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Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009

Freeze spurs farmers to get wine grapes off vine

PASCO, Wash. - Kent Waliser has spent recent weeks balancing his late-season apple and grape harvests, but last weekend's freezing temperatures forced him to shift gears.

His apples are sitting tight while he concentrates on getting his grapes off the vine.

"We got some frost, but the apples will be OK," said Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Farms north of Pasco.

About half of his apple crop is still on the trees but the sugar content of both the apples and grapes helps protect the fruit. "Sugar acts as an antifreeze," he said.

Still, he's focused on picking all of his wine grapes within a week, while his Granny Smith apples will remain on the trees for another two to three weeks.

Colby Newman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Spokane office, said early morning temperatures dipped to 19 degrees Sunday and 26 degrees Monday around the Tri-Cities.

The Yakima Valley saw lows reach 18 degrees Sunday and 27 degrees Monday, while western Benton County was slightly warmer with lows in the Prosser area in the mid-20s Sunday.

"It looks like everywhere had a pretty solid freeze," Newman said.

But the weather is warming up a little for the rest of the week. Overnight lows are expected to reach the upper-30s through Thursday and possibly the low-40s heading into the weekend. Midweek showers also are possible.

The weekend's cold weather didn't necessarily freeze the grapes, but instead froze the leaves. After the leaves thaw, they dry, wrinkle and die.

Once the leaves die, the photosynthesis stops and grapes don't ripen past where they were before the freeze.

"If somebody's waiting for their grapes to get ripe, they're not going to make it," said Jeff Gordon, owner of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards in Pasco.

Growers aren't panicking, but many are working overtime to quickly finish their harvest.

Scott Williams of Kiona Vineyards and Winery in Benton City said the "vast majority" of his grapes have been picked, many of them in anticipation of the weekend's freeze. "We always keep an eye on the weather this time of year," he said.

Except for late harvest varieties, such as Riesling, Williams is hoping to have his grapes picked by Wednesday. If the freezing weather hadn't hit, he would have left some of his grapes on the vine another 10 days.

"We have sped up a little bit," he said, adding that his workers are picking "from light until dark. They normally would quit around 2 o'clock."

Gordon said the cold weather isn't affecting vineyard operations. "By this time anyway, even if we didn't have a freeze, the season's over."

Brian Looney of Bookwalter Winery in Richland said there's some concern the cold weather could affect Cabernet grapes, which he said are typically picked in late October. He said some winemakers are asking growers to harvest their remaining grapes now, but guessed that some may roll the dice and leave varieties such as Cabernet on the vine until the end of the month.

"If you choose not to harvest, you might get some great grapes," he said. "Or you might lose your grapes."

This year's wine grape harvest in Washington is expected to set a record. The Washington Field Office of the National Agriculture Statistics Service expects about 155,000 tons of wine grapes to be picked in Washington. That's 7 percent higher than last year's record.

The state's apple harvest this year is expected to be 5.6 billion pounds, down 3 percent from 2008. However, apple quality is reported to be better than 2008.

Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, echoed Waliser's opinion of the weekend freeze's effect on apples, saying the crop shouldn't be harmed by the cold. "I don't think there's a lot of pessimism thus far," he said.

-- Drew Foster: 509-585-7207; dfoster@tricityherald.com