Perfect growing conditions mean Oregon 2012 wines should be some of the best ever bottled

As freshly picked whole-cluster pinot gris grapes whizzed by on a conveyer belt, “crush crew” members at Benton-Lane Winery separated out leaves and unwanted, unripe green berries.

Within hours of harvest, the grapes were dumped into a press, and the resulting juice was on its way to becoming a white wine.

“We’ll be flirting with harvest, having small days of mostly white varietals to work the bugs out of the crew and the equipment,” said owner Steve Girard, whose 145-acre vineyard is south of Monroe. “Next week we’ll be going at it full-bore with red wines.”

As local vineyard managers and winemakers gear up for harvest, they say that warm, sunny days and minimal rain has contributed to a great season so far, especially compared to the weather-related obstacles of the past two years.

“We’ve had a nice summer with plenty of sunshine,” said Merrilee Buchanan Benson, vineyard manager and winemaker at Tyee Wine Cellars, south of Corvallis. “That’s been a relief to have a nice warm summer because the last two previous summers have been pretty rainy and cold.”

Girard anticipates that some of Benton-Lane’s pinot gris grapes will be ready for harvest as soon as Saturday. About 10 percent of the fruit that goes into Benton-Lane wine is grown at other Willamette Valley vineyards, and the shipment he received Tuesday — the first of the season — came from Eola Springs Vineyard in Amity.

“Saturday, Sunday and all next week will be crazy,” he said, “and by this time next week, we’re going to be racing.”

Warm summer days have allowed time for the grapes to ripen sooner than last year, and if the current weather forecast of moderate temperatures and no rain holds, Girard believes that the resulting wine will compare to the superb vintage of 2008.

“I was looking how incredibly similar 2012 is to 2008 (in weather data),” he said. “Two thousand eight was the vintage that the Wine Spectator magazine said was the best ever for Oregon.”

A season of less rain has equated to less worry about diseases as well.

“We’ve had really low disease pressure because of the sunshine,” Benson said. “Grapes are susceptible to different kinds of rot and mildew during a rainy summer.”

Local vineyard managers have reported that they may begin to harvest as soon as the end of the week or beginning of next week. They will test the sugar, acid and pH levels of the grapes for each varietal, as well as examine the vine and the grape itself.

Most importantly, Girard said, they will test the grapes for taste.

“The most important thing is just flavor,” he said. “We’re looking for a sexy black cherry flavor to develop, which makes pinot noir so alluring.”

Passing through rows of mature pinot noir vines on Tuesday, he snacked on a few.

“Flavors are not complete,” he reported. “That’s why we want to give them another week.”

Benson and other vineyard managers are crossing their fingers that the coming weeks won’t bring frost or a monsoon of rain, but with the harvest under way, most of their worrying is over.

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