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Washington State Vineyards Juggle Abundant Harvest

Skirting frost and wildfires, state's vineyards dodge calamity and produce impressive crop

by Peter Mitham
stony hill cabernet
Scheduling has been a concern in the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa, as several grape cultivars ripen simultaneously.
Prosser, Wash.—A beautiful, dry summer has winemakers across the Northwest looking forward to balanced wines from the 2012 harvest, but October also has meant scrambling to complete the harvest in the face of frost and rain.

Wines & Vines reached out to many growers this week, finding voicemails that were either full or “not receiving messages at this time,” a sure sign that vineyards were demanding full attention. The shift was notable from earlier in the fall.

Wet weather in June had growers grappling with mildew pressure and vigorous growth, but July and August delivered dry, sunny weather with warm days and cool nights. After two years of challenging conditions, the weather was more optimal than anyone could have requested.

Drying out in the summer
While the dry weather left vineyards at risk of wildfire in some areas, and a drop in temperatures at the beginning of the month brought frost in low-lying areas, Hogue Cellars director of winemaking Co Dinn told Wines & Vines that fruit is in good shape with “good concentration, good flavors.”

Some low-lying vineyards from which Hogue obtains grapes were hit with frost at the beginning of the month, but for the most part winegrapes have been coming in without a hitch. Precipitation this past weekend gave pickers a short break, but the vines shook off the rain quickly.

Dinn expects harvest to wrap up by early November. The extended forecast for the Prosser area isn’t calling for freezing temperatures, and precipitation is also minimal.

“We’ll keep picking between the showers, if there are any,” he said.

Handling the harvest
Dinn’s biggest problem has been a larger-than-expected crop of Merlot, which has delayed the picking of Cabernet. Scheduling has also been a concern for Tedd Wildman of Stone Tree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa.

With 95% of his crop in, Wildman said the biggest issue has been knowing what to pick first.

“A consistently warm and dry summer this year has given us a harvest more in line with what we think of as normal,” he said. “Scheduling and block prioritization has been a challenge since those ideal conditions also ensured that much of the crop, across a diversity of varieties, became ripe at very nearly the same time.”

Fear of frost
While the past couple of weeks have brought unsettled weather, he said that frost has been a risk largely at lower elevations.

Based on anecdotal data Wines & Vines has collected, the Walla Walla AVA seems to have been hardest hit by frost. Situated at the foot of the Blue Mountains, with many vineyards along the border with Oregon (marked in some cases by a drop in elevation), the AVA boasts several microclimates that are at risk of frost when other areas are clear.

Facing potential frost damage in the first week of the month, growers across the state fired up wind machines to disperse inversions in their vineyards, displacing cold air around the vines with warmer air from above.

To the west, in the Columbia Gorge AVA, Steven Thompson of Oregon’s Analemma Wines farms the Atavus Vineyard in the foothills of Washington’s Mount Adams.

“I had ample time to ripen our fruit and pick it before any adverse weather arrived,” he said.

While conditions were dry enough in his dry-farmed vineyard to entice wildfires within 200 yards of the grapes, he says the fruit shows concentrated flavors in what’s been “a fantastic year for grapes.”

“Our berry size and cluster size, and therefore our overall yield, were all down due to lack of irrigation. But this simply means more concentrated fruit,” he said.

Preparing for 2013
With slight precipitation forecasted by meteorologists, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Western Governors’ Association anticipating general dry conditions through December for much of the western U.S., a dose of water will be needed to help vines prepare for 2013.

“The roots start growing this time of year, so we want to get a good shot of water on them before the end of the season,” Dinn said.

Posted on 10.18.2012 - 10:36:19 PST
The wind-machines are not used to create an inversion, they are used to disperse an inversion. In a stratified atmosphere of a valley (an inversion), wind machines mix the warm air layer that has developed above a cold air layer.
Sara S

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