That sound coming from the Pacific Northwest is the large exhale of Washington vintners relieved that this past November’s freeze and a cold, slow start to the 2011 growing season have caused less vine damage than feared. Estimates of the state’s grape crop range from 70 percent to 90 percent of normal. But it's still too early in the growing season to know for sure.
Temperatures dropped to as low as 10 degrees below zero Nov. 23, before the vines could go dormant for the winter. Assessing the damage had to wait until the vines awakened with spring, and this year's budbreak was delayed by April and May temperatures well below normal.
Now that vines have started to grow leaves and buds, some growers are reporting that their vineyards came through unscathed, particularly in warmer areas such as Red Mountain and other hillside sites at higher elevations. Others, especially Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla, reported severe bud damage and some vine kill. But the vast majority of growers have seen only spotty effects.
“It looks better than it could have been,” said Kevin Corliss, director of vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the state’s largest grower and buyer of grapes from independent vineyards. “There are areas that will have a normal crop, other parts that will have no crop at all. In the end, we think we’re going to end up 10 percent down from 2010, which was pretty much a normal year for volume.”
Some of the worst damage, Corliss reported, was in parts of Horse Heaven Hills that lie inland from the Columbia River. The river can have moderating effects during a frost. Champoux Vineyard, one of the most celebrated sites, which grows Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for Quilceda Creek, was among the hardest hit.
“To make up some of the loss we have contracted with DuBrul Vineyard for [some] Cabernet and Merlot and we’re talking to a handful of other growers on proven sites,” said Paul Golitzin, who makes the wines at Quilceda. “Our Palengat and Discovery vineyards, also in Horse Heaven Hills, and Galitizine Vineyard on Red Mountain survived without any trouble.”
DuBrul, located in Yakima Valley, reported mostly normal levels of fruit coming in. “We have cut back our own allocated rows to get grapes to other wineries whose sources froze out,” said grower Hugh Shiels. “We are following Ste. Michelle's lead,” he said, referring to that company’s efforts in previous frost-affected vintages to supply grapes to wineries in distress.
The lower elevations in Walla Walla are also in trouble. “Pepper Bridge took a pretty good beating,” said Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41, which gets grapes from vineyards in Walla Walla and Columbia Valley. “We normally take as much as 50 tons from Pepper Bridge, and I am guessing we might get 10. You go to Seven Hills, and it escaped the bullet.”
Although he saw some freeze damage, Christophe Baron of Cayuse, whose main vineyards are on the stony soils of the Walla Walla Valley floor, expects to see a normal crop from his vines. "We might even have to thin later in the summer," he said. "We got most of our vines buried before the freeze, but not all of them. The ones that came through fine are finally starting to bloom. It looks good."
“It’s a unique freeze in that it’s so spotty,” said Corliss. “Very small changes in elevation, as little as two feet, can make all the difference. We have places where the vines were completely killed back to the ground, but the surrounding areas not only have foliage but also fruit. It’s making it difficult to get our arms around crop estimating.”
The late start to 2011 put vineyards one to two weeks behind their normal progression. But longtime growers and vintners expect that to even out. “Bloom is late, but I don’t get too worried about it. There’s a lot of potential for catchup,” said Clubb. Long-range weather forecasts predicted a cool, wet spring, followed by a warmer than usual summer.