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If the 2012 growing season must be summed up in one word it would be this: normal. After the 2009 vintage was clipped by an early October freeze and 2010 and 2011 were two successive cool years with a freeze sandwiched in between, 2012 has tracked closely to the statistical averages for the last twenty years.

“We are very close to what you want if you could ask for a normal year,” Kent Waliser of Sagemoor Vineyards says. Waliser notes that the more normal growing season should make this harvest considerably less compressed for growers and winemakers than the last several.

“We are starting harvest at a more normal time which will stretch out the season and give wineries more time to make wine and not be rushed,” Waliser says. “This will increase the industry’s ability to handle a big crop more easily.”

This will be important as Washington is expecting a record crop in 2012, estimated at 200,000 tons (the previous record was 160,000 tons in 2010). According to Ryan Pennington, Communications Director at the Washington Wine Commission, the large crop can be attributed to the favorable growing conditions this year, a recovery from the November 2010 freeze, and additional plantings coming on-line.

While the normal to warm growing season has been a relief to many - and indeed there is noticeably less anxiety at wineries and in the vineyards this year than in recent years – the warmer temperatures can, of course, also bring their own set of challenges.

Winemaker Trey Busch of Sleight of Hand Cellars notes that the weather this growing season has led him to make some adjustments in the vineyard. Busch says that the warm temperatures, “led to the potential for a big crop in most of my vineyards, but at veraison we went in and brought drop levels back in line for the quality we are looking for.”

Potential alcohol levels can also be an issue with the warmer temperatures. “Winemakers are going to have to prepare to control their alcohols this year,” Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris Wines warns. Others have noticed that acidity has been dropping and pH rising at a somewhat faster pace than expected. Time will tell how this plays out.

Though the warmer year presents its own set of challenges, no one is complaining. “A ripe grape is better than some of these underripe grapes we’ve been sweating about (the last two years)!” says Dave Minnick, Vice President of Vineyards at Precept Wine.

While the normal growing season has been a relief after several challenging years, vintages are, of course, made or broken in September and October, so the story of the 2012 growing season is far from written.

Growers started picking their first fruit earlier this week – nearly two weeks ahead of last year’s pace. Harvest for red varieties is expected to commence around the middle of the month. In the meantime, many winemakers are sampling and testing their fruit in preparation for harvest. Josh Maloney, Director of Winemaking at Milbrandt Vineyards describes this process as follows.

“We put all of our vineyards on a regular sampling schedule, where we pull approximately 25 clusters from each block of each variety in each vineyard, bring them back to the winery, crush them and strain the juice,” Maloney says. “Then we test the sugar (Brix), acid (TA) and pH levels. Typically we get a baseline for everything around this time of year, even though we don’t expect some varieties to be any higher than 12 Brix. After the baseline we prioritize by how quickly we think the grapes in each block will become ripe, and start sampling once a week, sometimes twice when we are getting close.”

As wineries gear up for harvest, below is a look back at some of the other notable aspects of the 2012 growing season to date.

***

The 2012 growing season started out with some light frosts at the beginning of May, which nipped some vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley and areas of the Yakima Valley. However, these were minor events that were not expected to have a significant impact on the crop and frequently occur at this time of year.

May and early June saw above average rainfall. This resulted in increased canopy growth in some areas that required additional management in the vineyard. Notably, the weather was somewhat unsettled during bloom and fruit set resulting in some shatter. While not a particularly significant problem, this is something that some growers and winemakers will need to work around.

Winemaker Brian Rudin of Cadaretta says, “The June rains fell during bloom and delivered more shot berries than I would like…Basically those flowers fail to pollinate in the cool wet environment, and you end up with a tart, undersized little green berry. It’s not a major problem at all, but it makes you realize how important two weeks of nice weather at bloom can be for the rest of the vintage.”

This wetter weather was followed by a long, warm, dry spell in July and August with some significant heat spikes, with (normal) temperatures that were unheard of the last two years.

The most dramatic events of this growing season by far were two freak hailstorms, one June 23rd and one on July 20th. Isolated hailstorms - with hail in some cases as big as golf balls - were reported in the Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope, and Walla Walla Valley. These storms and their effects were highly localized, affecting a limited number of sites and in some cases only specific parts of affected vineyards.

Dave Minnick, Vice President of Vineyards at Precept Wine, gives one example of this from one of his vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley. “The path (of the storm) was probably 1,000 feet wide,” Minnick says. “Our vineyard there has three hills and it caught the middle hill. The one to the left and the one to the right it just caught the edges.” Minnick also noted that some nearby vineyards saw no damage. In short, while this was a significant event for some of the growers affected, the overall number of growers affected was limited. The picture here shows some of the effects of hail on grapes.

Finally, it is worth noting that some vineyards have also reported lingering effects of the November 2010 freeze. However, the specific effects are dependent on a wide variety of factors – varietal, vine age, aspect, and elevation so it is difficult to speak of them with any generalities. Again, these effects are not expected to have a significant effect on the overall crop or quality of the crop but rather are a reminder that the impacts of Washington’s freezes can linger.

See information on the Washington State Growing Degree Days here.

See monthly forecast for Yakima Valley (Sunnyside), Red Mountain (Benton City), Walla Walla, Paterson, and Mattawa.

* * *

The information in the table below is aggregated from personal correspondence with growers and winemakers, as well as information posted on Twitter and Facebook. It is not intended to be comprehensive but rather is intended as a snapshot of what is going on around the state. If you wish to send data for your grapes or vineyards (or correct any of the information below), please email me at wawinereport@gmail.com, leave a comment here, or leave a comment on the WWR Facebook page.

Winery

Grape

Vineyard

Date

Notes

Columbia Valley

Barnard Griffin

Sauvignon Blanc

Sagemoor

9/4


Barnard Griffin

Pinot Gris

Caroway

9/5


StoneCap

Chardonnay

Goose Ridge

9/5

23.7 Brix

Yakima Valley

--

Sauvignon Blanc

Red Willow

9/5


--

Sauvignon Blanc

Roza Hills

9/6


Red Mountain

Convergence Zone

Pinot Gris

Ciel du Cheval

9/6


Snipes Mountain

--

Chardonnay

Upland

9/6



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