Widespread frost damages vineyards: WOMP seeks to loosen Old Mission zoning

Since last harvest, anticipation's been building for Michigan's 2007 vintage, expected to be one of the best in recent memory and available on shelves late this summer or early in the fall. Now, after what's been a lackluster start to the 2008 season, there's even more appreciation for the prime growing conditions of last year.

The lowlight of a cool, rainy season so far was a widespread frost the last week of May. While not as ruinous as the 2003 freeze that killed some entire plants and wiped out virtually the whole crop, that's slim consolation for those affected by Mother Nature's grim surprise.

"It's not killing vines, but it sort of burnt back those initial growth shoots," which are the most fruitful part of the plant, said Black Star Farms winemaker Lee Lutes. He estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of Black Star's vineyards on both Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas were affected. He described the frost as "perplexing" given that it seemed to affect vineyards almost randomly.

"Some of the vineyards that have been more steadily irrigated seem to have tolerated it better," Lutes said. But otherwise, "there's no rhyme or reason to why the vineyards got hit like they did."

Dan Matthies of Chateau Fontaine on the Leelanau Peninsula agreed, calling the frost "strange and spotty." He estimates 40 percent of a two-acre planting of Chardonnay was affected, but everything else is fine.

"Where I thought I would get hit, I didn't. Where I thought I wouldn't, I did," he said.

Two Lads Winery near the tip of Old Mission, which just opened its doors in May, lost half its Cabernet Franc crop and 40 percent of its Pinot Grigio, said co-owner and operations manager Chris Baldyga. He described it as "devastating."

Overall, Craig Cunningham of Cunningham Viticultural Services, who manages vineyards on both Old Mission and Leelanau, describes 2008 as a rerun of 2004. But a strong September that year saved the season.

"Even if it's a roller coaster, a roller coaster can give us some ripening, too," he said.

For the last nine months, Old Mission wineries and Peninsula Township have been talking off and on about changes to zoning that the wineries believe restricts their businesses, especially compared to the environment in which Leelanau County wineries operate. Now it looks like the discussions are about to become formal.

As of mid-June, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, a trade group with seven member wineries (up from five last year), was drafting a proposal to amend the township's zoning ordinance in terms of how it addresses logo and other merchandise sales, events at wineries and charging for tastings. Presently Old Mission zoning is more restrictive on all those fronts than Leelanau's.

Peninsula Cellars' Joan Kroupa, president of WOMP, said she believes the wineries are being reasonable in their requests.

"I think we've got a pretty good track record of maintaining a well-regulated industry," she said. "We've all done our best to accommodate the local government in maintaining a standard."

The wineries don't want to become overly commercial, she said. Yet on the other hand, they'd like to be able to sell merchandise like a book about wine, or foods that go with wine.

"I don't think any of us are out there to become a general store," she said. "We're just working toward trying to reach some happy mediums on issues we feel will be beneficial to us."

WOMP's proposal would first be reviewed by the ordinance subcommittee of the township planning commission. That body would make a recommendation to the entire planning commission, which would in turn to the township board. Planning commissioner Keith Leak showed receptivity to the group's ideas, and said he hoped to call a meeting before the end of June.

"You want those parcels that are in agriculture and producing a fruit, whether it's grapes or cherries or apples, to be successful. If they're not, what are they going to do with the land?" Leak said. "They're going to sit there and think, 'We can do better by selling to developers.'"

Cari Noga has covered Michigan's grape and wine industry since 1999. Read her blog at www.michgrapevine.com. Send news and column ideas to her at cari@michgrapevine.com.