Washington's wine industry feeling the squeeze of cold weather

An unseasonably cold spring and summer are adding stress to an already strained Washington wine industry. How will this affect this year's harvest and what will it mean for the state's darling wineries?

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After a harsh winter last year and an unusually cold spring and summer this year, Washington's grapes are suffering.

An unseasonably cold spring and summer are adding stress to an already strained Washington wine industry. How will this affect this year's harvest and what will it mean for the state's darling wineries?

“I've been farming for thirty-five years and I've never seen a year like this,” marvels Phil Cline. Cline owns Naches Heights Vineyards, an estate winery, and manages vineyards in both the Lower and Upper Yakima Valleys. “The growing degree days, I understand, are very similar to last year, but the weather pattern has been different,” Cline explains.

Some grapes faced an uphill battle even before the year started, their ranks decimated by 20 percent statewide following the deep freeze of last November. Even last summer's abnormally cool nights affected this year's crop. Michelle Moyer, a viticulturist at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser explains, “You get a higher tendril to cluster ratio,” meaning that fewer grapes fill in the vines. A lingering winter beset the survivors, resulting in a start roughly two weeks later than normal.

If the rest of the year treats them kindly, grapes ripen just fine despite those setbacks. Indeed, the pleasant summer allowed them to make up some ground. Heat spikes over 95 degrees — which are common and which shut down photosynthesis in the vines, halting development — failed to materialize. For winemakers who craft elegant, structured wines with good acidity, it was actually shaping up to be an excellent year. Makers of sparkling wines also prefer cooler years. Producers of fruitier, higher alcohol wines were cautiously optimistic.

Alas, the pleasantness came to an end.

In a typical year, harvest begins around the end of September, and is going full steam at this time. This year is different.

“All of October, everything slowed way down,” says Cline. “I've hardly picked any grapes yet, either, and normally you're into 50 percent of the harvest by now.”

Bear in mind that frost damage and imperfect weather are both spotty — both in terms of their geographical distribution and even their patterns within vineyards. Many growers and winemakers aren't too badly off. Juergen Grieb owns Treveri Cellars in Yakima, which produces sparkling wine. Sparkling winemakers use mostly white grapes — which generally outperform red grapes in cool years — and pick when sugar levels are lower.

“For me right now everything's really good,” Grieb says. “Just today the pinot gris came in, it was nineteen and a half, just perfect for sparkling.” The number refers to brix, a measure of sugar content. But he certainly hears of other's distress, and even he was affected a little. “I had a grower in Tri-Cities, but he got really frosted out, he had no grapes.” Fortunately for Grieb, that represented a very small percentage of his needs.

“The Grandview area, Prosser area, those vineyards actually survived the harvest better than some other areas like Red Mountain. Tri-Cities and Walla Walla . . . really, really got hammered with the frost. The Wahluke Slope, some growers, I heard their crop was down 60%.” Horse Heaven also suffered. A few growers managed to survive the cold spikes. Particularly those with wind machines — giant fans used to circulate warm and cold air on a crop. 

Aside from the development of grapes, the late harvest also poses other logistical challenges for growers. Like finding help with the harvest. The more the grape harvest overlaps the apple harvest, the more competition for labor to pick them. If you as a picker “go pick apples, you're going to make a lot more money than if you pick grapes,” says Cline, who grows both.

All this in a shorter-than-usual harvest season. “You will all be harvesting everything in a very short window of what's left of our season.” Had the freeze not reduced the crop, some might have been left hanging. “We're picking short, so we'll probably get the grapes in, if we don't have a freeze or a large series of rain events.”

But the harvest is now being impacted by dampness on top of the coolness. “I've had half an inch of rain in the last five days up here,” laments Cline, referring to his Naches Heights vineyards, “and I didn't need it. The berries are very full, and I would like to not see that for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is botrytis and sour and black rot.” These diseases all flourish in wet conditions. This on top of the fact that harvesting wet grapes dilutes flavors. But Moyer says the concept that grapes soak up late rains, resulting in watery wine, “is a wives tale.”

Grieb's suppliers managed these problems well. However, he says, “There are some growers, if they miss a spray or try to save some money on spraying, they really have some major, major issues.” A winemaker has to look at weather forecasts and weigh the risks of dampness against the reward of letting the grapes develop more. “I know a couple of growers around there, some bigger ones, have a major issue with that,” Grieb says. “So, thank God, I don't — I had a little bit of one Riesling block” that developed mildew, “but that was only 5 percent.”

Another difficulty is migratory birds, which come through in greater numbers at this time of year. Cline's crew hastily netted a block of Syrah in a Zillah vineyard after an avian assault — an expensive procedure. “We lost probably a thousand pounds in that three acre block in the last four days from the birds. We'd never had a bird problem there before.”

“Those guys that lost their crops might be the lucky ones. At least they didn't have to go through the pain of such an awful growing season. Everything you can think of that could go wrong has gone wrong. Just the darnedest thing. I'm hoping this is not a trend, but this is two years in a row that we've had unusual anomalies and odd growing situations,” Cline complained.

“People tend to remember the last five years more clearly,” says Moyer. “If you look at the historical record, these kinds of extremes have happened before, maybe not this combination of things, though.” She is skeptical of climate models generally, but says that if the long term warming trend continues “You will see increased extremes.”

Cline allows that consumers may pay more for this vintage, but he isn't seeing growers gouging wineries because of the scarcity. “Frankly, some wineries are behind already,” in paying for fruit from previous years, “and how hard can you squeeze them?”


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