Smoky Washington Wine Grape Harvest

No major damage to vineyards, conditions offer glimpse of hot and dry future

by Peter Mitham

Yakima, Wash.—Wildfires in northern Washington have made 2015 the worst fire year in the state’s history, with more than 925,000 acres ablaze. More than 260,000 acres are burning in the Okanogan complex alone, while crews work to contain the flames. In the above photo, the smoke hangs thick over Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley AVA. 

Smoke and ash have blanketed many parts of the state from time to time as weather systems carry plumes from the fires to the Puget Sound AVA in the west and grape-growing areas in the south of the state. Perhaps nowhere has been hit harder than the Lake Chelan AVA, where the Chelan fire complex covers more than 90,000 acres and remains just 47% contained. Ten days ago, the fire triggered extensive evacuations at the south end of Lake Chelan and destroyed Ventimiglia Cellars.

But little if any vineyard acreage has been consumed, said Steve Kludt, owner of the AVA’s oldest winery, Lake Chelan Winery. “The grapes are coming in real nice. We’ve picked a number of tons already and I don’t have concerns about the quality of the fruit,” he said. “We’ve had this before, and will spend a little more time washing the grapes off.”

Lake Chelan Winery, like many in the AVA, sits outside the fire zone and Kludt said one of the biggest problems right now is letting people know that — notwithstanding the loss of Ventimiglia and dramatic television coverage of the state’s wildfires — most wineries remain open for business. “There’s probably 29 other wineries that are still open and waiting for people to come over,” he told Wines & Vines on Thursday morning. “I can see blue skies, the sun’s out. It’s supposed to cool off tomorrow and we may even get some rain Saturday.”

Wineries elsewhere in the state are equally optimistic. Touring iconic vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA this past week, including Red Willow and DuBrul, Wines & Vines heard little concern about negative impacts from the state’s fires. While a high layer of smoke covers many parts of the state, veiling the sun and scenting the air, concerns about smoke taint are secondary to hopes for great wines from grapes grown during the warmest, most accelerated growing season ever.

“This year, you are experiencing what the end of the end of the century will be like,” said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, while speaking to an audience of trade and media in Yakima this past week. “We got the global warming stress test and we didn’t do too bad.”

That being said, many of this year’s phenomena — a low snowpack, reduced summer rainfall, the heat —were a foretaste of what forecasters expect climate change will bring rather than a manifestation of climate change itself (Mass pointed out that the changes will largely kick in after mid-century).

While a blend of hot, dry weather and dramatic wildfires have put the heat on public officials and private individuals to manage climate risks more aggressively, conditions are far from apocalyptic.

A glimpse of the new normal
The annual Yakima Basin flip-flop undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation not only supports spawning salmon, it benefits irrigation water supplies by allowing for reduced releases throughout the winter and greater flows through the growing season. That came in handy this year, and points to a valuable strategy for managing water supplies in the future.

Mass said Eastern Washington can expect more precipitation later this century, and boosting reservoir capacity will help both to manage potential flood events as well as ensure growers have the water they need to manage dry summers. “They had so much water that [this year’s drought] didn’t really hurt agriculture,” Mass said. “If the vineyards could get through this summer, they can probably get through 2070.”

That should be good news to the state’s grapegrowers and winemakers, who are busy scrambling to schedule pick dates that will neither compromise grape quality nor overwhelm winery capacity in a vintage that promises to the largest ever.

With the wildfire smoke clearing, Kludt is optimistic.“We’ve got excellent fruit, we’re going to make some killer wines,” he said. “We look forward to it all ending and people coming back.”

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