Bud Break Creeps Across the Northwest

Growers checking for winter kill, up to 30% in some vineyards

by Peter Mitham
scott williams andy mitchell central coast insights
An emerging Chardonnay bud at the Biodynamic Jacob-Hart Estate Vineyard of A to Z Wineworks in Oregon.

Gold Hill, Ore.—The wettest winter in recent years washed away California’s drought, but it also left water standing on vineyards in southern Oregon and snowdrifts across Eastern Washington. Many growers are now assessing vines for signs of winterkill, with initial reports pegging losses in some vineyards at between 10% and 30%.

But heeding the call of spring, vines are bursting forth across the region. Bud break at Del Rio Vineyards in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley AVA began the first week of April, even as cool night temperatures triggered wind machines to occasionally roar into action. “It’s cold here and still very humid. We’ve had bud break, but it’s going very slowly,” said Jean-Michel Jussiaume, head winemaker for Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill overlooking the Rogue River.

Rainfall also has been above average, with water outstaying its welcome in some cases — though as Jussiaume notes, he doesn’t want to seen ungrateful for its abundance.

However, the cool, wet weather this early in the season is giving growers a sense that the spring could be long and cool, making growers dependent on good weather later in the year to carry their crop through to harvest in fair shape. “When you look at the weather predictions, it looks like it could be a fairly cool spring. So far, all the elements are here for a cool spring or a late harvest,” Jussiaume said.

A cool spring is in keeping with the forecast Greg Jones of Southern Oregon University delivered to the Oregon Wine Symposium this past February. A large mass of cool water off the Pacific Coast is moderating temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, promising a growing season similar what growers experienced between 2012 and 2014. “The Pacific Northwest should remain cool and relatively wet into the late spring,” Jones observed in February.

Weather in March made good on his promise, delivering temperatures that were as much as seven degrees below normal, and double the precipitation (and even triple in some parts of the Northwest). A glance at the accumulation of growing degree days in Washington puts the phenomenon in context.

Washington State University’s weather station in Prosser logged just 17 GDD prior to April 1, half that recorded in the benchmark cool year of 2011. By the start of April 2015, the benchmark warm year, the station had logged a whopping 91 GDD. The past two weeks have seen the pace pick up, but barely: a further 17 GDD accumulated through April 16, well ahead of either 2011 or 2015, but less than half the long-term average for the period.

This has delayed bud break from the past couple of years, but placed on a track more consistent with historical norms. “We are seeing bud break across the region,” Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' vice president of vineyards, told Wines & Vines. “I would say about one week behind the long-term average.”

The vines, following the weather patterns, are opening south to north, with vines in the Horse Heaven Hills more advanced versus those on the Wahluke Slope. Over in the Walla Walla Valley AVA, vines are gradually kicking into gear after a cold winter that saw lower-elevation sites take time to recover from an unusually hard winter.

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, winemakers expect buds to break in early May.

Speaking at a tasting of the first wines from the 2016 vintage, Jonathan McLean, assistant winemaker at La Stella and Le Vieux Pin wineries in the southern Okanagan said 2017 is a marked change from last year when — as a photo accompanying his comments showed — leaves were unfurling against spring sunlight by this point.

This week, grey skies are the backdrop for woolly buds that are swelling but not surging forth. “The buds are starting to push, but we’re still a couple of weeks away from bud break,” he said, quickly quelling worries that the season might go to the extremes seen in recent years. “The last couple of years were anomalies. We’re still expecting a good growing season this year.”

Jones expects May to bring drier weather, something that can’t come soon enough for Jussiaume, who says southern Oregon vineyards have seen enough rain and just want to get growing.

However, he checked himself, not wishing to be ungrateful for the moisture. He knows the weather can dance on the head of a pin like an angel. “If [summer] comes fast, then the vineyards catch back up very fast and then we’re not necessarily behind,” Jussiaume said.

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