Northwest Grape Harvest Enters Homestretch

Oregon may still have record crop; Washington expects 20% down

by Peter Mitham
Lange Estate harvest
Harvesters at Lange Estate Winery in Dundee, OR prepare for crush.
Dundee, Oregon -- Oregon and Washington State may be neighbors, but this year’s grape harvest has arrived with significant differences on each side of the state line. With the harvest entering the homestretch, the Oregon Wine Board last week hailed a “miracle harvest” it expects may exceed previous records with respect to volume and fruit quality. The largest harvest ever recorded in Oregon occurred in 2009, when 40,200 tons of grapes were harvested; this year could exceed that.

“The last two-weeks plus have been really outstanding,” Jesse Lange, general manager and winemaker at Lange Estate Winery in Dundee told Wines & Vines this morning. “It gave us the kind of miracle ending that we needed.”

Lange has never picked grapes in November before, but with harvest wrapping up today at the winery’s 45 acres of estate vineyard, he admits feeling “stoked” about how the year has ended. It’s also testimony to just how far the Oregon industry has come over the past 30 years. Similar conditions to what Oregon winemakers were grappling with this year would have been a worse scenario in the 1980s.

“These days we remove leaves very aggressively, our trellis systems for the most part are VSP [vertical shoot positioning] across the valley,” he said. Growers are also more inclined to drop fruit to facilitate ripening than they were 30 years ago. “Reducing crop to a point that gives a vine a chance to really get ripe is something we really didn’t do so much in the 1980s,” Lange said, noting: “You can’t farm for failure.”

Lange sources grapes from 14 sites in the North Willamette Valley in addition to its own estate, and also brings in some Tempranillo and Syrah from the Roseburg area in Southern Oregon. While some sites in the south have been hit by frost, this hasn’t been a major issue to date.

Nor have birds, a prime concern last year as many Willamette growers are conveniently close to migration routes. Lange attributes this to greater awareness of the potential for depredation by wildlife, as well as lower pressure overall. “We were better prepared this year, which helped,” he said. “But the pressure hasn’t been as bad as it’s been.”

Washington halfway
Some of the lessons learned in 2010 also stood growers in Washington State in good stead. They are about halfway through harvest of a crop estimated to be approximately 20% below normal thanks to an early, damaging frost last November and cool conditions throughout this year that slowed maturation and increased disease pressure.

Despite a burst of warm weather in late summer and early fall, most growing regions in Washington State ended the 2011 season lagging even last year in terms of growing degree days. 2010 had established a benchmark for cool years with 2,325 growing degree days in the Yakima Valley but the tally as of October 30 this year was just 2,312 growing degree days.

“Because we had such a cool growing season, whites and reds were harvested at pretty darn close to the same time period,” said Michelle Moyer, assistant professor and extension viticulturist at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. “Wineries in some cases are having issues dealing with grape inventory.”

This has helped extend the harvest, despite last week’s frosts in many parts of the state that halted sugar accumulation. This means the composition of grapes will change, but it’s due to dehydration rather than any essential changes in the grape’s composition. “There is acid degradation and there is sugar accumulation [but] it’s not due to actual vine activity, it’s simply due at this point to dehydration,” Moyer said.

Botrytis is also an issue as grapes hang on the vine awaiting harvest, though outbreaks during the season were less than in 2010 due to greater awareness of the potential for the disease (not to mention better weather during the late summer and into September). The same can’t be said for powdery mildew, which flourished as growers struggled to ensure spray coverage under challenging weather conditions (see Wines & Vines headline, “Will Mildew Get Washington Grapes?”).

Still, the biggest impact on the Washington State crop this year will, in retrospect, likely be the sharp freeze of November 2010 and two years of cool growing conditions. “The cooler season that we had last year, predetermined, even before the winter cold damage, that crop development would be slightly lower,” Moyer said.

What the year ahead holds is another question. Growers’ awareness of the importance of disease control has increased over the past two years, and they’ve also had experience dealing with winter damage. Those lessons should help them regardless of what 2012 delivers.

“You never want to see bad production years back to back. It can be disheartening, but at the same time it really forces us to re-evaluate where we’re focussing our efforts,” Moyer said. “Even though those two years are hard on the bottom line, they also help you make future decisions using more education, using more tools and just being cognizant of the different conditions that could influence your vineyard.”

Meanwhile, the economic outlook is hanging tough even as economists talk about the threat of a new recession on the global stage. The latest market snapshot from Northwest Farm Credit Services notes that winery and vineyard owners are looking forward to the final quarter of 2011 and holiday sales, with the industry generally, “faring better than many other segments of the U.S. economy.”

Currently no comments posted for this article.