Skies are clear and daytime temperatures are in the 70s this week in Oregon's Willamette Valley. They have started picking Pinot Noir grapes, but the growers and winemakers are nervous. They're expecting rain this weekend, the first of a series of storms lined up to wash across the Pacific Northwest coast.
After the string of warm to hot vintages that began in 1998 and ran basically through 2003, Oregon experienced rains before or during harvest in 2004, 2005 and 2006. But it was nothing like what the weather service is predicting for next week, by some estimates 3 to 8 inches of precipitation.
"This could be a vintage that will separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls," said Josh Bergström, who makes some of Oregon's best Pinot at his eponymous winery and for several smaller wineries. Across the table over dinner the other night sat Mo Ayoub. Bergström makes the wine for Ayoub from his tiny 4-acre vineyard, and they have agreed to send a crew into the vineyard to harvest on Friday.
"We're picking your vineyard because it's ready, not because we're panicking," Bergström adds. "But this looks like a vintage when Oregon gets spanked. A lot of people haven't seen that yet, and they're rushing out to pick some grapes so they'll have something, anything, if it rains."
Walking through several vineyards on my visit this week to wineries in the Willamette, I saw grapes in various states of readiness. They taste sweet, but not as intense as in years past, and the seeds are still a bit green. They're still about 2 to 4 degrees shy of the ideal sugar levels, and winemakers would rather wait to let the grapes develop more flavor.
It was a cool summer with no heat spikes, no great warm streaks to get everything ripe early, before the rains that inevitably arrive in October. As a result, Oregon in 2007 faces the classic "when-do-we-pick?" dilemma. Pick now, get less flavor, but at least get something? Or wait, hope it doesn't rain too much, and pray that the grapes sweeten up again after the rain.
Diligent growers, who pared down their yields to hasten ripening, are looking pretty smug as they start bringing in grapes that look clean and taste pretty good, if not ideal.
For hope, consider that a lot of growers were disappointed in the grapes they picked under rain showers and dumped into fermenters in 2004. Many of the wines turned out really nice. Pinot Noir is like that.
And, in the end, the predicted rains may not materialize. "I can't count the times we expected rains and woke up to sunny skies," says David O'Reilly, co-owner of and winemaker for Owen Roe. "I'm going to wait until the grapes are right, and if we lose them, so be it. I'm not going to compromise on quality just to have some wine."
Of course, Owen Roe also makes wine from Washington, where the vineyards in the eastern part of the state seldom see much rain at all, so he can be a lot braver than his Oregon-only neighbors.
Andrew Bernardo — Halifax, Nova Scotia — September 27, 2007 2:06pm ET
Kevin Lewis — Baltimore,MD — September 27, 2007 8:17pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 27, 2007 9:19pm ET
Adam Lee — Santa Rosa, CA — September 28, 2007 8:44am ET
Charles J Stanton — Eugene, OR — September 28, 2007 6:28pm ET
Adam Lee — Santa Rosa, CA — September 29, 2007 9:56am ET
Ray Juskiewicz — Dallas — October 2, 2007 11:46am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 2, 2007 11:52am ET
Brian Corley — Manhattan Beach, CA — October 3, 2007 12:21am ET
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