At first, no one knew why the grape leaves at AmRhein Wine Cellars’ Botetourt County vineyard were dying.
Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech, was brought in to investigate by both AmRhein and General Shale Brick Inc., which owns the adjoining land.
“This was one that caught us by surprise,” Wolf said.
On Tuesday, Amrhein’s Jewelers Ltd., which runs the vineyard, and Jacquelyn Sells, who owns the 20-acre parcel of land, filed a lawsuit against General Shale, a brick manufacturer. (Sells is the daughter of Amrhein’s owners, Russ and Paula Amrhein.)
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say hydrogen fluoride gas emitted by General Shale has stunted the growth of its vineyard’s leaves, resulting in lower grape production.
It is believed to be the first case in which people who operate a vineyard have sued another company for emitting the gas, according to Roanoke attorney Charlie Williams, who is representing Amrhein’s and Sells.
They are seeking $5 million in damages from the company. Amrhein’s and Sells argue that General Shale is a public nuisance and a private nuisance, and that the emissions have caused unauthorized entry on their property. The plaintiffs are also asking a federal judge to make General Shale stop emitting hydrogen fluoride into the air, according to the lawsuit.
They argue in the lawsuit that the hydrogen fluoride has diminished the property value, caused lost profits and expenses for investigating, and losses from the necessity of restoring or relocating grape production. The varieties of grapes most affected are syrah, marzanne and chardonnay, according to Williams.
General Shale’s attorney, Paul Thomson of Roanoke, said he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit. But he said that General Shale is in compliance with its air permits and has been in the same location for more than 85 years.
Thomson said AmRhein Wine Cellars moved in five years ago. He said he understands that some varieties of the winery’s grapes have done very well, while others that aren’t typically grown in Virginia haven’t done as well.
But Williams said the varieties of grapes they were growing at the vineyard were selected after consultation with experts at Virginia Tech about which grapes would grow well in Virginia.
Hydrogen fluoride is considered a hazardous gas, Williams said. It affected the health and productivity of leaves and vines at the vineyard, but not the quality of the wine itself, according to a news release from AmRhein Wine Cellars.
The vines most affected are ones that were planted in 1999, 2000 and 2001, according to the news release. Vines replanted today would not reach full production again until at least 2008, according to the release.
Though the gas’s potential effect on humans is being studied, Williams said he does not think there is any danger to humans in this case. In 2006, companies will be required to cut down on their hydrogen fluoride emissions, but those regulations are being challenged in court, Williams said.
But he made it clear that the lawsuit does not contend that the company committed any criminal violations.
Wolf said he is not aware of any other vineyard in Virginia or the United States that has had this problem.
The grape leaves absorb the hydrogen fluoride through small pores until it accumulates to a level that is toxic to the leaf, he said. But he described it as a localized problem. Another vineyard about two miles away from General Shale does not have the same problem, Wolf said.
“If you get out of the immediate area, you don’t see the problems,” he said. General Shale commissioned Wolf’s investigation, and he completed it in 2001, according to the lawsuit.