As the weather warms, wine grape growers are getting a clearer picture of just how much damage occurred in their vineyards last year — and they don’t necessarily like what they see.
“It looks like there are fewer clusters than we expected, even considering the winter damage,” said Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker for Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser. “It’s looking even lighter than we anticipated.”
Wolfe explained that the bud on a vine will produce growth called a shoot, and each shoot usually will have two grape clusters. This year, however, many shoots are producing just one cluster.
Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, is seeing the same thing.
“Cluster counts are lower,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what cluster weights we’ll get.”
Jim McFerron, director of vineyard operations for Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Co. in Mattawa, said the 1,000 acres he oversees will be down by as much as 25 percent from normal years. He believes this year’s smaller crop is because of last June’s cool season as much as a killer freeze in November that damaged 10 percent of his vines.
Last fall, Washington harvested a record 160,000 tons. But on Nov. 23, just a couple of weeks after harvest was mostly finished, temperatures that dropped well below zero caused significant damage in key areas, especially the Horse Heaven Hills. But this wasn’t the only problem for the country’s second-largest wine-producing region.
A year ago, McFerron’s grapes began to bloom June 6 and didn’t finish until July 2. The poor weather during that time frame likely affected the health of the vines for this year’s crop. Bloom this year began about June 13 and finished within a week, which means next year’s crop has a greater chance of being healthy.
Corliss said temperatures the past five or six weeks have been close to optimal, helping the vines catch up from an extremely cool winter and spring.
“The vines have developed so fast in the last month,” he said.
Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain, said the smaller crop might actually end up being a bit of a blessing.
“Cabernet has decided to throw out one cluster per shoot,” he said. “That means less thinning for us.”
Many vines produce more fruit than growers want, so they will go through and cut off clusters to thin their crops and ensure the remaining grapes ripen properly and are of the highest quality.
“We thin pretty early,” Holmes said. “This year, we probably won’t have to do that.”
Holmes thinks his crop will be down by about 15 percent of normal, and other growers are seeing similar numbers.
This is leaving winemakers scrambling for grapes. Rob Griffin, owner of Barnard Griffin in Richland, produces a sangiovese ros that has won a gold medal or better each of the past six years. But the primary vineyard he buys the grapes from north of Pasco was devastated and is unlikely to produce much fruit.
“We’ll definitely have a sangiovese ros, just not as much,” he said ruefully. “The usual abundant sources of grapes just aren’t there this year.”
In the next couple of weeks, growers throughout the Columbia Valley will inventory what is on their vines for the annual crop estimate, which is expected to come out at the end of July. That will give growers and winemakers about a month to prepare before harvest begins around Labor Day.
Until then, growers and winemakers hope the weather cooperates and gives the grapes a chance to recover from the hard winter and cool spring.
“It’s hard to tell if we can catch up,” Wolfe said.