All Eyes On the Sun

By Karl Klooster

Summer officially started June 21, but anyone who has planted a garden in Northwestern Oregon this year knows a spate of warmer weather in June would have made a big difference.

In that regard, you may be able to pull out your underachieving tomato plants and replace them with some nice healthy ones that just came from the nursery. But winegrowers don't have that option.

Since bud break in mid-April, an excruciatingly slow march toward grape cluster maturity was set in motion.

Fruit set - when berry formation begins and the flower falls away - has not yet taken place anywhere in the area. And, since 100 days from set to maturity is the rule of thumb for Pinot Noir, it's pretty simple to work out the math.

If a good set is complete by July 1, for example, that should translate to full physiological grape maturity by Oct. 11, given a typical summer.

Of course, variable weather conditions - cool spells, rain and excessively high temperatures - that affect the accumulation of heat units will influence when the actual date will fall and, yes, it will likely be well after the beginning of autumn.

In the case of some late-ripening varieties, maturity may not be reached until mid- to late-October or even early November

That scenario is more likely in Southern Oregon's Rogue and Umpqua valleys, and in the Columbia Gorge where warm weather normally hangs on several weeks longer than in Northwestern Oregon.

In the Willamette Valley, below average temperatures fell to record levels in May and still threaten to duplicate that undesirable condition in June. As a consequence, winegrowers can do little but continue to wait with fingers crossed.

Longtime vineyard manager and consultant Allen Holstein said he hadn't seen anything like this since the 1991 and 1993 harvests. "In both those years, we got heat spikes in September and October," he said. "That pulled things out for us."

Commenting that the beginning of this vintage has been the coolest he has ever seen thus far, Holstein nonetheless expressed confidence in the industry's accumulation of knowledge and experience over the years.

"We're much more capable of dealing with whatever problems come our way than when I first got involved in vineyard management 20 years ago," he said.

"The sophistication of our record keeping and access to information through databases built over time give us a lot of information to guide our decisions. We can refer back to similar seasons in the past and look at what worked and what didn't."

Even with the possibility of underripe grapes, as Argyle Winery's vineyard manager, Holstein is in the enviable position of being able to pick at lower sugar levels for their sparkling wine portfolio. It represents the majority of the Dundee winery's annual production.

For client vineyards and grapes intended to go into Argyle's still wines, however, he noted that high inventory levels currently dictate an approach of lower yields and emphasis on the highest possible quality.

To determine how things were going in Southern Oregon, a call to vineyard manager Michael Moore, owner of South Stage Cellars and 280-acre Quail Run Vineyards in Jacksonville, seemed in order.

I caught up with Moore while he was attending a seminar featuring internationally renowned vineyard consultant Dr. Richard Smart from Australia.

Smart, known as the flying vine doctor, is an expert on canopy management and, with 27 different grape varieties to worry about, Moore felt he could glean some good tips from the globetrotting guru.

He polled several others at the seminar to find consensus among Rogue Valley growers that their vines were about three weeks behind normal development and those in the Umpqua were a little more than two weeks behind.

Vineyard managers in both areas felt they'll catch up during the traditionally hot Southern Oregon months just ahead.

In the Columbia Gorge, Joe Garoutte of Maryhill Winery said a wet spring left them about two weeks behind, but they don't think it will present a problem in the long run.

"We're feeling good," he said. "We got a slow start, but we're beginning to see the first signs of berry set; we're confident we'll have the heat units. It gets pretty warm up here. We regularly harvest into late November."

Obviously, an unseasonably cool spring affected everyone, but it would be an anomaly for traditionally warm regions to continue that trend through the summer and early fall.

As for cooler AVAs, the prospect of nail biting up to the last will be nothing new for winegrowers who know where they've chosen to plant their vines is called the Burgundy of the New World with good reason.

Like the Côte-d'Or, the Willamette Valley and environs may have the potential to bring forth great Pinot Noir and other cool-climate grapes, but the region also has to contend with late season weather conditions that can turn on a dime at just the wrong time.

Whether Mother Nature chooses to favor Northwestern Oregon with blue skies and sun or lower the boom with dull gray and gloom at the end of harvest 2010 remains to be seen, of course.

In the meantime, we should chill out until this coolest of the cool spring seasons fully plays out. 

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