Hill Country wine growers see benefits of winter freezes

Snow on the Hawk's Shadow Vineyard near Dripping Springs. (Courtesy/Doug Reed)
Snow on the Hawk's Shadow Vineyard near Dripping Springs. (Courtesy/Doug Reed)

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) — While a colder winter is uncomfortable for many Texans, wine growers in the Lone Star State say the recent freezes have been just what they need.

Jim Kamas, associate professor and Texas A&M Agrilife Extension fruit specialist, explained that these colder temperatures may kill off pests like the glassy-winged sharpshooters. The sharpshooters are the insect believed to be behind the rise in Pierce’s disease in Texas vineyards.

Kamas explained that in 1996 and 1997, “every vineyard in the Hill Country — every single one — had the disease and it was killing vineyards.” After a decade of research, Kamas and his colleagues have some answers.

The drought Texas experienced in 2011 killed off many of the insects, and Pierce’s disease declined. But in the last 12-18 months, Kamas has been seeing more cases as conditions become wetter.

Additionally Kamas said that the freezes can help reduce bacteria on the vines, having a therapeutic effect on plants.

When it comes to winter in vineyards, “cold is better than warm,” Kamas said.

Dan McLaughlin, owner of Robert Clay Vineyards in Mason, is still sizing up how the cold weather impacted his vines. He’s hopeful that the freezes kill off Pierce’s disease on his plants and the sharpshooters which spread it.

“With all the rain and the warm weather, the glassy-winged sharpshooter population is skyrocketing,” said McLaughlin. He explained that once a vine has Pierce’s disease, it doesn’t go away. McLaughlin is hoping the cold winter takes out some of the bacteria which cause the disease.

Northwest of Dripping Springs, Hawk’s Shadow Vineyard and winery is also reaping the benefits of the cold.

Owner and founder Doug Reed said the cold weather keeps the vines dormant, giving him more time to prune. He noted that milder winters can mean the plants start to bud too early and then get frozen before they’ve started to grow.

His crops haven’t had Pierce’s disease, but he has found some sharpshooters on his plants.

“So certainly freezes like these — cool hard freezes that we’ve had here since early January — those really help to knock down the bug population, keep the insect population down, which is really great,” Reed said.

Could these cold temperatures mean a good year for Texas wine growers? Reed hopes so, but it’s too early to tell.

“I’d love to see it stay cool for another week or two where we get another night or two of freezing or below,” Reed said. “That would be awesome

Jim Kamas added that cold winters are also beneficial for peach growers in Texas.

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