May 10, 2011 9:43 PM by Nancy Chen

Local grape growers consider state of emergency

Local vineyard owners heard from the state today about possibly declaring a state of emergency after some damaging temperatures.

An April frost brought hail and freezing rain two nights in a row to the Paso Robles area.

Thousands of acres lost grape buds, which could mean 50 percent of this year's crop.

Early estimates of damage could run as high as $80 million.

Vintners met today to discuss ways to fight the effects of that April frost.

There are about 25,000 acres of rolling vineyards in Paso Robles, and about 15 to 20,000 acres of those were affected at some level by the frost, according to Lowell Zelinski, the owner of a vineyard management company.

And from just two days?

"Yes, but it was a long two days," said Joe Irick, who owns two vineyards in Paso Robles and says his damages could total a hundred grand.

The frost happened at the vines' most vulnerable stages.

"The vines had started to grow, and the frost killed all the new growth, so now they had to start all over again," Zelinski said.

That's why vitners say the situation is dire.

More than 30 percent of growers have to be affected in order for the governor to declare an emergency. They say that's very likely the case.

"We actually surveyed the people in the room, and I asked how many people had frost damage in their vineyards, and everybody in the room raised their hands," Zelinski said.

The agriculture commissioner can recommend to Governor Jerry Brown that he declare a state of emergency, and if Brown makes that choice, it could mean federal government assistance for people who have been affected.

Vitners won't know for sure how bad the damage is until harvest time, which usually happens in October.

He says this season will go down in history with an ominous title.

"The year with no grapes," Zelinski said. "And if there's no grapes, there's no wine."

Vitners aren't the only ones who could be hurt by this year's deep freeze, which is one of the worst in recent history. It could also end up affecting tourism, one of the area's biggest industries.

But Irick says it's just Mother Nature, and he's already planning ahead.

"It's just something you roll with the punches," he said. "2011 is not looking very good, but you start planning for 2012, 2013."

However, it got moved to November this year because of that April freeze, which could create even more problems.

"We have frost potential in November, also," Zelinski said. "So the worst possible scenario, you'd have frost in the spring, which delayed harvest, and you have frost in the fall, when you're trying to harvest."

Both tourism and agriculture labor could see influences from that frost in the years to come.



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