Wine Grape Growers Prepare for Winter

Northwest weather falling 'behind' schedule; eastern wineries make vineyard investments, use non-local juice

by Peter Mitham
The 90-day forecast calls for above-normal precipitation in Southern California.
San Rafael, Calif.—With the last of the harvest coming off vineyards across North America, growers are beginning to focus on preparing for what could be another wild winter.

On the West Coast, the first portents of a strengthening El Niño pattern has growers in California preparing for mudslides, while those in the Northwest are watching the mountains for snow following the driest season in a decade.

“We still haven’t seen enough evidence to show much change from what I think the long-term forecasts have been,” Greg Jones, an environmental science professor at Southern Oregon University, told Wines & Vines.

This includes moisture for California, dryness and warmth for the Northwest.

“Forecasts are pretty much following the typical El Niño influences with greater chances of broader warmer than average conditions in the western U.S.,” he wrote. “The (90-day) outlook tilts the odds to near-normal to below-median precipitation in the (Pacific Northwest) and the expansion of above-normal precipitation for the southern portion of California into the desert Southwest and Texas.”

He cautioned, however, that only time would tell.

“The next 30 days are really critical because the onset of winter. It really should have already started by now,” he said of conditions in the Northwest, where rains have fallen but temperatures haven’t. “We’re definitely already behind. If it stays relatively dry, and we don’t see much activity in terms of colder temperatures and more storm systems coming through, then I think the winter forecast of dry and warm is going to be pretty spot-on.”

Preventative measures in the east

Growers to the east, seeing headlines in the daily media trumpeting yet another harsh winter, have been reading up and taking steps to batten down the proverbial hatches.

Two years ago, a cold snap a month after harvest hit vines, knocking the vinifera harvest from Ontario’s approximately 15,667 acres of wine grapes from 56,405 tons to 34,053 tons.

This past winter, cold temperatures in January and February hit sensitive varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The losses weren’t as bad, but some are forecasting a crop down by as much as 25%.

Andrew Peller Ltd., which typically harvests approximately 19,850 tons per year, will likely see a total haul of close to 15,765 tons.

“There was a lot of very good viticulture done, a lot of nursing in the vineyard—so a lot of very gentle viticulture to support vine health to maximize the crop,” Craig McDonald, senior winemaker for Peller, told Wines & Vines.

However, he’s not taking chances on a third winter.

“After two hard winters we’re retraining new trunks on all of our (vines), just as insurance,” he said. “We spent some money and invested in a full renewal program in our own vineyard, and encouraged our growers to do the same thing.”

With the 2015 harvest set to wrap up in Ontario this week, McDonald is optimistic about conditions. There’s nothing in the air to indicate a sudden frost (the 30-day forecast anticipates above-normal temperatures for the Great Lakes region), meaning vines should have time to go dormant before the Arctic inflows arrive.

“Vines are starting to lignify and harden off,” McDonald said. “We’re seeing good wood that’s browning off nicely already, so I feel we’ll be able to achieve our normal dormancy to prepare.”

Padding yields
While previous freezes prompted regulatory changes allowing vintners to boost non-local content of wines to generate cash flow, it hasn’t happened this time around.

Peller, however, tapped alternative juice sources to flesh out its product line: Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Zinfandel from California was bottled under The Diplomat brand, and juice from Peller’s holdings in B.C. was blended with Ontario wine to top up the Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery brand.

“Rather than create another blend from overseas, we decided to use our own resources internally,” McDonald said. “It’s really more of a common-sense approach, and keeping the wine as domestic and Canadian as we possibly can for the Gretzky brand.”

However, it’s not a long-term solution. The red Gretzky blend lost its designation as a 100% Ontario wine under the province’s Vintners’ Quality Alliance (VQA) program, and McDonald hopes that this year’s good crop and the measures taken to coddle vines into producing it, will leave Peller and other producers with more options for themselves—and consumers—come spring 2016.

The fruit from hardier Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc vines is looking good, giving wineries that work with these varieties an edge.

“This year there was a much better rebound,” McDonald said. “We came out better than we thought.”

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