Request Activation
reprint or license print story Print email this story to a friend E-Mail

Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009

Hard frost hits Washington wine country

When Washington winemakers and grape growers looked at the forecast for last weekend, they saw a hard frost heading their way and immediately ramped up harvesting efforts.

"Luckily, most of the vineyards I'm involved in saw it coming and finished harvest by the time it hit," said Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla, Wash.

McKibben, who is an owner in famed Seven Hills Vineyard as well as other vineyard operations, said he has yet to find a green leaf left in the Walla Walla Valley. He said the all-time low for the valley for Oct. 10 had been 33 degrees, but it reached 20 degrees Saturday. The timing was especially difficult because most wineries were at capacity, so they simply could not bring in any more grapes because their fermenters were full.

Rob Griffin, owner and winemaker for Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, Wash., had harvested pretty much everything except Cabernet Sauvignon.

"There doesn't seem to be any degredation of fruit at all," Griffin said. "This hasn't affected us too badly."

He added that in his 33 years in the Washington wine industry, he can't recall a frost like this.

"I don't remember it happening this profoundly this early," he said.

Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, agreed.

"The most severe I remember was in 1978 when I first came up here," he said. "On Oct. 20, we had a series of days where the temperatures went into the high teens every night. This one happened on the 10th, so it was pretty early to have that cold of a temperature."

Wolfe said wineries are now scrambling to get their grapes picked because the fruit is still in good shape despite the frost. He plans to have his grapes into the winery by the middle of next week, which would make his harvest just five weeks long - one of his shortest ever.

"They're usually seven or eight weeks," Wolfe said.

Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, said his 500,000-case winery saw the forecasts for the weekend weather and made sure all of its red wine grapes were picked. Beginning Monday, he surveyed the vineyards he works with in the Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Horse Heaven Hills and estimated as many as 90 percent were affected by the frost.

"Fortunately, we had picked 90 percent of our fruit," he said, leaving primarily Riesling to deal with. As Riesling is a late-ripening variety, working in adverse weather to harvest it is not unusual.

As Dinn walked through a Merlot vineyard north of Prosser, he pointed out how leaves changed from green and lush to brown and dead in a stretch of just 10 yards.

"You can really see the effect of site, elevation and air drainage in an extreme event," Dinn said of the weekend frost. "This is a once-in-30-year event. We try to put our vineyards in areas that they will rise above most cold-weather events," which helps to guard against frost damage in most years, he said.

Dinn and other winemakers stressed that the grapes that remain on the vines are mostly in good shape.

"I think the fruit is fine if it comes off in a timely fashion," he said.

Doug Gore, who oversees winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' many operations, agreed.

"The grapes are sound and solid," he said. "If we can get them picked in the next 10 to 14 days, we'll be OK."

Gore said Ste. Michelle was about 55 percent finished with harvest when the frost came Saturday and is closer to two-thirds done now, with Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon the biggest amounts left.

"We have another hard week of picking Riesling, then we'll be close to done," he said. "In another 10 days, we'll be close to closing the doors."

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brings in about two-thirds of the grapes in Washington, putting its 2009 harvest estimate at close to 90,000 tons.

Gore said the Walla Walla Valley was the hardest hit, with nearly 100 percent of vineyards affected. The rest of the Columbia Valley was spotty. For example, the estate Canoe Ridge vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills was relatively unaffected, as was Cold Creek Vineyard north of the Yakima Valley.

However, the Horse Heaven Vineyard at Columbia Crest in Paterson came through with mixed results. The southern part of the vineyard came through relatively unscathed, while the northern section has been hard it.

Site selection paid off for Jarrod Boyle, whose Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills largely was spared.

"We were slated to get smoked, but we did OK because the wind picked up," Boyle said. "When the winds are still is when we get worried. We did get nipped in some low areas, though."

Destiny Ridge overlooks the Columbia River and Crow Butte Park, which is about 15 miles downstream from Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Vineyard and a mile from Alder Ridge Vineyard.

"The wind comes down the river, and the river never freezes," Boyle said. "Frost is like water. It always follows the lowest spot, and the wind keeps it moving."

Vineyard managers and winemakers - Boyle also makes wine for his family's Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser - ramped up their efforts a couple of days earlier because of the predicted cold snap.

"The fruit was ready," Boyle said. "It didn't affect the quality, but it affected my sleep. We pulled some all-nighters. We're about done now. I've got a bit of Lemberger left - about 10 acres of it."

Wind machines stand out in Boyle's 263-acre vineyard, but the prevailing winds allowed him to keep those blades still.

