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Northwest Vintners Take Heat in Stride

Washington wineries predict late August start to harvest

by Peter Mitham
Sagemoor Vineyards reported véraison July 16.
Pasco, Wash.—Summertime and the growing is easy—or at least that’s how it seems in the Northwest this year, as vintners keep an eye on fruit that’s starting to color up under the influence of hot, dry weather.

Véraison began two weeks ago in the vineyards overseen by Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards. Preliminary work toward crop estimates is starting as fruit gets color and the 2014 harvest (already under way in California) moves into view.

“We’re heading toward an early harvest like last year,” Waliser told Wines & Vines of his Washington state vineyards. “Most everything seems fruitful enough that the state’ll have a good crop, and we’ll have a good crop, and nothing extremely out of the ordinary.”

A spate of warm weather has helped, with readings in the mid- to high 90°s across Eastern Washington this week, with some locations reporting temperatures in excess of 100° F (real-time tracking temperature readings are available via Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet). 

Waliser plans to start harvesting Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties during the final week of August, and heat at this point in the season is helping rather than hurting the grapes.

“If it was two weeks from now and you had the heat, it would have a more detrimental effect on fruit quality than at this stage,” he said. “Now, the heat just kinda gets us there a little sooner and probably disrupts Labor Day vacations.”

According to Washington State University, GDD accumulation for the Yakima Valley through July 27 stands at 1,602—up from 1,573 last year.

Meanwhile, in the Walla Walla Valley, accumulation stands at 1,663.

Rain and disease pressure
Additionally, precipitation—in line with the updates provided by the National Weather Service and those tailored to the wine industry by Southern Oregon University researcher Greg Jones—has been slight. Walla Walla led the way in Eastern Washington, with 8.1 inches through July 27, while the rest of the region saw 3 inches or less (save for Prosser, which recorded 3.4 inches, and the Columbia Gorge and Lake Chelan at 5.4 and 5.3 inches, respectively).

All this has been good news for growers, who have faced virtually no pressure from mildew or pests, according Casey McClellan, founder and winemaker at Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla.

Seven Hills sources fruit from around the state as well as a small quantity of white grapes from Oregon, and McClellan has no concerns as fruit nears ripeness and harvest approaches.

“There’s a lot of variation in cluster density, depending on bloom time, weather,” he said. “But overall, it’s forecast to be a record-breaking volume harvest because there’s so much new acreage coming into bearing.”

While the heat is a concern, and water management is critical to avoid vines suffering harmful stress, McClellan expects the current high temperatures to moderate and the first grapes hitting crush pads shortly after Labor Day.

“This to me looks more like a vintage like 2003, which was very, very hot,” he said. “I think we’re going to be early unless it continues to be super-hot, say, above 95°, where plants just shut down and metabolic performance is lowered.”

But even with a slower accumulation of Brix, grapes for Seven Hills’ newest wine, a rosé from Cabernet Franc grapes, would have the 21° needed to trigger harvest by the first week of September.

The hot weather has McClellan looking forward to the reds for which many Walla Walla wineries have become known, wines built around Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The flexible attitude reflects not only McClellan’s long career, but also the learning curve the entire industry has been through over the past decade.

Waliser notes that the variation in vintages since 2004, and the growth in wineries over the same period, has handed Washington state winemakers the kind of experience that many people spend decades accumulating.

“You look at all those winemakers that have been working the last 10 years, and the vintages that they’ve worked in—several warm ones, a couple of really cool ones, one or two odd ones with some freezes—and they’ve learned a lot,” he said. “There can’t be too many more surprises left. … Through trial and error and experience, we’ve upgraded the entire winemaking team for the state of Washington.”

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