Last summer’s consistently hot days, warm nights and the sprinkling of rain throughout the season added up to near-perfect conditions for making wine. But the unusually warm winter weather in the Willamette Valley has created a precarious start to the 2015 wine season.
A mild December led to a warmer January, which was capped off with the mid-valley record 62 degrees on Jan. 24. February and March have also been much warmer than usual, local vintners say, and that has led to an early start to the winemaking process. While a majority of mid-valley wineries typically see the vines showing bud break in late April, some local vineyards have already started to break.
The early start isn’t necessarily a bad omen for the rest of the season — after all, every vintage goes through many ups and downs to create unique flavors — but some vintners say colder spring temperatures could mean disaster for the rest of the year.
“As the buds start to break, they’re susceptible to frost and that could kill about 60 percent of our crops for the year,” said Matt Compton, vineyard manager for Philomath’s Spindrift Cellars. “We’ve hit the first day of spring, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be fine. We can still get below 28 degrees at night and that creates the spring frost that can kill those early buds.”
After working with local vineyards for more than 20 years, Compton said there are several tricks to the trade that winemakers can try to give the grapes a fighting chance against the frost. One such technique is delayed pruning, or allowing the vines to grow vertically early and cutting them later than usual. The plants are apical dominant — which means the main vertical stem will grow more strongly than the side stems — and will show bud break earlier on the vertical stems as opposed to those lower to the ground. Since the frost is more likely to affect the lower branches, the delayed bud break for those close to the ground can save acres of crops from frost.
Compton is employing the delayed pruning technique, but that doesn’t mean the vines are in the clear.
“Mother Nature always wins in the end, but we’re trying our best to trick her,” Compton joked. “It makes us feel good and makes us feel like we’ve tried.”
But anything could happen in the next several months.
“Last year we were lucky and everything played out right for us,” Compton said. “This year, it’s too early to know for sure, but it’s not the best start we could’ve hoped for.”
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Just about nine miles down the road south of Corvallis, Dave Buchanan, co-owner of Tyee Wine Cellars, is also nervous about a possible early frost.
“The warmer winter didn’t hurt us too badly because we at least got enough moisture here on the valley floor and that’s good news,” Buchanan said. “The daffodils are out the earliest I’ve ever seen them. And our bud break is going to be earlier so that’s worrisome from a grape standpoint. We are nervous about that early frost possibly hurting us.”
Buchanan said he’s employing his own tricks of the trade to protect his crops this year.
“We’re about three weeks early on the bud break and before when it’s pushed early, we’ve used our irrigation system for frost control,” he said. “In the early morning hours, we’ll turn on our irrigation system and put water on the grapes that will freeze and protect the grapes against the frost.”
Since frost causes desiccation — or extreme dryness — it can either kill the plants or delay the grapes' growth for several weeks. Using ice on the leaves on top allows the plant to get its moisture when the temperature warms up and prevents the frost from setting on the plant, Buchanan said.
“Losing the crop isn’t disastrous but it can cause quite a few problems for the rest of the season,” he said. “But we’ve still got a long ways to go and a lot can happen from here.”
The rolling hills of the Willamette Valley create unique microclimates, which means one vineyard could experience disaster while another only a dozen miles away hits the sweet spot.
Steve Girard, owner of Benton Lane Winery in Monroe, says he’s “jazzed” about the start of the season.
“Harvest is going to be sooner because of this and since we’re always up against the stops later, I’m taking this as good news,” Girard said. “I don’t worry about frost because my vineyard slopes very gently down to the east. One of the reasons why we bought it is because we realized it was perfect for that because that meant the other areas would frost instead of me.”
Girard said this last winter was one of the warmest he’s seen in his 25 years of making wine in the Willamette Valley.
“It’s a little shocking because the vines are still asleep. The vines couldn’t care less about the air temperature, they care about the soil temperature and it hasn’t quite gotten there yet,” Girard said. “I’m real pleased so far with ’15, but of course it’s farming. So who knows what Mother Nature and her weird sense of humor have in store for us.”