"If we didn't have the wind, the machines would have helped," he said. "It was supposed to get down to 26, and if it gets that cold, the wind machines help by 3 or 4 degrees. It was too windy to run them, though."

Destiny Ridge, three miles from famed Champoux Vineyard, ranges from 550 feet to 750 feet in elevation. Boyle planted it in October 1998 after receiving input from Bob Wample, who at the time was a Washington State University professor and recent retired as chair of Fresno State's enology and viticulture program.

"It's nights like those when the site selection is really critical, and that's a big reason why I planted where I did," Boyle said.

Gore said that the Quincy area was hard hit, and Dinn added that parts of the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa were affected, depending on location.

For example, the Fries family's Desert Wind Vineyard - which sits at about 1,100 feet elevation - was still green. However, Weinbau, which is farther down the slope, was hard hit.

"We had already picked all of Desert Wind Vineyard by that time, but our Sacagawea Vineyard got some frost," reported Amber Fries, public relations manager for Desert Wind Winery in Prosser. "Most of the fruit (180 tons) was still there at the time. We've been bringing it in this week and think it will be salvageable."

A drive through Red Mountain, a ridge on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, showed dramatic differences, too. Vineyards in the lower reaches, including Terra Blanca, Kiona and Ciel du Cheval, were mostly brown, while Hedges, Red Haven and Col Solare on the upper part of the bench appeared relatively unscathed.

"We were lucky at Col Solare," said Grace Doyle of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "Marcus (Notaro, resident winemaker for Col Solare) had finished picking the estate vineyard in the middle of last week, well before the frost came in. We are also somewhat protected by our higher elevation there."

Red Mountain is one of the warmest growing areas in Washington wine country, and most of the grapes already had been harvested because of the warm summer and early fall.

In the western Yakima Valley, Red Willow Vineyard saw few issues, said owner and manager Mike Sauer.

"Essentially, we had no damage," he said. "A few bottom lines got hit, as well as some little draws in which 20 percent of the leaves were affected."

He said temperatures dropped to 25 degrees at his shop area near the bottom of the vineyard. He also saw about a third of an inch of rain, as well as snow that turned to sleet on Tuesday.

"This is about as early and severe as I can remember," he said." It's turning into an ugly harvest," he said wearily. "But this is our last day. I guess we have to have one of these every once in a while to remind us how good we have things."

Sauer, who began planting grapes at Red Willow in 1973, said he has learned over the years where frost damage can occur and has removed vineyards from certain areas to mitigate damage.

Once area of concern is bud damage. Buds for the following year form in late spring. A damaging frost or harsh winter can affect next year's crop. However, Wolfe doesn't believe this will be an issue from last weekend's cold snap because temperatures didn't reach the low teens. He said some of the vines that still have fruit might be susceptible to damage if the Columbia Valley has a hard winter, but a mild winter should leave the vines in good shape.

Lake Chelan's growers weren't spared either. Kathy Benson, co-owner of Benson Vineyards Estate Winery in Chelan, said, "Everything just froze, but we had nearly all of our grapes in - about 80 percent."

The Bensons began planting their 30-acre vineyard in 1999, and their 2006 estate-grown Sangiovese received a prestigious Platinum award from Wine Press Northwest magazine in 2008.

"We're still sitting on the Sangiovese, which is a big part of our program," Benson said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we will pick that next week. We're supposed to get some rain, and we're hoping it will dry out after that."

Dead and soggy leaves make harvest and crush-pad work messy and troublesome. The debris is considered "material other than grapes," aka mog, and Ste. Michelle recently deployed a "mog monster" at its red winemaking facility in the Horse Heaven Hills.

"If dried leaves get in the wine, they will give you a tea-bag taste and green notes," Boyle said. "A picking machine will blow some of those leaves out. Hand-picking is best, but even the pickers can't get all the leaves out."

Last weekend's early frost event combined with the cool spring made for a condensed growing season.

Kate Michaud, winemaker for Covey Run Winery in Sunnyside, said, “Shortest growing season on record. Earliest frost on record. It was a good thing we were two weeks ahead or we would have been in a world of trouble when it froze.”

However, Boyle is looking forward to making wines from the 2009 vintage.

"It's light in the vineyard, but great in the bin," he said. "The berries are tiny, but the flavors are really intense. The skin-to-juice ratio is lower. And the Merlot is phenomenal this year. I've never tasted Merlot grapes this good."

As a grower, though, Boyle said the 2009 vintage won't be fondly remembered.

"Thankfully, most of our fruit is grown on contract for wineries," Boyle said. "We do have some lots that are 'per ton crop,' and the most of those lots came in under 4 tons per acre when the contracts call for 5- to 6-tons per acre. So that will hurt a little bit."