Northwest Grapegrowers Report Early Season

Warm weather pushes wine cultivars weeks ahead of schedule

by Peter Mitham
Wooly Chardonnay buds start to swell at Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity, Ore.
Photo: David Beck
Benton City, Wash.—A month ago, growers in Washington state were anxiously wondering if they should prune their vines. The forecasts of a dry, mild winter had come to pass, and spring, too, was coming: Buds were swelling, and ground squirrels were scurrying from hibernation.

Now, growers in some areas of the Northwest are starting to see buds break and leaves spring forth.

Buds are breaking on Early Muscat vines at Celestina Vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, according to grapegrower John Pratt, while Keith Pilgrim at Terra Blanca Winery on Red Mountain in Washington state is doing everything he can to slow down his vines.

“Mother Nature seems to be bent on an early start to the growing season,” Pilgrim told Wines & Vines.

Pruning has been delayed on the vines that are earliest to bud in an effort to dissuade them, but with temperatures in the 70°s—unseasonable for March, where the long-term average high in March crests 57° F—growers are no match for nature.

Pilgrim wishes it were late enough in the season that he could count on temperatures staying warm enough to guarantee a lack of frost.

“We will probably have bud break on some of the early varietals within the next two weeks, which would make us about three-plus weeks early. If it would just warm up and stay frost-free, that would be great, but we are still in the first half of March.”

David Beck of Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity, Ore., understands Pilgrim’s anxiety.

Growing degree-days have started to accumulate—three to four weeks ahead of normal—but touches of frost in the vineyard during the past week forestall any confidence that winter is over.

“Bud break in 2014 was around April 6, so we are not far away,” he said. “The danger, of course, is bud loss due to a spring frost, and we are certainly not out of frost season.”

This being said, vines appear to have weathered the winter well.

A cold snap in early November allowed Washington state vineyards a rare harvest of grapes for ice wine just days after the regular harvest ended, but younger vines seem to have suffered any ill effects that were felt.

“We do have some winter damage in young plants, but (it is) in growth that we probably would not have elected to keep anyway,” Pilgrim said.

“There is likely some primary bud winter damage, but overall it appears to be something we can prune for to compensate,” added Casey McClellan, winemaker at Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla.

A greater concern may be a lack of precipitation through the winter. Ski slopes along parts of the West Coast have been largely idle thanks to low or no snowpack, and vineyards are also feeling the heat.

Effects of an early start
Beck notes that there’s already evidence of some drying in the root zone.

“The 1-foot soil moisture probes are starting to show some drying,” he said. “Although there is no movement at 3 feet, this is exceptionally early for the 1-foot probe to show movement.”

Indeed, federal weather watchers note that snow water equivalent is just 9% to 15% of normal throughout the Willamette Valley and into Southern Oregon. “Each day without snow accumulation from here on out drops the probability of any recovery closer to being highly unlikely,” remarked Greg Jones of Southern Oregon University in his most recent climate update to growers.

British Columbia
To the north, in southern British Columbia, growers are looking to the season ahead with optimism. A higher latitude ensured cooler conditions, a bit more snow cover, and vines are on track.

“Despite warm days, we are still experiencing cold nights that typically take us to temperatures at or below 0° C,” said James Hopper, viticulturist at Mission Hill Family Estate near Kelowna, B.C. “At this point there is no activity in the grapevines in terms of bud swell or bud break.”

Bud break usually occurs in mid- to late April, and Hopper isn’t expecting his vines to be too far ahead of that this year.

Conditions are similar in the neighboring Similkameen Valley.

“Beautiful sun and lots of warmth but nothing breaking yet,” said John Weber of Orofino Vineyards near Cawston, B.C., noting that winter conditions treated the vines kindly. “We should be in good shape this year with a mild winter and some snow cover for most of the winter months.”

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