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Idaho Wine Grapes Get Early Start

Bud break in full swing; extent of winter damage not yet clear

by Peter Mitham
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Bud break, as seen here at Ron Bitner's vineyard in southern Idaho, occurred early in the state after a cold winter damaged some vines.
Caldwell, Idaho—With bud break in full swing three weeks earlier than usual, Idaho growers are optimistic that chilly weather in January and February won’t dampen prospects for the 2013 crop.

 “All of our established stuff is fine,” said Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards, a 15-acre planting above the Snake River in southern Idaho. He’s expecting a normal season, “knock on wood.”

Bitner’s observations highlight the positive side of comments in a snapshot of the Northwest winery and vineyard sector issued by Northwest Farm Credit Services earlier this month.

Crop volumes across the region were cause for rejoicing in 2012, but a chill hung over Idaho as temperatures hit some vineyards hard in January and February. “Colder conditions in Idaho leave some uncertainty about damage that may have occurred during the winter, but overall conditions are positive,” the report opined.

Some trunks split
“We had a very cold January,” said Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. “Some of the trunks are actually split.” But the full extent of the damage isn’t known, nor whether it will limit the 2013 crop.

Dolsby said information is still coming in, while Bitner noted that a neighbor’s recent planting saw losses of 30% to 40%. Those vines weren’t yet producing, while established plantings on his own property as well as at other locations — including the 400-acre Skyline Vineyards property in Nampa, Idaho — emerged unscathed.

The hardiness of the older vines suggests there won’t be a significant impact on grape production in Idaho this year, at least not from winter weather.

Bitner added that the latest bank of cool weather to move through the region also left little mark. While the risk was serious enough for Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet service to issue a frost alert April 12 (it remained in place through April 24), most vineyards in Washington State saw little danger first-hand.

Water is main concern
Similarly, as the front moved into Idaho, Bitner said temperatures never fell below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Good air drainage on Idaho’s sloping vineyard sites helped cool air pool at lower elevations below most of the state’s vineyards.

“As long as our vineyards are on the hillsides, it’s got to get down to 22, 23 degrees to really cause serious bud damage,” he said.

The main concern for growers is water. With little precipitation in Idaho this past winter, some reservoirs are looking at 30% less water than normal. “It’s not critical yet but it’s the first we’ve had like that in five or six years,” he said.

The National Weather Service recorded 6.4 inches of precipitation at Emmet, Idaho, a short distance east of Caldwell, versus a long-term average for the period of 10.5 inches.

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