While southern Idaho wine producers who lost a majority of their grape crop during the harsh winter are struggling to find enough fruit for this year’s vintage, Lewiston-Clarkston Valley vintners are reaping a bountiful harvest.
“Several vineyards in other parts of the Northwest have not done quite as well,” said Karl Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in the Lewiston Orchards.
“But we’re in a warm spot and our vineyards overwintered pretty well.”
Besides sustained cold temperatures in southern Idaho that froze vines and resulted in a harvest that is about a quarter of normal, according to the Idaho Wine Commission, vineyards in some parts of central Washington also suffered damage, Umiker said.
“We were just a couple degrees above where the vines would have been damaged,” he said.
Coco Umiker of the same vineyard added that the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley “was one of the only, possibly the only, grape-growing region on this side of the Cascades that didn’t go below zero during the winter. And our yields are right at normal – right at three to four tons an acre, which is what we typically see here.”
The Umikers expect to crush 53 to 55 tons of wine grapes this year. The wine will be ready for consumption anywhere from several months for some of the white varieties to a couple of years for the reds.
This season’s wine grape harvest began in the Lewis-Clark American Viticultural Area, which earned its designation only a year ago, around the first of September. It is expected to continue throughout the rest of this month.
Melissa Sanborn of Colter’s Creek winery in Juliaetta also said this year’s grape crop came through the winter in good condition.
“In terms of yields, we usually talk tonnage right now,” Sanborn said. “Our tonnage looks on par with a normal year. We didn’t have that much winter damage.”
Sanborn said she expects her vineyard will pull in about 70 tons of wine grapes this year.
“We’re replanting or putting in new vines so yield levels fluctuate a little bit, but that’s been normal for about three years,” she said.
Even the sustained 100-degree-plus temperatures in the valley during the middle of summer did not harm the crop. Karl Umiker said the plants can adapt to hotter temperatures and tend to shut down development during those times.
“We were ripening very quickly through that hot part of the summer and we were thinking we would have an early harvest,” Coco Umiker said.
But the temperatures eventually cooled down, which allowed the vines to slowly finish ripening the fruit.
“And what you see then is, the seeds are browning up and the skins are maturing and the sugars slowly increase. When you have that nice slowing and cooling, that makes for optimum conditions” for the perfect chemistry, she said.
“The vines are in balance and we see really great wine quality. It’s making wine making really easy this year.”
There are currently six wineries operating in the Lewiston-Clarkston region and a couple of vineyards that produce grapes alone.
Coco Umiker said the Lewis-Clark Wine Alliance, made up of growers and wine makers, would like to see even more people become involved in the nascent industry.
“It’s been fun to collaborate with the new growers coming on,” Coco Umiker said. “We want to see them be successful. It’s only helped our business. Actually, the wine industry is a fun industry in the fact that we are stronger together. That’s not always true in every industry.”
If people are thinking of starting a vineyard, she said, they are urged to contact the wine alliance at lewisclarkwine.com.
“I really want to see more vineyards come into the valley. It’s a shame to see the wineries here growing without the local fruit source to supply it. (The wine alliance) is set up to embrace the newcomers, help those who are here be sustainable and help newcomers come in, in a healthy, sustainable manner. We really want to help those new growers.”