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Winemakers in ‘mad dash’ to avoid storms
Grapes harvested last weekend to avoid losses
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From left, Chris Ernst, Alaqua Crawford and Andrew Beaty with Habersham Vineyards collect Vidal Blanc grapes on Sept. 5 to get them off of the vines before Hurricane Irma hit North Georgia. Photo courtesy of Emily DeFoor - photo by

Hurricane Irma came at a terrible time for North Georgia wineries.

Wineries north of Hall County had to scramble over the weekend to get as much of their grapes off the vine as possible before the remnants of the hurricane made it into the region.

“Basically this is the middle of our harvest season up here in North Georgia for grapes,” said Emily DeFoor, general manager of Habersham Vineyards and Winery in White County.

With gusts of more than 50 mph and heavy rain expected in the northern part of the state, wineries faced a choice last week: Risk the quality of their wine by harvesting grapes that weren’t finished or risk losing their grapes altogether.

The tropical storm comes at a time when many varieties of grapes are almost ripe.

“If you’ve got grapes that are really ripe, if you get wind coming in they can literally just blow off the vine,” DeFoor said. “We went ahead and harvested everything that we could over the weekend.”

She said it was a “mad dash” to harvest the vineyard’s merlot, chambourcin and chardonnay grapes from more than 30 acres last week.

The chardonnay was at peak ripeness and ready to pick this past week, but the merlot and chambourcin were pushed forward to preempt the coming storm.

That might affect the quality of the wine once they hit the bottle.

“You may not have your sugar level and your acid levels exactly where you want them,” DeFoor said. “... It’s a lot about chemistry at this point.”

The managers of the vineyard decided to leave their cabernet variety on the vines.

“We’re risking that. We’re letting it hang because we wanted to see if it would hold out,” she said. “It’s borderline. But it’s a tighter cluster, so we’re hoping that is worth the risk.”

A tighter cluster makes the grapes less likely to be tugged from the vine by wind and rain.

Harvesting season in North Georgia depends on elevation. Habersham Vineyards sit at close to 1,450 feet above sea level.

Vineyards at higher elevations will have a later harvesting season, meaning that some vineyards have even more grapes on the vine than just Habersham’s cabernet.

Winemakers hope and pray for dry seasons to end their years, which allow them to dial in the sweetness of their grapes and ultimately the taste and quality of their finished bottles.

They haven’t always been lucky.

Vineyards struggled through Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which lasted almost all of September, and Hurricane Katrina at the end of August 2005.

Both hurricanes spawned tornadoes, but Tropical Storm Irma isn’t likely to create similarly destructive storms as it passes over the region.

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