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Harnessing the wind
Fierce winter proved value of wind machines at one Niagara vineyard
By Matthew Van Dongen
St. Catherine's Standard

Two years ago, Pierre-Jean Bosc needed a calculator to prove a $470,000 investment in frost protection would end up saving money for his familyís vineyard.

But after the nastiest Niagara winter in years, tallying the savings from Chateau des Charmesí 23 wind machines is as simple as surveying the surrounding devastation.

"A quick drive through the rest of Niagara-on-the-Lake shows the value of these wind machines," said Bosc.

"There are a lot of other vineyards that wonít be producing this year Ö for some, next year is doubtful as well."

Not so for the St. Davids vineyard.

While winter temperatures as low as -26°C damaged or destroyed many vinifera crops, Chateau des Charmes sustained only minor damage.

Without the technology, Bosc said his crop "would have been in the same shape as everyone elseís."

The wind machines are 15-metre-tall, gas-powered turbines that work to protect vineyard canopies by circulating warm air downward through the vines on cold nights.

The technology is useful not only in the dead of winter, when upper and lower air temperatures can differ by up to 10 degrees, but also during frosts in early fall or late spring.

The technology has proven effective for U.S. farmers for years, said Bosc.

But the steep startup cost, around $35,000 a machine, has kept most Niagara growers away from the technology - until now.

Bosc, who began marketing the technology himself last year, said the ferocity of last winter has local growers and wineries taking a closer look at wind machines.

"Thereís a lot of interest now," he said, adding heís already confirmed the sale of 22 new machines to four different wineries and vineyards in Niagara.

Tony Shaw, a climatologist and Brock University professor, isnít surprised. He participated in a National Research Council study of wind machines at six local vineyards from 1999 to 2001.

The final report made a good case for the technology, but Shaw said a harsh winter was even more convincing.

"The report has been there, but nothing was really done - until we had serious loss of crops," he said.

Shaw said he has also taken calls from interested vineyard owners inside and outside Niagara.

He said he would encourage growers to take a second look at the technology - provided their vineyards meet the right conditions.

For example, the machines are unnecessary for vineyards within two kilometres of Lake Ontario. Shaw explained that moderating winds off the lake do the same job as the wind machines - for free.

Similarly, vineyards on a steep gradient such as the Beamsville Bench are less prone to cold air settling on the vine canopy. Cold air drains down the gradient, dragging warm upper air in its wake.

Shaw also pointed out the machines can be easily damaged if operated in overly windy conditions.

Bosc said the cost of the technology is still the major stumbling block for most growers.

"But if you sit down and figure out the costs to a grower it doesnít take long to make back your investment."

Bosc said in addition to the price of the machines, they probably cost him $17 an hour in fuel. Last winter, he operated each machine for fewer than 40 hours.

He said those costs pale in comparison to the loss of several hundred thousand dollars in crops that some growers face this year.

But even without another un-Niagara-like winter, Bosc said growers save money on each kilogram of grapes they protect from spring and fall frosts.

Heís made Doug Hernder a believer.

The owner of Hernder Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake just ordered 10 wind machines that he hopes to have installed by summerís end.

After the one-two punch of last yearís spring frost and this past harsh winter, Hernder said he 'had to do something.'

"For some varieties, I have no crop," he said. "Merlot and Chardonnay took a real beating."

Hernder admitted the machines are a 'big investment,' but heís confident in the ultimate payoff.

"All I had to do is use my eyes to see the results," he said.

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