Mother Nature put the squeeze on Southern Arizona grape growers this year, but wine producers are making the most of their diminished harvests.
Frost damage from record-breaking cold in February, followed by a dry spring, a late freeze in May, sweltering summer days and battering monsoon rains combined with insect infestations and hungry birds displaced by history-making wildfires to take a toll on the harvest.
But that's not necessarily bad news. Smaller grape yields are allowing winemakers to focus on quality.
"Sometimes, if the vine is producing a smaller crop, it does produce a better quality because the fruit is concentrated," said winemaker and winery manager Fran Lightly of Sonoita Vineyards in Elgin. "The quality is just as good, but there's not as much of it."
It's the second consecutive year Southern Arizona crops have been damaged by unusual weather conditions. Just before harvest time in August 2010, a devastating storm brought freezing temperatures, high winds and battering hail. The entire year's crop was wiped out.
Kent Callaghan, owner of Callaghan Vineyards in Sonoita, said this year's vines looked promising.
"We had what looked to be a very good potential … for big crop was there," he said. After a May freeze, however, "anything that was green was dead."
Callaghan estimates his 2011 yield is 85 percent below normal.
"What we did pick looks very good," he said. "When they (vines) have fewer things to ripen, they tend to pack a lot of flavor."
It's not just Arizona grape growers who were hard hit.
In May, Decanter magazine reported that "California's Central Coast may have lost up to 50 percent of its grape crop after one of the worst spring frosts in history."
And earlier this month a story on the magazine's website said heavy June rains - six times the average rainfall - and early October rains are causing vines to rot in Napa Valley.
"It's been pretty wild everywhere," Callaghan said.
Arizona has more than 50 licensed and bonded wineries, according to the Arizona Wine Growers Association.
Did you know?
Wine grapes are grown in all 50 states. Arizona ranks 35th in wine production. In 2010, almost 85,000 gallons of wine were produced in Arizona compared to 606 million gallons made in the most productive state, California.
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.