Northwest Could See Record Wine Grape Harvest

Washington growers most likely to set new record in 2018, grape prices also on the rise

by Peter Mitham
Based on an early estimate, Washington could see a record wine grape harvest because of new vineyards coming into production. Photo: Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance/Richard Duval. 

Cashmere, Wash.—All signs are pointing to an above-average wine grape crop in the Northwest, and growers from British Columbia to Oregon are busy thinning clusters as veraison kicks in.

Some of the biggest numbers are likely to come out of Washington state. A preliminary forecast from the Washington Winegrowers Association, which represents growers across the state, puts the 2018 crop at a potential 268,255 tons. This is on par with the 2016 record of 270,000 tons but 17% above last year’s harvest of 229,000 tons.

By contrast, Oregon harvested more than 85,000 tons, on par with 2015’s record crop, while British Columbia growers picked a new record of 32,700 tons last year. “For the past couple of years, several new vineyards have been planted. This year’s estimate reflects the newer acres coming into production,” said Vicky Scharlau, the Washington association’s executive director.

New plantings in established AVAs
The harvest will come from approximately 58,208 acres this year, up 4% from 56,073 acres in 2016. The new acreage to date has been in established viticultural areas such as the Yakima Valley AVA, in particular Red Mountain, as well as Walla Walla and the Horse Heaven Hills. However, new areas along the Columbia River are also opening up with five new AVAs planned, the most recent being an application perfected in March for Goose Gap around Badger and Candy Mountains in Benton County.

A working group of growers and vintners develops the estimate, the association explained, as an early indicator of crop size, by variety, for growers and vintners to use as a management tool. “[It] is not intended to be a prediction of crush,” the winegrowers communications manager Katlyn Straub emphasized.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which typically handles two-thirds of the state’s wine grape harvest, often produces its own estimates. However, it directed queries to the winegrowers group.

Broken down by variety, red grapes will dominate at 158,679 tons with white grapes at 109,576 tons. Red grapes stand to be slightly more numerous than two years ago, while the estimated tonnage of white grapes is down 2% from the 2016 harvest and represents the majority of the decline in the estimate.

Significant plantings of red grapes have helped the category hold its own, while good weather this year
meant good fruit set and cluster development. Many growers have been going through vineyards thinning clusters to manage crop load.

However, a heat wave has paused some vineyard activities in the Northwest.

Temperatures in the Yakima and Walla Walla Valley AVAs have been above 90° F degrees regularly since early July, even occasionally cresting 100° F degrees.

This has pushed the accumulation of growing degree days at the Washington State University research station in Prosser above average. It stood at 1,827 through Aug. 5, while in the Walla Walla Valley, accumulation stood at 1,977. It’s only slightly less, 1,895, in the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater on the Oregon side of the appellation.

“The vines are fruitful and, as of this week, veraison is complete in the Syrah,” reported Steve Robertson, owner of SJR Vineyard and Delmas Wines in Milton-Freewater. “[We] will wait for this heat to break before leaf-pulling and cluster-thinning.”

He expects to begin harvest in mid-September, while Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla expects harvest to begin at his own property shortly after Labor Day.

Trends in grape pricing
Grape prices across the northwest have been strengthening. The latest grape crush report for Washington indicates that prices averaged $1,206 a ton in 2017, up from $1,157 in 2016. Petit Verdot was the most expensive grape in the state last year at $1,709 a ton.

Oregon grapes prices averaged $2,056 a ton last year, according to preliminary figures the University of Oregon prepared for the Oregon Wine Board, unchanged from 2016. The median price of $1,952 a ton. Pinot Noir from the Northern Willamette is the most lucrative grape in the state, fetching as much as $5,482 a ton. However, the average price was $2,375 a ton — down 2% from $2,422 in 2016 and well short of Cabernet Sauvignon from the eastern part of the state (specifically, the AVAs shared with Washington and Idaho), which averaged $3,200 a ton in 2017. This amounts to a 13% increase, among the biggest leaps posted by any variety. (Pinot Gris saw the biggest decrease, according to preliminary figures, dropping 19% last year from $1,484 a ton to $1,199.

British Columbia growers, meanwhile, saw an average price of $2,271 (Canadian dollars) a ton for their fruit last year, according to the BC Wine Grape Council’s crop report for 2017. The province’s most-harvested variety, Merlot, saw its price increase 12% from the previous report in 2015 to $2,765 a ton while Chardonnay increased 14% to $2,317 a ton. The most expensive varieties were Sylvaner, at $4,000 a ton and Teroldego, a variety often used for blending that commanded a price of $3,852 a ton.


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