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Northwest Winegrape Harvest Begins

British Columbia vineyard damaged by heat from wildfire

by Peter Mitham
vineyard wildfire
Although Walter Huber's grapevines were burned by a nearby wildfire, his Deep Creek Wine Estate will have a 2012 vintage thanks to fruit from a second vineyard.
Peachland, British Columbia—A historic British Columbia vineyard has been scorched by wildfire, lending a dramatic touch to the start of the 2012 harvest.

A wildfire that began Sunday afternoon on Trepanier Bench above Peachland, British Columbia, has left Walter Huber facing the prospect of replanting most of the vines on 12 acres originally planted by Walter Hainle, founder of the Canadian ice wine pioneer Hainle Vineyards.

Huber, who bought the Hainle family’s eponymous winery and vineyards in 2002, was initially optimistic. Despite the evacuation of more than 1,500 area residents from the benchlands, the wildfire was brought under control, and smoke had largely been billowing in the opposite direction from the ripening grapes.

But later in the evening, after being allowed to visit the winery and vineyards, Huber told Wines & Vines that the situation was worse than expected. The winery survived the fire, but the adjacent vineyards suffered significant heat damage.

“All plants are burned. The grapes are still hanging on the vines but are useless now,” he said. “It is too early to estimate if the plants will survive the heat damage they had during the fire, (but) we don’t believe they did.”

Huber expects that the vines will have to be ripped out and replaced next spring.

But all is not lost. A second, 25-acre vineyard is approaching harvest in excellent condition, meaning Deep Creek Wine Estate—the property’s primary label—will have grapes from this vintage.

“The winery is standing, at least we can produce more wine for next year,” Huber said. “Our second vineyard in Peachland is still OK and has extremely good ... grapes.”

Despite a very wet June that led to vigorous growth of vines, Okanagan Valley growers expect a good harvest thanks to otherwise steady warmth through the season. Some growers were picking this week but harvest isn’t expected to begin in earnest until later this month.

Washington harvest
A few hours’ drive south in Washington state’s Kittitas County, wildfires that destroyed 60 homes in Cle Elum and came within a few miles of Ellensburg earlier this summer were never a threat to Swiftwater Cellars and other area wineries.

In fact, Washington state is anticipating a record winegrape harvest this year thanks to temperate weather that delivered what many growers are considering a normal year after two cooler-than-average vintages.

Growing degree days totalled 2,261 in Prosser as of Sept. 9, well above the 2011 tally of 1,918 for the same date and just short of the long-term average of 2,291.

“Based on what we’re hearing from growers, we expect that we’ll break the 2010 record of 160,000 tons (barring any catastrophic weather events, of course),” Ryan Pennington, communications director with the Washington Wine Commission, recently told Wines & Vines.

Between the new plantings and rebound of vines from the November freeze that cut harvest short in 2010, the industry is optimistic regarding its prospects for this year. “We could potentially reach the 200,000-ton mark,” Pennington said.

Some wineries began receiving grapes last week, but Co Dinn, director of winemaking at the Hogue Cellars in Prosser, was among those reporting to Wines & Vines this morning that it’s still early days in the 2012 vintage.

“The grapes seem to be ripening number-wise, but when I go out in the vineyard and taste, the ones I think might be there aren’t quite there,” he said.

Dinn has received some Sauvignon Blanc grapes and Chardonnay from low-yielding vines in warm sites, but he doesn’t expect harvest to really get rolling until next week.

“It’s a waiting game right now, but it’s certainly going to be earlier than it’s been for the past couple of years.”

Marty Clubb, winemaker and co-owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden near Walla Walla, said the season has been ideal, with temperatures dipping into the mid-70°s this week but expected to bounce back above 80° in the days ahead. He expects to begin harvesting later this week. The crop load is near normal, with the increase in the state’s harvest due more to new plantings than increased yields.

USDA statistics report 41,000 bearing acres of winegrape vineyards in Washington state as of last year, up from 36,000 bearing acres in 2009 and 29,500 bearing acres in 2006.

Update in Oregon
Meanwhile, in Oregon, correspondence to Wines & Vines indicates that harvest should be in full swing by the beginning of October, with some white grapes being picked as early as next week in the Rogue and Applegate valleys.

Growers across the Northwest expect harvest to run through mid-November, provided all goes well.

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