Oregon Wineries Grapple with Big Harvest

Wineries at capacity as rain arrives, bringing an end to harvest season

by Peter Mitham
wine oregon wineries vineyards harvest oregon fruit thinning
Some wine grape growers such as Elk Cove Vineyards thinned clusters when it became apparent the 2017 harvest would have high yields. Photo: Anna M. Campbell Photography

Dundee, Ore.—Three inches of rain that fell across the northern Willamette Valley this past weekend has largely put the brakes on the 2017 wine grape harvest, leaving winemakers to juggle the final influx of fruit while some growers scramble to salvage what grapes are left and find a buyer for them.

“I’ve received phone calls from people with excess fruit trying to find a home,” said Gary Horner, winemaker at Erath Winery in Dundee, which draws grapes from 1,500 acres in Oregon. Many are willing to accept the best offer, he explained, just to get the fruit off their hands.

“If we weren’t long ourselves, I would say yes. In a situation like this, we try our best to steer them to other producers,” he said.

Now, with the rain, any fruit that hasn’t been picked is likely lost.

“We had close to 3 inches of rain over the weekend. I bet most of the crop is on the verge of rotting right now, if there’s anything still out there.”

The losses may not hurt the size of the vintage, however. Erath was largely done by Oct. 19, and even wineries that hadn’t finished were having a hard time trying to accommodate this year’s fruit. Based on anecdotal reports, the 2017 vintage is set to come in at between 85,000 and 90,000 tons, up from 79,782 tons last year and the record harvest of 84,949 tons in 2015.

“We’re dealing with some of the highest yields we’ve ever seen,” Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vintners Inc., told Wines & Vines last week.

Clair estimated that her winery’s yields were 30% to 50% above expectations, with a final 300 tons on the vine awaiting harvest before last week’s deluge.

“Finding room in the winery has been really challenging,” she said. “We have so much wine that we’re looking to offer on the bulk market because it’s more than we need for our brands.”

The big yields are due to a combination of favorable weather and poor estimates, though Horner says growers can’t be blamed—not entirely, anyway.

When growers made their initial estimates during the lag phase of the vine, a period when the grapes don’t increase in size, the estimated increase in berry size fell short of how the berries actually grew.

“Normally, the guess is it’s going to size up between maybe 1.8 and two times,” Horner explained. “Well, it probably sized up more like 2.2 times the lag phase weights. I’ve seen it happen in other vintages, and there’s no way of telling it’s going to happen until you’re close to harvest and you’re doing actual cluster weights.”

To manage the situation, Erath fruit thinned following its initial cluster count, and then again following the lag phase estimates.

“Then we made a third pass to go through and thin out any green clusters that might remain behind,” he said. “We made three passes and still came out long.”

King Estate vineyard manager Ray Nuclo said close management also prevented the crop from the 465 acres he oversees south of Eugene coming in too far off the mark. It’s closer to the 2015 vintage in size, but still about 15% ahead of where it was last year.

Overall, however, he’s pleased with fruit quality.

“I’m optimistic. It’s going to be more of a classic Oregon vintage,” he said. “The last few years, the sugar ripeness has been a bit ahead of the flavor development. This year it’s been a bit of a cooler year, and definitely a cooler fall.”

This promises more elegant, lower alcohol wines.

“As long as you chose your picking window correctly and had clean, healthy fruit going into harvest, you were rewarded with perfect fruit with phenolic ripeness and great acid balance,” said Adam Campbell, winemaker at Elk Cove Vineyards in Gaston, Ore. “We have focused on early morning picks and most Pinot Noir was hand sorted to tank at 50° F. Fermentations are ticking along and aromas and flavors are reminding me of 2012.”

Horner agrees, noting that the 2017 growing season was just 15% warmer than the long-term average, delivering fruit with a better balance of sugars, acids and other components. Harvest began three weeks later than last year, on Sept. 24, and wrapped up Oct. 19.

“I really prefer a vintage like we just had,” he said. “Nice acid, lower alcohols, nice acidity, abundant tannin. And there’s a lot of it; it’s not every day you have a very solid quality vintage and an abundant vintage, so we’ll take that.”

The large, high-quality vintage plays into the plans of Stoller Family Estate in Dayton, Ore.

“Stoller is a brand that has been growing so we welcome this large vintage,” vineyard manager Jason Tosch said. “We have a home for the additional tonnage and an incredible wine club ready to have another sip....We are very happy with the added quality fruit.”

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