the rain we've had increased berry size, which led to larger clusters. In some cases, it's too much of a good thing," Striegler said. "You can't bring in more fruit than you can de-stem, crush or have adequate tank capacity for fermentation and storage."
The light crop in 2007 allowed vines to produce excellent-quality wood for the 2008 season. Although some vineyards experienced damage, the state's crop weathered hurricanes Gustav and Ike fairly well.
Smith said following last year's worst crop, he was "hopefully expecting" a decent crop in 2008.
"You can have some follow-up damage to fruiting buds. Until we had the bud break in the spring and got past the final threat of frost, at that time, I could tell -- unless some other act of nature occurred -- we were going to have a good, bountiful crop," Smith said.
Smith said he followed normal growing procedures with this year's grapes.
"We had to be very selective in our pruning, and we just want to be sure we have a level production. You don't just want to produce a maximum pound of grapes, but you prune for quality," Smith said.
Smith said he also does cluster thinning to reduce the number of clusters that each vine produces. That creates grapes higher in sugar and lower in acidity which results in a better flavor.
"The analogy that we use to explain this is a very ripe tomato tastes better than one that's not ripe. It's the same with peaches, grapes and wine made with grapes. So if you let your vines produce a balanced crop -- not too much and not too little -- the wine tastes better," Smith said.
Winemaker Cory Bomgaars of Les Bourgeois Vineyards said he expects a large yield from the 30-acre Rocheport vineyard. The varieties at Les Bourgeois include Vignoles, Chardonel and Norton.
Les Bourgeois storage tanks are full. "Usually you want to keep some flexibility there for things that come up in harvest," Bomgaars said in a news release from University of Missouri. "We've had to turn down growers who had high quality fruit or loads of fruit at a bargain price."
Tim Puchta of Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann said his winery had to purchase extra storage tanks to process the harvest. He lost 95 percent of his crop last year, but this year his harvest on red grapes is running two to four weeks late.
"Quantity is not an issue," he said. "The quality of grapes is all over the place. Due to the cool, wet conditions during most of the growing season, for many varieties acidity is high, sugars lower and pH levels lower than normal."
The large harvest comes at a time when some wineries are carrying larger inventories due to the slowdown in the economy, further reducing tank space, Puchta said.
The Scott County winery expanded its production and storage area this year, Smith said. Production increased from about 6,000 gallons to somewhere between 7,000 and 7,500 gallons, he said.
Smith said River Ridge finished harvesting its last grapes crop on Tuesday, which was fairly late.
"This is the best of the best," Smith said about the grape harvest, adding there have been years where River Ridge has had big increases in quantity and suffer in quality and vice versa.
The grape industry is growing rapidly in Missouri. The state has 78 wineries and 1,400 bearing acres of grapes -- up from 1,200 acres in 2005.
"Consumers can expect a good supply of high-quality Missouri wine," Striegler said.