Oregon Winegrowers Still Wait for Crush

Erratic weather means more labor costs, smaller crop and delayed harvest

by Peter Mitham
Lange Estate harvest
At Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards (above), winemaker Jesse Lange believes harvest will start in early October.
Dundee, Oregon -- The grapes are down but not out, as Oregon wineries close out a difficult season. While flavor development is progressing well in some parts of the state, a cool growing season throughout the Pacific Northwest has kept vineyard managers on tenterhooks. Gauging harvest dates, never an easy task at the best of times, was complicated by cool weather and late maturation.

Jesse Lange, general manager and winemaker at 20,000-case Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards in Dundee, Ore., pegged his hopes on Oct. 2 as the start of harvest in a pool his winery has going. He thinks he’s going to be pretty close to the mark, given how fruit is ripening and flavors are developing.

“I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the flavors that are out there, even at the lower sugar levels,” he told Wines & Vines. “Being two to two-and-a- half weeks late always gets everybody a little bit anxious, but all in all, I think you just put that energy into doing positive things in the vineyard. Put yourself in a position to be more successful.”

This morning, a team of interns was in Lange’s vineyards dropping fruit and ensuring the canopy on the west side of the vines wasn’t blocking too much sun. Lange is aiming for one cluster per shoot this year, which should reduce yields to 1.5 to 2 tons-per acre, down from the more common 2 to 2.25 tons per acre. “We’ve been dropping (fruit) pretty severely, which should make great quality wine, but which should also get us riper faster,” he said.

Umpqua Valley outlook

Boosting exposure is also key in Southern Oregon, which is known for producing warmer-climate varietals. Abacela Winery, in the Umpqua Valley, is known for its Tempranillo and Albariño varieties but also has Syrah and Malbec as part of its 70 acres of bearing vineyard.

“We came into the season fairly cool, and now we have this truncated fall that’s occurring, and that just means only the best sites, only the best slopes that have done their homework are going to get good fruit in,” said Alex Cabrera, vineyard manager at 10,000-case Abacela. “Marginal sites are going to be difficult, to say the least.”

This is why Abacela’s Malbec and Syrah are planted on southwest-facing slopes, which Cabrera believes is beneficial for them. The grapes are a little less than a week behind, though some sites are lagging by as many as 14 days.

“In a year that’s all but marginal, we’re hoping those hill sites can steal as many heat units as possible,” he said. “Right now during these days and weeks where there’s very little sun -- and if there’s any sun it’s pretty close to the horizon -- those slopes are getting the maximum amount of solar radiation versus some kind of flat land.”

While many parts of the Pacific Northwest have been pounded by rain during the past two weeks -- on Sept. 7, for example, Portland International Airport recorded its heaviest one-hour downpour since records began being kept in 1953 -- the growers we spoke to said the rains hadn’t had a significant impact on fruit quality.

Not a money maker

On the other hand, Lange candidly admitted this won’t be a year for making money in the vineyard. The big soaker that growers experience will be in production costs. Workers at Lange Estate, for example, have made three passes through the vineyard to manage crop load.

“We’ll probably spend more money than we take,” Lange said, adding that he doesn’t expect wineries in the Dundee Hills to be forced out of business by the circumstances. “To get freaked out about it or to make any sort of broad statements is definitely premature,” he said, echoing his comments to Wines & Vines this past spring, when bloom at his 45-acre vineyard was about 10 days behind expectations.

Indeed, he says the current profile of heat unit accumulation is surprisingly similar to 1999. “And that was one of my favorites from the entire decade,” he said.
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